Today Tchibo is running a promotion in our local drogerie, giving away balloons to children, filtered coffee to adults. Grateful for the balloon, I accept a coffee. It is, predictably, lukewarm and scalded. Balancing the cup carefully on the checkout counter ledge, corralling Caroline with my legs, I pay for diapers, bird feed, trash bags (sundries but no medicine found at drug stores here). Outside I try another sip, but it is dreadful stuff and we caffeinate a tree before throwing the cup away in a city trash can.
When Will and I first moved to Prague, filtered coffee was a novelty, the closest approximation something the Czechs called Turkish coffee, and we called cowboy coffee. Cowboy coffee is hot water poured over coffee grounds, left to steep, and filtered by teeth or the careful tilt application of the cup. Will and I had arrived in Prague with our first trip to Europe fresh in our memories - a visit to Italy, where our perhaps favorite pastime had been drinking espressos while we leaned on counters throughout the Veneto region, learning how to travel on our own, learning how to travel together, on our honeymoon.
A year later, Prague in May had an Italian look to us, with its blue skies unfuzzed by humidity, its burnt umber and golden yellow buildings, facades crumbling but still demarcated enough to show off the beauty of the art nouveau design. Prague had a history too of cafes, old kavarnas that matched the style of Viennese coffee houses - beautifully tall and ornate ceilings, coffee served by waiters in tuxedos bearing tin trays complete with the requisite tiny cup of water as chaser. So we had high hopes.
Drinking lukewarm cowboy coffee soon taught us the difference between Vienna, Venice, and Prague in 1999. We learned to make our own drip coffee with a filter that we could set on top of our mugs, sharing out beans that we established as toll for our first guests, who flocked to visit Prague that summer, still missing us, and with our guest room on offer. Our grinder was a ferocious thing, bought from an expat moving back to England, a treasure even after we discovered its remarkable ability to hold a charge for hours after we unplugged it, shocking unwitting handlers to this day if you don’t take care.
November 2005, Prague is a different city. You can buy excellent coffee beans in many places here now, Colombian roasted if you are a connoisseur, Starbucks if you are an addict. Within only a few blocks of where we live, cafés now routinely serve my favorite Italian coffee and I can find coffee filters even in our local green grocer (in 1999, we bought our coffee filters in certain hardware stores whose addresses were circulated amongst the desperate and under caffeinated). And even though the filtered coffee might be burnt and cold after hours sitting near the door of the local drug store, it is there, on promotion, ready to be handed out along with the balloon that will slowly lose its air while my daughter bats it across the room and back again, a few minutes worth of fun.
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