We arrived in Krakow, Poland on the eve of a major national holiday. My girlfriend and I were excited to be in our new country, but being awake for over thirty-six hours straight and a good dose of jet lag had us asleep in our post-communist sardine can apartment by nine p.m. We slept for a good fifteen hours, and our bodies were starting to stubbornly adapt to the new time zone. Once awake we tidied up the apartment and suddenly realized that it was getting dark out already and we had not yet taken in one drop of coffee. For us it was unthinkable to go so long into the day without the life-giving juice of the coffee bean. We were caffiends in withdrawal.
The bare shelves of our kitchen pantry and the empty Russian-made refrigerator were stark reminders of our having just moved in. We were warned against drinking the tap water without properly boiling it first. “No problem,” I thought. I would just walk to one of the many little neighborhood stores and pick up some coffee and grub. Well, the Polish really enjoy taking every single holiday off so all the shops were closed. No ShopKo or Wal-Mart here. The Mill’s Fleet-Farm calendar that I had just proudly hung up even reminded me that THEY were open this holiday from eight to five p.m. Capitalism is new to these people so they haven’t yet acknowledged the profit loss of taking the day off and closing up shop.
It was dark now and our blood was losing its lively brown tint. We decided to head out in search of a place to get coffee. There had to be someplace open somewhere. After dudding up in a few heavy layers of winter clothing, we started to wander around our new neighborhood. Our apartment is one of seventy-five identical units in our building. Our building is one of about fifteen identical buildings sandwiched together to form our neighborhood. The post-commie architecture (lots of dirty concrete and steel) looked somewhat depressing, even under the light layer of fresh snow. We kept our hopes up and continued scouring the area.
Suddenly, there it was. Café Bilard appeared to be open. We later realized that it is actually the only bar/café in our entire neighborhood. I instantly nicknamed it JJ’s, being the closest bar to my new home. The door opened into a small set of stairs that led down into what looked like a basement bar or rumpus room. On this holiday night, we were the only ones there, except for the ragged man in the stool slurring his Polish words and keeping the bartender lady company. My girlfriend sat at a table and I approached the bar. The two locals stared at me like I was terribly out of place. Foreigners usually find hipster apartments in the Old Town, not in the numbered proletariat blocks of the former regime. We are the only Americans living in our whole neighborhood of about fifteen thousand Poles and this was our very first interaction. Time to put those two semesters of Polish night classes to use.
“Dzien dobry,” I said, my first mistake. Seeing as how it was after dark and the proper salutation would be “Dobry wierczor.” Their assumptions of my foreign status confirmed, they stared at me further. At least I didn’t ask them if they spoke English. “Czy sa kawa?” I asked. The lady’s stare turned into a queer look as she thought hard about it. All I saw was one Polish beer on tap and a small assortment of boozes on the back bar with a few odd looking bags of chips. She then scurried into the back storage room and came out with a water boiler and some glasses, telling me to sit down. I joined my girlfriend and soon the lady brought out two polish tea glasses filled with a dark brown liquid and a large bowl of sugar with two little plastic spoons. I expected something akin to 24-hour truck stop coffee while my partner was fully expecting something more like Folger’s crystals. We were both way off.
I noticed that there was a thick layer of brown silt at the bottom of the glass. Assuming the instant coffee just hadn’t been stirred up enough, I stirred it thoroughly and watched as the silt slowly accumulated again at the bottom. Huh. Well, the stuff on top was fully dark so I could at least slowly sip it and relieve my nerves. I took my first sip and wondered who could serve such muddy horse piss. Okay, maybe it just needed some sugar. I scooped two little spoonfuls from the socialist sugar bowl and swirled them into my drink, trying once again to make the brown layer of silt dissolve. No dice. Not wanting to offend our new neighbors, we found ourselves painfully gulping down about two-thirds of the worst tasting sweet brown horse piss ever, leaving two glasses of brown silt in shallow brown fluid. Not particularly happy with our first neighborhood find, we moved on.
