Croatian Customs: Jeste za Jednu Kavicu? Fancy a Coffee?

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Gospođo, nešto Vam curi iz torbe! / Madam, something’s dripping out of your bag! – a nice older lady addressed me that rainy cold morning just a few days ago as I was dragging myself into a crowded tram desperately trying to get people’s elbows out of my back.

For a moment or two I was living in hope that she was talking to someone else, but a quick look to a steaming-hot, black liquid dripping on the tram floor through my bag soon convinced me otherwise. I rolled my eyes and panicking tried to reorganise the contents of my bag but as the tram suddenly pulled away, the entire content of my coffee-to-go cup spilled down my jeans.

And then I realised, in that exact moment, standing in a tram with a huge coffee stain on my light blue jeans, and coffee dripping from my leg while raindrops were slowly dripping on the tram window, that I had a whole day of lecturing to people in the classroom in front of me. Okay, this is it. You’ve now officially hit rock bottom with your coffee addiction, I thought to myself.

It wasn’t actually supposed to look like that, this morning. I was supposed to get up, get dressed, do my morning workout, prepare a nice, healthy fibre rich breakfast and then enjoy one of my favourite moments of the day – the peace and quiet with my first cup of steaming, black coffee.

Things went wrong when I slept through my alarm, I think. You see, yesterday evening I needed to get some paperwork done, so I had just a bit, well a cup, okay, maybe two cups of coffee, just to keep myself awake. So when I finally woke up that morning, I realised I had no time for aerobics, a fibre rich breakfast and rest, but to find some clothes, get the kids out of bed and make myself some coffee to go! Not necessarily in that order, I’m afraid.

In my own defence, however, if you’ve ever been to one of my early lessons, when I hadn’t had my first coffee yet, you’d probably realise why it’s essential for me to carry coffee cups around ewith me in my purse!

Thank God half of the students in the room are still sleeping through their morning lessons, so they’re not paying any attention to the nonsense that I ramble on about without my caffeine kick!

A passionate approach to everything connected to black coffee actually runs in my family.

A legendary story involves my aunt Branka or teta Branka. Teta Branka is a very tall and strong red-headed woman, and a passionate coffee lover, by occupation, she’s a nurse. You know how these people who work in the health care system tend to sometimes be the most stubborn patients? Well, teta Branka was no different. Once she was feeling really ill, with a high fever, a serious cough and was unable to get out of bed that morning. Her daughter came to take care of her.

”Do you need anything, anything at all?” she asked her.

”Nothing… thank you I’m fine, I told you!” teta Branka coughed in response, adding that there was no need for her to have come.

”Mum, you’re trembling, we need to get you to the doctor!” her daughter stated in a concerned manner.

However, teta Branka was determined she wasn’t going to see any doctor, despite her shivering and coughing.

”Can I get something for you then, before I go to work?” her daughter asked.

”Nothing” coughed teta Branka, until she stopped and said… ”Oh, wait …just one thing…”

Her daughter asked if she needed some tea, perhaps a warmer blanket…

”Please… if you you can just get me… samo malo crne kave / just a bit of black coffee!” teta Blanka uttered with a broken voice.

I’m aware that all around the world people are in love in this dark hot liquid that, as the legend says, was found by coincidence, when some shepherd in a land far, far away let his goats eat some berries. The goats stood up late partying all night long, and the rest is history.

But, there is a certain special connection between Croats and coffee. I’m not just talking about all the business meeting taking place in local cafes, or those people with huge sunglasses sitting for hours and hours over one cup of coffee on one of Zagreb’s many little squares just enjoying the sun. I’m talking about a real coffee ceremony that takes place in these parts.

Growing up in Croatia, some of the first scenes from your childhood involve a bunch of people gathered around the table, around a little steaming coffee pot with a tail. Usually that image is accompanied with the jingling sound of little spoons and cups, and you just knew that meant that it’s coffee time. Some nations have their tea time, some have whole ceremonies developed around a simple action such as drinking a cup of tea. So why wouldn’t we have coffee time here in Croatia? Well, we do. But it seems that in Croatia, any time is coffee time.

In the morning, after breakfast, before lunch, after lunch, in the evening, any time a visitor approaches your doorstep, it’s time for coffee.

Being a kid, I thought that this coffee drinking ceremony was wrapped up in some sort of great secrecy. Women sitting around the coffee table would hold their cups, their heads would get closer to each other, they’d lower their voices, whisper and giggle occasionally. I would try to get closer to hear the conversation and be a part of this great coffee conspiracy ceremony, and ask if I could drink just a little bit with them, but my grandma would just look at me and yell: Children aren’t allowed drink black coffee! You’d grow a tail on your back!”

I didn’t believe her one bit. None of them had tails, and as far as I could see, they were drinking gallons of coffee every day.

At the age of 10, they realised that we weren’t really buying this whole tail story and they’d usually ask you if you wanted to join them for a cup of coffee.

And, well.. everything else is history.

My grandma was from Bosnia, where the whole coffee drinking ceremony was even more developed. It included pretty little cups called fildžan, cubes of white sugar, little spoons and of course, fildžan viška, an extra cup put on the side of a tray for an extra guest who might just pop for a cup of coffee that afternoon.

I know a lot of coffee admirers in this country, but one of these is absolutely my sister. She can literarily drink coffee at any time of the day. The story goes something like this. She comes for a visit with her kids and mum at around 19:00.

”Coffee, anyone?” I ask.

”Oh, no, I couldn’t! I had five already today!” my sister says.

”Five? Are you insane!? You need to stop drinking so much coffee… It’s not good!” mum retorts.

”It’s seven… but shhh! Don’t tell her, she’ll go crazy!” my sister whispers to me behind mum’s back.

The culture of drinking coffee in Croatia can mean having an espresso by yourself in a local café. It can mean starting and ending every business meeting with the question: Jeste za jednu kavicu? Fancy a coffee? Or drinking coffee to go on your way to work. We adopted that culture along with so many things from Western culture.

But, enjoying a cup of coffee in Croatia generally means that someone will take out that funny looking coffee pot with tail out from the kitchen closet, that maybe they’ll bake the coffee for a few minutes, then pour steaming water over it, that they will serve all of this in some nice cups, maybe they’ll even put that extra cup on the side and get involved in some serious, interesting, meaning of life type conversation, or a highly confidential conversation which usually starts with the words: Između nas… Just between the two us… making that special bond between the two people built on trust, the scent of coffee and the steam from those little cups.

Because that’s what coffee in Croatia is really all about.


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