Saturday, April 02, 2011


When my great grandmother, at the venerable age of 105 sips Greek coffee, she does so with the grace and μεράκι of a true connoisseur. First she grips the cup lovingly, drawing a short, sharp intake of breath through the nostrils so as to savour the aroma and then, slowly she leans forward and takes the first sip. As the coffee parts company with the cup and touches her lips, her eyelids close in ecstasy and she emits a long, drawn out sigh: «Άααααχ.» It was her daughter, my grandmother who first pointed this out to me during a trip to Athens, in the context of my taking coffee in her kitchen. Apparently, my method of imbibing the delectable beverage is exactly the same. This is surprising, for my earliest memories of drinking herbal stimulants revolve around tea. My paternal grandmother, who arrived in Australia in the early fifties, espoused afternoon tea-drinking with the fervour that is only displayed by the newly converted. She quickly formed the conviction that as opposed to the consumption of tea, which was a benign and beneficial pursuit, coffee drinking was undertaken by denizens of the underworld, possessed of deep, dark, nefarious purposes. Right up until the time of her demise, I would not drink coffee in her presence, for to do so, was both an affront and a sacrilege. Try as I might, I could not ever convince my grandmother that coffee drinking was a most Hellenic pursuit. After all, coffee was reputedly known to the Byzantines as νυφοκοκόζυμος, and they were well aware, having been informed by their missionaries, that it had been banned in its place of origin, Ethiopia, as it was used in pagan ceremonies. Further, it was a Greek who first introduced coffee drinking to Balliol College, Oxford University. The Cretan Nathanael Konopios, later Metropolitan of Smyrna was sent to England by Patriarch Cyril Loukaris in the early 1600’s as part of his rapprochement with the Protestant nations. While he failed to achieve any lasting success on the ecclesiastical front, he did introduce to the land of his hosts the beverage that would change the political map of England, given that English political parties have their origins in the coffee houses in which like minded individuals met to imbibe and discuss the affairs of the day. As I was to find out from an Armenian friend who was studying modern Greek while I was at University, and who upon her return from a trip to Greece bought me a Greek translation of the great Turkish writer Aziz Neşin’s side-splitting satire, “Coffee and Democracy,” both these ideas are eponymous with Hellenism. Neşin makes the equation in the following way: “Two things do not thrive in our country: One is the coffee tree and the other is democracy. Both are foreign.” He then goes on to propound what has been my political manifesto ever since: “When there is no coffee, people’s heads spin. When there is no democracy, people’s heads do not spin. Coffee has an aroma. You can’t smell democracy. Coffee is poured into a cup and drunk, while Democracy can neither be eaten nor drunk. So why do we need Democracy? Vast quantities of Democracy are imported into our country but there is a scarcity of coffee. Coffee is sold but Democracy is provided for free… Had we spent the past hundred years in cultivating coffee rather than Democracy, our country would now be a forest of coffee trees.” My great-grandmother was convinced at least. For her, coffee drinking is truly a century old tradition, transplanted from her village to Australia. There she would drink her coffee as her young grand-daughter, my mother would enthusiastically recount her lessons at school. My great-grandmother, in the tradition of Cyril Loukaris, took especial interest in Martin Luther, who she called «Λούφα,» a particularly apt transenunciation within the context of the escapism of coffee-drinking. Her visits to our house would be interrupted with injunctions to make a fresh cup of coffee every hour or so and in the meantime, our whole family history would be expounded, analysed and interpreted. Sitting among matriarch and mother, I was thus inducted into a hidden but not forgotten world of pain, pathos and nostalgia, recorded and kept safe by the thick grounds in our cups. Upon the conclusion of each coffee drinking session, my mother would swirl our cups, making sure that the coffee dregs were evenly distributed throughout and turn them upside down. Having waited a while for them to dry, she would then turn them upside down and attempt to read our future in the tortuous and twisted paths formed by the fall of the coffee dregs. Nothing she ever said came true but I became adept and making up plausible stories for my aunts, based on snippets of gossip gleaned here or there and was convinced of my shammic supernatural powers until such time as my cup was read in Turkey by an old woman in whose house I stayed. Every single thing she had predicted came true and in my more unsuspecting moments, I fear the things that have not yet transpired. It is from this pursuit that the word «κατακάθι» is employed. Used today in the same pejorative sense as the word “dreg” it merely refers to grounds that have “sat down” at the bottom of a cup. In this sense, the meaning is not too far from the Pontian «παρακάθι,» a party where people stay on for far too long – and not even the cup of coffee that traditionally acts as a subtle hint that one’s visit should draw to a close, can dislodge them. Visiting my parents without drinking coffee is strange and unnatural. The first words spoken in greeting as I enter the family home are: «Φτιάξε καφέ,» despite the fact they may have already had their coffee, and, most importantly that the way I rejoice in my coffee is βαρύγλυκυς, invariably concerning vast quantities of sugar and coffee, causing my father to splutter: «Φτου, φτου, πετμέζ’ τον έκανες!» Their version of coffee, with the consistency of consome, is just too beastly to be contemplated and I insist upon mine, for no other type of coffee will ever touch my lips – save the Greek coffee espresso, which I had the fascination of ordering in Thessaloniki, comprising of Greek coffee to which boiling water has been applied. The results are negligible but the novelty praiseworthy. The coffee is a necessary stimulant to the discussing of family affairs and when parental advice or criticism is offered in stark fashion, one can always seek refuge in swirling the grounds around the cup and becoming engrossed in their re-alignment, to the exclusion of everything else. Proving that symmetry and balance exists amid the chaos of the universe, my wife prefers tea to coffee, which she considers to be detrimental to one’s health and because coffee is by its nature, a pleasure not to be enjoyed in seclusion, I generally do not drink coffee at home. My mother in law however, manages to restore the harmony of the spheres by serving tea at the commencement of our visit, to conclude with aniseed flavoured coffee at its conclusion. The results, in terms of the elevation of the spirits are phenomenal. Greek coffee confers the ultimate consolation upon all, which is why it is traditionally offered to grieving friends when paying them a condolence visit. Further, it is not without coincidence that our word for brown, is the same as the word for coffee and I for one, can not live without it. It was Henry Ward Beecher who opined:”A cup of coffee – real coffee- home-browned, home ground, home made, that come to you dark as a hazel-eye, perfectly sweet – such a cup of coffee is a match for twenty devils and will exorcise them all,” and I cannot but adoringly agree. Until next week then, στην υγειά σας. DEAN KALIMNIOU

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 2 April 2011