One block down we met what looked like a major roadway. Looking to our right, in the distance we saw large red letters, which plainly read “Krakow Plaza.” Bingo! It was aways down the road and out of our comfy little Cabrini Green, but it looked open and we had to get something to wash the current taste out of our mouths. Not usually one to enter anything resembling a mall, I made an exception under these circumstances. Once inside, it was like walking into a different dimension, from old gray Lenin-land to flashy ultra-modern Saks Fifth and the like. It was still a holiday, and most of the stores were closed. The only places open were a futuristic disco bowling alley nightclub and McDonald’s. BAH! Seeing as how we hadn’t consumed anything but sweet brown horse piss in the last twenty-four hours, we surrendered and had our first Polish meal at McDonald’s, our heads hung in shame. The caffeine in their Coke Light revitalized us enough to make it back to our cement box and crawl back into bed.
The next morning was not a holiday, and we were starting to acclimate to the Polish clock. We made our way down to the Old Town and entered our first “bar mleczny.” “Bar mleczny” means “milk bar” and is actually more like a cafeteria soup kitchen, but surprisingly nice. The old communist government used to subsidize these establishments so they could sell quality Polish cuisine at insanely cheap prices and no one would go hungry. A full meal with soup and entrée will run about three dollars! We each got a bowl of soup, a plate of pierogi ruskie, and a coffee. I soon found myself trying to stir the brown layer of silt over and over again, never to dissolve. What WAS this sludge? Don’t they see real coffee in American movies and wonder where the mud is?
Soon enough, our Polish friend Tomek informed us that this is called “Turkish” coffee or “kawa parzone,” and was the only kind widely available in “former times.” The regular coffee grounds are simply stirred into boiled water. There’s your coffee. Leroy’s and Fuel never seemed further away. We hunted down a specialty shop called “Sklep z Kawa Pozegnanie z Afryka” where we found the best selection and the best coffee for almost the price of a whole meal at the bar mleczny. I chose the kawa koniakowy (cognac), and my body warmly welcomed a long lost friend. Here, each individual coffee was brewed out of a little pot, boiled up through a screen with the grounds, then up through a thin pipe and into the mouth of a tiny teakettle on top. Each coffee gets its own gas burner on the counter top. Impressive. As fine as this was, we couldn’t have it every morning in our own cement socialist kitchen. Next.
Within a few days we were shopping for basic apartment supplies at a kind of Polish ShopKo called “Real” and pronounced “ray-all.” There I found “kawa rozpuczalna,” or soluble coffee. It was two zlotys (about fifty cents) for 100 mg. When we got home I started boiling off some tap water. I was joyous and jumpy when I stirred in a few spoonfuls and it actually dissolved! The next test was taste. It was like a dark 24-hour truck stop blend, watery and almost scorched-tasting, but it was close enough, not to mention dirt-cheap. The name across the front of the label read “Café Prima,” indeed. My girlfriend refused to lower herself to Café Prima. She would have tea at home, fancy expensive coffee downtown.
For the next month and a half I would have one or two mugs of Café Prima every morning. Every few days we would find ourselves in a classy joint in the Old Town where we would treat ourselves to espresso from a real espresso machine. Each sip was savored and each drink would have to last us a few days until our next exposure to caffeine civilization. On colder days I would even mix up a larger batch of Café Prima for my thermos and take it along while we explored the depths of Krakow. Even my trusty thermos seemed to give me an expression like “What IS this stuff?” I can’t blame it, though. My thermos has been used to about ten years of Alterra and Freedom Roasters. It wanted to stay back in the States, but I had to drag it along.
Then, after one and a half months of shoddy java exile, my Door County landlord arrived here to visit, bringing with him a four dollar thrift store suitcase full of assorted American gems not available in these parts. There were boxes of mac and cheese, boxes of Pop Tarts, decks of blank index cards, a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and then we saw that which would save us. There in the bottom of the case was a large blue coffee percolator and two huge bags of quality American coffee grounds! I raised the device above my head as my girlfriend and I did a ritualistic rain dance meant to entice coffee to fall from the sky. Deliverance! We were saved!
