Sitting on Jasmina’s couch, I found myself alone with my niece’s new nanny–a young woman who spoke beautiful English. This was the first time we had met. She asked me where in America I was from and indicated she was familiar with my particular location in New Jersey. “Oh! Have you been there?!” I asked enthusiastically.
“No, no” she replied, flipping her hand. “I watch a lot of movies. The truth is, I don’t like Americans.”
Oh. As I struggled for both a response and a film that my small town had been featured in, she quickly followed it with “No offense to you. It’s just….I don’t understand people who walk down the street drinking a cup of coffee.”
It’s hard to think of a culture that takes its coffee, or kafa as seriously as Bosnians. Their passion for the drink is so great that if you spit in any direction, you’ll hit a coffee bar. Most Bosnians drink several unadulterated espresso-sized cups a day. Ask for milk and you’ll get a sideways look. Forget finding a spot that serves it with whipped cream, caramel or any of the other accoutrements so popular in America today. Kafa is served straight up with a bowl of sugar cubes on the side. It’s drunk before one heads to work, never on the way to work. Nor is it swallowed in one shot as some cultures are prone to do. Coffee drinking in Bosnia is a part of the day that one slows down for, not a means to an end.
When you knock on a neighbor’s door, kafa is brewing before you step over the threshold. Boiling water is poured into a long handled pot and a few tablespoons of kafa are added. The pot is placed on the hot burner to simmer for a minute or two and then is brought to the table with tiny espresso cups and a bowl of sugar cubes. Some sip it straight, while others dip the sugar cube into the cup, bring the cube to their mouth so the dipped sugar breaks off, and then follow it with a sip from their cup, ensuring that each taste of kafa has the perfect amount of sugar. (I’ve never seen anyone drop an entire cube into their cup).
“Sip” is the operative word here though, as kafa is a daily indulgence. An event. It is a time of day to sit and rest. To breathe. To talk with your family, your neighbor, or a complete stranger. It is a symbol of hospitality, respect, and even superstition as some Bosnian women claim to have the power to read your future in the stray grounds left in your cup. And yet, I’m sheepish to admit, I’ve never been able to join in this daily tradition as coffee has always given me dreadful stomach aches. As an American, I’m allowed such “odd” behavior (hosts will pat me on the back and give me a cup of juice), but Jas is also not a coffee drinker simply because he does not like the taste. This is not as acceptable and he often finds himself “drinking” a cup for the two of us. What he really does is use it as a dip for the ubiquitous sugar cubes. It’s not uncommon for a host to rise and refill the bowl repeatedly when we visit.
The honest nanny was not employed by the family long–something about eating her weight in Eurocrem–but her observations on our different approaches to coffee drinking did , and still do, ring metaphorically true. When I’m home in America, I think of her everytime I see someone speed-walking, cell phone in one hand, styrofoam cup in the other.