Thursday, July 10, 2008


"Let's go for coffee."

You hear it everywhere in Tirana. At first you take the statement at face value and prepare yourself to go get a cup of java, a quick pick-me-up. Then you find out things aren't always as simple as they seem.

The invitation may be simply to go sit and drink a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, which is an art and science of its own here. Expect to invest a little time. Unlike the Italians who often shoot down an espresso while standing at a counter, Albanians give the coffee the time it deserves. Choose a cafe bar. Pick a table. Take a seat. A waiter, usually young, usually male, come to take your order. History intrudes.

"Should I go for a classic espresso which came over with the Italians?"

"Perhaps a cafe latte in the style of the French soldiers in Korca at the beginning of the century?"

"Or maybe the original Turkish coffee, the first brew introduced to Europe at the point of the Ottoman scimitar?"

Yes, that sounds right. A good "kafe Turk" takes time to brew, fills the air with the aroma of dark, bitter coffee, and arrives at your table accompanied by a glass of water and a sweet. While you wait for the grounds to settle the conversation ebbs and flows. Just conversation - muhabet - with no aim, no pressing need to move to conclusion. A quick toast before the first sip. Cigarettes. Light 'em if you got 'em. Time passes. And that's the point of coffee here. Pass time, make conversation, relax.

But that's just when "coffee" means simply coffee. The same invitation may lead down a different trail. Going for coffee can be the gateway to a large feast, particularly if the invitation is to a private home. Coffee starts with offer of a shot of raki or a chocolate, water, maybe a sweet preserved fruit. The coffee is served, sipped, and enjoyed. More raki, an invitation to "eat a little something", and then dinner begins. Coffee is the gateway to Albanian hospitality. A hook. A teaser. A joy.

Sometimes "going for coffee" doesn't even involve coffee. It's an excuse to meet up for a drink or the first step in the courting process. Whatever the purpose, whatever the drink, going for coffee in Albania is always a pleasure for me.

In the U.S. coffee has become synonymous with Starbucks or one of their clones. Stand in line, order your pretentiously-named version of coffee, and shell out 3-5 bucks. When it's ready you go back up to the counter to retrieve your paper cup (with cardboard liner) and retire to your seat amid the cell-phone-chattering, laptop-pecking, i-pod-cocooned customers. They come together to be isolated.

Real coffee comes in a real cup. It costs between 50-150 lek ($.50-$1.50) and is served by a waiter in black pants and white shirt. With a glass of water. And a biscuit. And time to talk.

1 comment:

traveler one said...

How nice to discover your blog! I've been writing about my experience in Albania for more than 3 yrs now and it's great to see it through new eyes!

This post about coffee made me smile- it's so true! I'm in Canada for the summer and can't enjoy the coffee at all. I miss my Albanian coffee!