Despite living in different countries, there are common threads in our experiences. This project therefore aims not only to give a voice to each of the women, but also to highlight things to bring us together despite the geographic distance. In this two-part series, we aim to bring all seven Expat Coffee Club women together around our first shared theme of coffee.
My drink is anything with caffeine, but despite my jittery desperation for stimulants, I’m quite the coffee snob. I won’t drink, lord forbid, instant. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, which is pretty much the hipster capital of Oceania (although I’m told Wellington is a keen competitor for that title). Coffee is important there. It’s made with an espresso machine and perfectly foamed milk with floral designs on the surface served in pretty cups with mismatched pretty saucers.
Melbourne coffee culture has pretty much ruined me for all travel purposes. Living in Oxford, UK has been a repeated experience in getting not-right coffee at three times the price I’m accustomed to. When I can, I gravitate towards what I know – cafés that operate in the Australian or New Zealand tradition (Scandinavian-inspired is fine too).
And so, when I drink coffee in my adopted place of residence, I have to face the lies I’ve been telling myself: I’m not an intrepid traveller who is too excited by new things to get homesick. I’m not the kind of person who moves thousands of kilometres away and adopts the style of the locals (and it’s not just coffee, the Brits seem to like to measure distance on the imperial scale of ‘miles’ for some reason), I’m not humbly accepting of the idea that people just do things differently in different places nobody is better or worse. The coffee, by and large, sucks, and it brings out all that is stubborn and judgemental and parochial in me.
So, I’ve tended to order tea when I go out in the year that I’ve lived in Oxford.
Funny enough, the days that I end up not having coffee are the days that I travel. I wake up nervous about being late and missing my flight, making me unable take the time to sit down and drink my daily dose of coffee. By the time I’m out the door, my nerves have kicked into full gear and have compensated for the lack of caffeine. On any other day, the taste and smell of coffee (as well as its caffeine boost) are highly satisfying, but it is fundamentally the ritual of making and sitting down to drink coffee that I enjoy.
Now that I think of it, this ritual is one of the only things that have remained constant through my travels and moving abroad. The clothes I wear, the food I eat, and the jobs I do, all change but this ritual remains. No matter where I am and what I am doing, I have a coffee in the morning.
That is not to say that the ritual has not been altered. While living in the UK, my consumption of tea increased substantially. This was due to my absurdly cold room in the winter caused by my ignorance of the need to “bleed” a radiator. I just thought that a very cold room was normal and that I needed to suck it up as a true Canadian. In the summer, my rate of tea consumption was maintained because of my new British housemate who kindly asked if you wanted a tea about four times a day (to which I always answered yes). When it comes to meeting with friends for coffee (or tea), my habits also have changed somewhat while living in the UK. When asked to meet for coffee by a friend coming from London to visit me in Oxford, I had difficulties suggesting a cafe. I answered that I knew the pubs much better than the cafes and we agreed to meet over a pint instead.
I expect that my ritual will be further altered now that I am in Taiwan, but no matter what, my day will always start with a coffee.
I’ve been taking tea with my Nana since before I can remember. It would happen on visits to her south Florida home, when Popi settled in for his afternoon nap. I would go to her enormous China cabinet, full of carefully arranged, mismatched porcelain cups and choose one for the day. Each had a story behind it; my grandmother remembered them all. Many were gifts, some Chinese, some adorned with irises (her name), one is even hand-painted by my German great-grandmother. She taught me the order to put in my sugar and milk, to check the watermark below to see which house had manufactured it (or maybe that was Hyacinth Bucket on Keeping Up Appearances, obsessed with her Royal Doulton). We’d stick to Twining’s English breakfast with a few Lorna Doone shortbread biscuits on the side (a southern twist), until I started to travel and cultivate broader tastes. I would bring her back afternoon bends from Harrod’s (which used to be her local grocery store as a teenager, living just two streets away), and we’d settle in, as always for a good chat. She told me colourful stories of her youth in England, Scotland and later Jamaica that gave me the travel bug and a severe case of Anglophilia.
Now, when I take tea in England I think of her, and remember her vividly through its tastes and smells and sounds, like Proust with his jasmine tea and madelines. It makes me feel a little more connected to the place and the choice I’ve made to live so far away from family. I was really wonderfully surprised when I moved here how much tea still reigns mighty in Britain. I suspected it might be one of those customs fetishised in American movies like monocles or bland food. But “put the kettle on” is a phrase used without the smallest hint of sarcasm, even if the kettles themselves are all electric.
I still use porcelain cups, a strawberry Wedgwood set I found covered in dirt and leaves in the garden. The rest of the house doesn’t really get it, because of course, most of England moved on to big builder’s mugs of tea ages ago, but invariably I never finish those, and, truth be told, I’m one of those purists who think hot drinks taste better out of bone china. My favourite place to have tea now is Louis Patisserie on Hampstead High Street. It’s a Hungarian spot that’s been open since the 1960s and apparently hasn’t changed much, in price or decor. It’s one of the first places I take visiting family. There’s no wifi, stuffed leather wraparound booths, chestnut cakes, sugar cubes, and of course, fine bone China.
I’ve never been a big coffee or tea drinker. I’m used to everyone around me not functioning in the morning until they’ve had their first cup of Timmy’s. My sister even has
a “tea maker”, similar to a coffee maker that most people have, which has a timer and automatically brews you a cup when you wake up in the morning (of course, her tea is super-caffeinated!). It’s weird but I only drink coffee on planes. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s because I’m just sitting there, watching a movie, and it’s free – so why not? Obviously I add way too much sugar, because that’s how I like most things in my life – a bit too sweet :) All my life, whenever someone asks to go for “coffee” I always substitute the word “hot chocolate” or “cold, fruity drink” in my head.
However, when I moved to Bangladesh (and then directly to Nepal) in 2015, that all changed. Tea became a major part of my life. There was even a “tea lady” at work, and tea was served about 3 times a day to the entire staff. There were so many different kinds: black tea, milk tea, lemon tea, chai tea, and sometimes just hot water with lemon and honey (great when you have a cold!). Not only is it rude to refuse, it’s also an important part of the local culture. Not to mention, during cold winters in Nepal, tea is essential for warming up your hands. It also provides an important part of the local economy, with tea ladies in the office, and small tea vendors on every street corner (instead of Starbucks). Drinking tea in the office is a great way to be social and learn more about your coworkers each day. Now that I live in Bolivia, Coca tea is something I drink regularly, as it helps keep warm during the cold nights, and helps to stave off altitude sickness. So cheers – to tea, for bringing people together and keeping us warm. 🙂