The first time I tried coffee, I absolutely hated it. It was bitter beyond belief, scalding hot, and seemed to make me thirsty for days afterwards. I had purchased it late at night in a hidden gas station in Tallinn, Estonia in a desperate attempt to stay awake long enough to explore the expansive Old Town. The caffeine jolt I hoped for never came and I went to bed disappointed that I didn’t spend my spare change on the thick hot chocolate European countries make so well.
But when I moved to Bratislava, where socializing over coffee became a near daily norm, I decided to give the bitter elixir a second chance. I started with cappuccino, heavy on the froth and light on the coffee, and slowly inched my way closer to the boisterous land of espresso.
Three months in, I was hooked. In fact, ‘‘prosim si espresso lungo?’’ has become my most frequently used Slovak phrase.
During the height of communism, cafe culture in Slovakia took a serious hit. Many cafes, once meeting spots for artists and visionaries, were shut down in an effort to discourage socialization. Intellectuals and young revolutionaries gathering in small spaces with espresso shots in hand were a serious threat to the Communist regime. The streets of Old Town where sparse in the morning while most Slovaks drank coffee at home.
However, after the fall of Communism in 1989, followed by the Velvet Divorce four years later, there was a great cafe resurgence. Memories of thick espresso in chipped china cups were brought back to life. Coffee connoisseurs flocked to their favorite cafes once again and the great coffee culture of Bratislava was reborn, just in time for a certain coffee-addicted American.
I have lived in Bratislava for ten months now and in that time, I’ve visited many cafes. Rarely have I been disappointed as the coffee here is almost always strong and well-brewed. An added bonus, of course, is that it’s cheap compared to the US though the beautifully decorated interiors allow me to pretend I am one high-class broad (haha).
But it’s more than the lingering taste and classy decorations that pulls me into the thick of Bratislava cafe culture. For me, it’s always been about the people I drink my coffee with.
I now firmly believe that no friendship can be properly established without a good coffee (or 4) at some offbeat cafe where the background music is atmospheric and strange and the tables wobble and the doors creak and whistle and blow cigarette smoke back towards the center of the room.
I have spent hours talking about accents, Genghis Khan, and the growing trend of virtual girlfriends in Japan with new friends who, after a couple more cups of strong, black coffee, feel like old companions who know me better than myself.
Meeting a friend for coffee is one of the most simple and rewarding acts of connection that caffeinate life and make it so quietly tremendous. It’s the company and not the product that gives it meaning but that sumptuous product somehow breeds authenticity, and important conversation, and the beginnings of a truly great friendship.
So now, I understand why the Communists thought drinking coffee was one of the most dangerous things in the world.
All the more reason to do it.