Anyone who has lived in Ireland is familiar with being asked, “Would you like a cuppa?” It’s one of the first things you’re asked when you visit someone. Meeting for a “cuppa” at a café is an excuse to get together and gossip. I think it’s more or less the same all over the world: the ritual of drinking tea or coffee together provides the opportunity to share news, connect, and relax.
When I reblogged, Home Is a Mug of Coffee , I said Candace Rose Rardon’s essay reminded me of my own associations with these hot beverages. I clearly remember my first taste of coffee although I was only three. My mother- single and struggling- was an unusual woman. Long before Starbucks popularized frappés my mother was drinking them. Apparently the drink was accidentally invented by Nescafé man Dimitris Vakondios in 1957 but I know better. Year round my mother loved her cold instant coffee with six heaping spoonfuls of sugar in it. She wasn’t emulating the Greeks, nor had she heard about the Vietnamese, and she certainly wasn’t attempting to be a trend setter. She was simply herself, unafraid of being different. To appease me as a small child, she sometimes let me drink her sweet, milky concoction too.
Years later, after my mother became ill and I went to live with her friend from church, I was introduced to bitter, black coffee. I was no longer allowed to have the caffeinated drink, but that was only one small difference, among many, between the two women who raised me. In my new home I benefited from discipline, security and structure, although I missed some of the freedom I’d previously enjoyed. On Sunday mornings I was comforted by the smell of coffee percolating while my adoptive mom cooked bacon and eggs. To this day that particular smell remains evocative of home.
As a teenager, I looked forward to hanging out in the evenings at Perkins after my dance lessons with my friend Maria. We studied modern/ contemporary dance and ballet together. Later we both went on to acquire Bachelors of Fine Arts at OSU. At 17 she seemed sophisticated, worldly and a bit alternative with her black leather jacket and classic Doc Martin boots. Her parents were immigrants to the US. At one stage her mother, feeling homesick, had impulsively whisked Maria off to the Philippines for two years. Over weak cups of filtered coffee, that had been sitting in a pot for far too long, we exchanged stories of the past and shared dreams of the future. To this day she remains one of my most valued friends, even though we really don’t communicate much. We’re more likely to reminisce over cocktails than coffee on the rare occasions when we do get to meet during my visits to America.
In college I experimented with new flavors. I dabbled in tea, of the loose leaf variety. I had discovered an independent health food shop near campus which sold every type of tea imaginable. My favorite was Republic of Tea’s Spring Cherry, a green tea made with Japanese sencha leaves, infused with a hint of cherry. It was delicate, both soothing and and uplifting at the same time. During this period, I briefly dated a Polish guy, who wore his long hair tied neatly in a ponytail, and read Nietzsche for fun. He took himself- and tea preparation- very seriously. He impressed me with his fancy European tea press which looked something like this. I’d never seen one before and felt slightly intimidated.
Our brief romance ended when I left Columbus to spend my fourth year of university studying abroad as an exchange student. I arrived in London with a backpack nearly as big as myself. Equipped with boundless optimism, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the adventure. Though I was enrolled in the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, I had no accommodation arranged. I wandered around the city jet lagged, lost and confused with no plan whatsoever. It didn’t occur to me to be afraid; I felt only joy because I had arrived, and life was full of possibility. That first night I booked into a dingy hostel near St. Paul’s Cathedral.
It took a couple of weeks to find a suitable place to live. School hadn’t started yet, but I went for a visit and checked out the notice board. I made friends with other dance students, including a Bulgarian guy named Voin. We connected immediately despite his poor English. He was a free spirit- open, generous, and kind. He shared a flat with a couple of Swedish girls and they all invited me to stay with them until I found a place of my own.
In the end I rented a room in a Buddhist household owned by an elderly man from Trinidad. There were already two Englishmen in their late 20’s living there, a theology student and a womanizer, both of whom became my unlikely friends. The house was spacious and had a lovely back garden. The only rule was that no meat was allowed in the house so I became a vegetarian. Victor, my landlord, took me under his wing and invited me to his mediation class, which was held in his sitting room. With his guidance I learned to observe my breath, my passing thoughts. I attempted to find peace in stillness. At 21 I was often restless, preferring constant movement and stimulation to silence. One afternoon Victor took me to lunch at London’s iconic café Food For Thought in Covent Garden, and a whole new world opened up. It was the first time I heard someone speak of mindfulness. Victor encouraged me to be in the moment while we ate.
Covent Garden was magical to me. I enjoyed watching the street performers, browsing in Neal’s Yard (even though I couldn’t afford much on my student budget), and the general buzz of people hurrying here and there. When I was hired at a small café near the square (the name escapes me now), I was delighted. The owner wasn’t particularly nice, but I was grateful for a chance to work, even if it was off the books for little pay. I had waited tables before, but this was my first time working as a barista. My appreciation for coffee altered as I learned to prepare espressos, Americanos, and lattes. It was 1996 and my experience back home had been limited to plain old instant or filtered coffee. Europe had entirely different ideas about food, drink, and fashion than I was used to in the Midwest.
A young Irish woman worked with me in Covent Garden. Aoife was originally from Galway. She enjoyed traveling and had recently returned from India. She needed to earn more money before she could head off on her next adventure. Her plan was to go home to her parents and save for a while. She suggested I visit her after I expressed the desire to see Ireland.
The following spring I fulfilled a lifelong dream and boarded a ferry to Dublin. I had arranged to do volunteer work on organic farms in exchange for room and board for a few months. My plan was to go southwest first and then make my way up to visit Aoife during the Galway Arts Festival. Within two weeks of my arrival I met my future husband, and my carefully laid plans were thwarted.
He introduced a new ingredient: Jameson whiskey. Irish coffee, I discovered, was a lot more exciting than the other varieties! He played lead guitar in a band, had the Cork lilt in his voice, and instantly charmed me. The rest is history.
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These days I love coffee and tea in equal measures. Coffee is my companion when I greet the day; tea helps me to unwind at night. I’ve started collecting cups for every occasion. I adore the dainty, pale pink cup and saucer, decorated with white and plum flowers, given to me by my Japanese-American friend on my last birthday. My cupboards are filled with tiny black and white geometric espresso cups and saucers with varying patterns, given to me by a French-Italian friend. I treasure an earthen colored Thai teapot and matching cups, shaped like small bowls. There are, of course, everyday mugs too. Some have quaint country farm animals painted on them, others are decorated with pretty pastel flowers. My favorite tea set is from Avoca, and I only use it for special occasions. It has a floral pattern, a background of green and white, with a splashes of crimson, while the cup rims are dusted with gold. It reminds me of tea time in England.
For the moment, my travels are behind me. Somehow dreams of visiting Asia seem more tangible when I’m brewing Assam, Darjeeling or Jasmine tea. The same applies when I’m grinding Costa Rican, Ethiopian or Kenyan coffee beans. Momentarily I’m transported to sun soaked regions I hope to one day explore in person.
The comfort found in a cuppa is accessible anytime. While quality matters, and method has its place, they are not as important as I once believed. I’ve learned that beautiful cups and a tranquil setting might enhance the experience, but they aren’t entirely necessary. The most essential ingredient is presence. Whether I’m enjoying solitude, or convening with loved ones, being truly in the moment brings the greatest satisfaction of all.