From the beginning, Albania flummoxed me. It also had my heart before my flight from Florence ever touched down in Tirana. How? Simple. Coffee.
Usually ambivalent about watery airline coffee, I was prepared to turn down the offer of something from the beverage cart. But my husband insisted: “Trust me, you’ll like it.” His giddy anticipation of the midair coffee break had piqued my interest. And then, there it was. Instead of a cup of bland, brown swill that would slosh all over me until we landed, coffee on this, my inaugural flight to Albania, was a shot of bold flavor topped with froth. Turkish coffee.
Albania is a land of contradictions. I’ve never seen a place with so much and so little history at the same time. The airline we took no longer exists – a common trend in travel to and from this tiny Balkan parcel. In fact, my husband once flew to Albania from Italy only to find that the airline he took had become defunct before his departure flight was scheduled to leave. Since its official recognition as a nation in 1912, Albania has had three capitals, two self-styled monarchs (one of whom only lasted six months and barely even saw Albania beyond Dürres), a handful of occupying forces, and a roving border. But the ritual of boiling finely ground coffee in a special pot with a long handle – a xhezve – until it froths, and then serving it piping hot with a morsel of Turkish delight – llokume – has been around for centuries, if not longer. Airlines, regimes and foreign powers have come and gone in Albania. But coffee remains.
Turkish coffee is not hard to make, but it’s also not hard to screw up. I’ve burned it on occasion – it bubbles up mighty fast, so be on your toes when stoveside, please. But most of my failed attempts are due to the grinds. If you’re working with a coarse grind, the grains will float unappealingly on top of the coffee, and the whole point of the Turkish preparation is that the grinds sink and form a sort of sludge on the bottom. The grounds have to be extremely fine for this to work. Think powdered sugar.
This preparation isn’t Albanian in origin, of course. It’s Turkish, and it’s widespread in Albania because so much of the country was under Ottoman rule until the Balkan Wars in the early 20th century. Nonetheless, this Ottoman import, this Turkish coffee, is a focal point of Albanian social life. Because the ritual of Turkish coffee isn’t just preparing it. It’s also about drinking it. Properly.
For one thing, you sit the hell down and drink your coffee. Coffee isn’t just coffee. It’s also conversation. If you’re in a cafe, you’ll also get a glass of water on the side. If you’re in someone’s home, you’ll probably be offered some kind of sweet. And then you talk. You sip your coffee, and you talk more. You drink your water. You break the cookie. And you talk. You opine. Your companions veer toward disagreement, but not severely. Just enough to keep everything lively. Finish the cookie. Fight over the bill (a carefully preserved Albanian tradition). Coffee speeds us up in the States. Coffee is the rhythm section in the hum of the rat race. Knock it back. Fill it up. It’s how we maintain the breakneck pace. But in Albania, it slows time.
My husband’s cousin, then living in Florence, was amazed when I described the popular American concept of coffee to go. Florentines can certainly be seen on any given morning whisking tiny paper cups of espresso out of the cafe to deliver to their colleagues, but if you have ever seen an Italian sidling around town, nursing an enormous paper cup of some baroque concoction of which coffee is only nominally an ingredient, you’ve seen one more than I have. This is also true for Albania, where coffee isn’t just about morning fuel (though it is extremely effective as such!). Coffee and raki – Albanian grappa, or, in more pedestrian terms, hooch made from grapes (skins and all) – are the two lubricants of social interaction. For every drama, dispute, courtship, agreement, or celebration, one or the other of them is always in the room. (And if you drink them together, it’s breakfast.)
One spring back in the States, as our usual crew of friends and family celebrated Easter with a roasted lamb in the park (no, we weren’t turning it on a spit, although that had been done earlier in the day in someone’s yard), I noticed a small grill out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t nearly big enough for the lamb, which was already cooked anyway, so I asked one of my in-laws what it was for. “Coffee,” she said. Leave it to us to bring an open flame to a picnic for the sole purpose of making Turkish coffee. There were plenty of coffee shops ringing the park, but that just wouldn’t be the same, now would it? Because there’s coffee (the beverage) and coffee (the ritual). And one just doesn’t come in a paper cup.