Coffee, Tea, or ... Nescafe?
Nescafe has a near-monopoly on the instant coffee market in Europe. Even in stores, there are no alternatives -- no Maxwell House, Folgers, or whatever. But more than that, Nescafe is considered to be a premium drink. In cafes all around the Mediterranean, coffee from the machine costs less than a dollar, while Nescafe is proudly offered for over $2.00. When we go to a cafe to order coffee, waiters (identifying us as obvious foreigners) immediately offer, with obvious pride, "Nescafe?" They always seem surprised by our vehement refusals and vaguely puzzled at our preference for "machine" coffee. It must be viewed as the poor man's drink, while we rich foreigners can afford, and clearly ought to prefer, the superior Nescafe. By machine coffee, we mean espresso/cappuccino made on those enormous elaborate hissing and gurgling devices. They may have been (until recently) the exclusive province of Starbucks and Fine Eating Establishments in the US, but they are ubiquitous in Spain, France and Italy.

In Spain, coffee is an aural as well as a taste experience. The sound of the machinas, punctuated with the clinking of heavy china cups being rinsed out, accompanies any stroll on any city street at almost any time of day. The Spaniards love their coffee, which is basically espresso served in tiny cups. Spaniards were quite nonplussed to learn that Americans drink coffee in large or even enormous cups, and have cup holders in their cars. Coffee is for cafes. And there's not much Nescafe in Spain.

In France and Italy, as in Spain, espresso is king. We were surprised to learn that there is a huge price differential between coffee taken standing at the coffee bar and the same coffee taken sitting at a table in the cafe -- in many places, the price more than doubles if you sit down to order. We've bought coffee at the bar and then sat down with it, but we're not really sure this is polite; in any case we've never had to pay more than the counter price when we've done this.

In Italy, the coffee shop process is complex. To drink coffee at the stand-up coffee bar, one pays first, then takes the receipt to the coffee server. If one wants pastry with the coffee, one goes first to the coffee bar to see what's available, then over to the teller to pay, then back to the coffee bar to place the order itself. Mercifully, the coffee is delivered at the coffee bar, so there's no more walking to do. Of course, this system causes a problem for those who don't speak the language, as it requires stating the order to the teller. We solve this problem by always ordering café and croissants, the same in any language. As a result, of course, there's a lot of pastry we never get to try. Oh yes, another factoid: Italians drink their coffee "tepido" or warm; you have to specify if you want it hot. Unlike the Spaniards who linger over coffee, Italians bolt it and run, so they need it tepido. Take-out hasn't hit the Mediterranean yet.

Many years ago when we lived in Zagreb, we enjoyed passing long hours in cafes sipping "Turkish coffee," the standard cafe drink. This was a thick sweet drink made by boiling equal amounts of finely powdered coffee and sugar in a special pot. The pot was generally copper or brass, shaped like a truncated cone with a long, often fancy, handle. (Legend had it that these were made from shell casings, but there have to have been a real stockpile of such casings to account for all of these little pots.) The coffee/sugar/water was brought to a boil 3 times, then the coffee was served out into tiny cups. A bit of the crusty sugary foam was added for a special treat. You didn't stir it, and you sipped only about half of it before you encountered the "mud" at the bottom. It's admittedly an acquired taste, but holds fond memories for us.

Turkish coffee is no longer widely available in Croatia. "You want that, go to Turkey," said one offended cafe waiter, offering us Nescafe with pride. We ordered machine coffee. We found "Turkish coffee" in Greece, where it is called Greek coffee, available only at Fine Eating Establishments, and served to us foreigners with some amusement. We enjoyed it in Cyprus this summer, while visiting with our friend George's family. When George's mother, the perfect hostess, learned that we didn't like Nescafe, she offered, then insisted on making us a special treat of "Greek" coffee. It was great!

So what about Turkey? The Turks don't normally drink any kind of coffee; they drink tea (chai). And they drink it endlessly. It's made from loose tea leaves in a special two-lobed kettle with hot water in one chamber and tea, brewing increasingly strong, in the other. You make the tea way too strong and mix the water and tea to taste. Or it's brought to you, already mixed, in a clear glass tulip-shaped glass, on a saucer with a tiny spoon and 2 lumps of sugar. Here, similar to the coffee sounds of Spain, France and Italy, the sound of the tea ritual is omnipresent: spoons clinking the sides of the glass as working men enjoy their chai accompanies any walk on any street anywhere. (The clinking is vigorous and seems obligatory. One could stir quietly, but it just isn't done.)

Chai is more than tea, though. It's part of the social fabric and it's impolite to refuse it. (Probably totally offensive in a home; mildly rude in a shop.) Shopkeepers routinely invite patrons to have a cup of tea. They offer chai or "apple tea" which has developed in Turkey for the benefit of tourists. Most Turks don't drink it, and we question whether any apples ever figured in its creation. Naturally, the shops don't generally have a tea-making facility, so the shopkeeper goes to what we call the "tea hotline." This is an intercom system with a terminal somewhere on a wall of the shop. Having offered tea (and having been accepted), the shopkeeper pushes a button and says "X number of teas" and goes about his business (selling you rugs, or discussing repairs to your boat's engine's exhaust pipe). A few minutes later a young man appears, carrying a tray which is suspended from a 3-armed handle, on which are X number of teas. Careful inspection of the area above the street near the shops will reveal a tangled maze of intercom wires overhead, and, in hidden doorways tucked behind steps to the upper floors, tiny tea kitchens that brew tea to serve the various shops. We've seldom seen money pass hands, so there must be "subscriptions" to various tea hotlines. And, of course, as guests we never pay -- regardless of whether we buy a rug or get our exhaust pipe fixed.