Coffee in foreign countries

Twice in two days I was offered coffee with great pride. These offers set in motion a whole set of standard responses that were required of us – those being offered the coffee – that I did not recognise, or only came to recognise a bit late.

On Friday, I was in a government office in Russia for a meeting. The official we met began the meeting by launching into a long discussion of US and UK cooperation treaties with Russia, where he spoke quickly in Russian. It took me to catch up to the meeting. (Nothing in this paragraph is relevant for the story.)

About an hour into the meeting, a coffee machine perching on a small table against a wall began to do its cleaning operation, flushing water through the espresso-making apparatus, and making me wonder where the water was coming from. I was staring at the cords for some sign of a water-input device, when the official said, “Oh, actually, I didn’t offer you a coffee. Would you like one?”

M., a lawyer in the meeting joked, “Looks like we missed it!”, referring to the stream of water, which had ended by that time. It still makes me smile to myself to think of a coffee machine that makes coffee whenever it wants, rather than when you want to have coffee. And if you want coffee, you have to run up with a little cup. I like the image.

I didn’t really feel like having coffee, and the other woman refused. M. said, “I wouldn’t refuse” and was handed a cup of coffee from the espresso machine, which he drank quickly. We continued with the meeting.

After the meeting, the Russians were led out one exit, and I was led out a few moments later via another exit. As we walked through the halls, the official said, “A lot of people don’t like to be in this corridor.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“They say this is where people were shot.”

“Is it true?” I asked.

“I don’t really believe it.”

He showed me out, and I thanked him for his time. The lawyer and M. were waiting outside my exit, and we stood outside on the Moscow streets, laughing about how proud he must be of the coffee machine – how no one else has this machine, and M. had saved us by saying he wanted coffee.

Saturday morning, D. and I went to a mortgage adviser in London to talk about getting a mortgage – what deposit we needed, what information he needed, etc. He is a quite old man in a small office near my house, and as we sat down he asked his assistant to bring in the milk – but didn’t notice when it was all brought in. When he queried where the coffee was, we pointed it out, and he spoke at length about how “the one thing we pride ourselves on is good coffee”. It was good coffee, made from a cafetière, and I had mine with sugar.

I thought about the books I read as a child that accompanied my American Girl doll, Felicity. The drama of the Boston Tea Party had led everyone to drink coffee instead of tea at the time of her (mythical) life, and I had grown up with coffee everywhere all the time. Not particularly good coffee – coffee like water, even when it was strong. Coffee that stood in for alcohol as the social lubricant in a part of Texas where booze is mostly banned. Coffee that was ubiquitous, and would therefore never be a source of pride – even if you did have good coffee.

That stands in stark contrast to both Britain and Russia. In the former, coffee is now very trendy, and you get good coffee trends from far afield – including flat whites. When I first visited Russia, there were multiple types of Nescafe on the menu, and waitresses took the difference between Nescafe Gold and normal Nescafe seriously. So it’s good to see a coffee Renaissance in both. But it launches coffee into a status symbol – a symbol I am not adept at reading.