It looked beautiful. Instantly, we both started singing the song from that one TV coffee commercial where the melody follows the percolator top. It was a very simple device, like an enamel cone painted blue with tiny white speckles and a little trap inside for the grounds of life. No wires, no little red light. It is simply set atop a gas stove or campfire and the go-go juice cometh forth. It looked just like the ones you would see on Little House on the Prairie. I asked my old landlord if he found it in an antique shop and he replied, “Nah? Fleet Farm.” How fitting.
And then we saw the bags of coffee grounds, Eight O’clock Bean. While I was flat broke living in Milwaukee, I used to buy the large cans of Roundy’s plain label coffee. I used to speculate on its ingredients being dirt, ashes, and recycled tires, but it was only $4.50 a can! We would have welcomed Roundy’s with open arms at this point in time, and were half expecting it. The Eight O’clock Bean made our cold concrete post-commie abode feel like a presidential palace! It wasn’t long and we were all crammed into the closet-sized kitchen making a community socialist effort of the hallowed first batch.
With our odd little gas stove, it took a few tries to find the optimal burner and flame height. First the coffee boiled and came bubbling out the spout – too high. Then we didn’t let it percolate long enough – watered-down granny coffee. By the third try we were making genuine down home Michael Landon coffee! Our little square home smelled like we were fresh roasting the beans ourselves. Our eyes opened wider than ever before as we took long breaths of the coffee-rich air. Then my girlfriend and I both leaned back on the couch and drank in the brown gold, at peace with our surroundings.
There is definitely something to be said for percolated coffee. It is not simply purchased from a face across a counter. It is not leaked out of a nine dollar Mr. Coffee machine. It is not poured from a glass pot that’s been sitting on the warmer for hours. A percolator almost gives coffee a sense of charisma, an air of truth, an elegance by design. The sound of each “blop” as it spurts up into the glass knob on its top echoes about our home, making our taste buds come to life in impatient yearning. The aroma ebbs and flows about till it fills our apartment and even up the stairwell outside our door.
I thought this would make a great American TV commercial. The Americans moved from their comfy home to a gray concrete communist apartment block in Poland, but they won’t live like savages. Every morning they percolate Coffee Brand X and the fresh brewed aroma seeps up the stairwell. One by one, the neighbors’ apartment doors open and their heads peek out, nose first. They sniff the heavenly scent of a coffee denied them by decades of communist rule. They look at each other across the little hallways and smile, breaking the social ice. So this is democracy! Then the final scene is the two Americans relaxing in their lavish royal home sipping their steaming Coffee Brand X with wide-eyed smiles.
I have developed a daily ritual centered around the temple of my “perco-idol.” Every morning my back creeks as I strain to rise from bed. I’m not awake enough yet to rub the crust from my eyes. Like a zombie, I slowly shuffle into the kitchen. My hands find the little trap with the previous batch’s grounds and it gets emptied into the trash. Then I fill the blue cone-shaped tiki god with the questionable Krakow tap water and place it on the stove’s smallest burner. I open the fridge and pull out the bag of Alterra “perk-ground” that my Milwaukee friends have sent us. I picture myself in the above TV commercial and take a big whiff from the bag. A smile breaks out and my eyes crack open a bit more. I scoop some into the little trap and light the stovetop. The morning has been secured. I grab this week’s book and stumble into the bathroom where one morning dump equals one chapter. First, I hear a few initial “blops” from the temple, then they accelerate as they preach the scriptures of the savior to come. Before the chapter’s done, I can already smell the Alterra as it permeates every corner of our little home. All is secure.
I haven’t touched the Café Prima in months. We ran out of the Eight O’clock Bean a while ago. I tried an odd Polish brand that tasted a little metallic. Then it was Maxwell House fine grind, which was a small step up. Now we are basking in our healthy supply of Alterra “perk-ground.” Life was moving pretty slow here until the “Perco Tiki-idol” made us feel at home. Despite the obscene “Turkish” style coffee, I think Poland has at least one thing right. There is no decaf anywhere, at all.