Life in Poland

Coffee or Tea?

Molly, my sister, and I fell out,12172009

And what do you think it was all about?

She loved coffee and I loved tea,

And that was the reason we couldn’t agree.

-Mother Goose

That’s one of Lizzie’s favorite poems. She likes to repeat it over and over changing “Molly” for her own sister’s name, Rosie.

I’ve got tea and coffee on my mind as we spent a lot of time this past weekend in the supermarket in the coffee and tea aisle. Before I came to Poland, I drank tea only occasionally and coffee rarely. Now that I live in this European country (stop laughing and buy yourself a map, Poland is in Europe) I find that I not only drink a lot of tea and coffee, but I am more involved in the whole hot beverage drinking/serving ritual. First of all, all activities should be started with a cup of tea or coffee. You want to chat with your friends? Put on a pot of tea or coffee. Need to complete your tax forms? Pour yourself a nice cup of herbal tea. Natural disaster? It will all look much better after a cup of Earl Grey.

If you are a host/hostess in Poland you should offer your guests an array of beverage choices hot and cold and insist repeatedly and relentlessly until your guests surrender. Then you should serve the beverage in a cup that you only use for extra special guests which means it is hidden way, way back in your cupboard, perhaps in another room and is of course dirty requiring another step in your drink preparation ritual. After cleaning the cup and making the beverage, it should be carried to your guest on a tray and ceremoniously set in front of them with the guest spoon, guest sugar and guest creamer. Unless you come to my house, in which you will get a mug (of your choice) with our everyday sugar bowl and spoon ‘cause we haven’t got any others and a creamer if we can find it and a milk carton if we cannot. Trust me, it tastes just as good.

kawkaI remember my first Polish “coffee at work” coffee. It was in the Village high school in the teacher’s lounge. The lady I called “Mother of the School” (she was the head cleaning lady) rushed around the room in the morning making sure everyone had received either a cup of tea of coffee. She offered me some too, and I chose coffee which I received in a glass with a glass saucer. Tea was also served in a glass with a metal handle and base. That was strange. I drank some up before the bell rang and left my glass on the table as I left for my lessons. At the next break (Polish schools have a 10 minute break between lessons in which most teachers go to the lounge.), I noticed that everyone sat down at their previously abandoned glasses and the “Mother”teabase refilled the cups with hot water from the kettle. This was “Turkish” coffee with the coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. I learned about those grounds the hard way. Bottoms up!

At this school I also had another encounter involving the “Mother” and tea. One Monday she came to me and said in her slowest and clearest Polish, “Mam dla Pani herbatę i mydło.” I looked at her with an astonished look on my face, so she ran to get someone to translate. I didn’t need any Polish to English translation but rather PRL remnants to Polish new reality translation. You see, “Mother” had tea and soap for me as part of my bonus for being a Polish public school teacher. I had been absent on the previous Friday when all the other teachers received theirs, some even received hand towels, and that is why on Monday I alone received my bonus. I looked into the bag and saw the cheapest tea available and pretty good soap. I immediately donated the tea to the teacher’s lounge for which I was hailed a hero and humanitarian. I nicked the soap off home.

Years later when I returned to Poland to work in the City, I experienced the more modern “coffee at work” coffee. Somehow I didn’t experience it in the US. Oh, that’s right, our school in Baltimore didn’t have a teacher’s lounge. Anyhow, I wanted to say that I had my first real, normal office job except my office was anything but normal. But we did have a coffee maker. There was a very big to-do every morning about the secretary bringing the boss his coffee. So much so, that it was in her contract. Unfortunately, nothing much else was in her contract so a lot didn’t get done. I remember once, our boss asked her to go across the street to the store to buy coffee milk and she looked at him and said with all seriousness, “In these shoes?” We also had a problem in our office that the sink in the kitchen was not hooked up to water (kind of Bareja style) so we had endless unwashed coffee cups. For that reason, I bought my own coffee mug with my name on it, well, not exactly my name. It said Kryśka but close enough. One early morning at work, I couldn’t find my mug anywhere. That was strange because every afternoon before returning home I carried my mug to the bathroom to wash it and then placed it on the shelf in the kitchen clean and shiny and ready for the next day. I scoured the kitchen but it was nowhere to be seen. Then I began the office to office inspection. I found my mug in the hands of my boss who had been too lazy to take a cup to the bathroom to wash it. I asked him, irately, “Is your name Kryśka?” He said with surprise, “No.” I answered, “Well, your mug says something different!” He turned the mug around to see the “Kryśka” and rose bud design of my mug. He promptly slurped what coffee was left at the bottom of the mug, handed it to me and said, “Here.” Mug stealing bastard!!!!

My boss was very proud of himself one day when he decided to make coffee for me. The office was pretty empty so early in the morning and as I sat at the conference table getting some marketing packages all laid out, my boss declared that he would make the coffee today. He acted as if he should get a medal or something. As I watched him in our kitchen without water, I thought less of Bareja and more Sąsiedzi as he bumbled around in there. In the end, he couldn’t find the coffee filters and proceeded to use toilet paper explaining proudly that this is what he used to do in college. That was the hardest cup of coffee I have ever had to drink. This same boss told me once about when his uncle came to Poland from America for a visit back in the PRL times. He and the other kids were amazed as their mother put a sugar bowl on the table (sugar was rationed) and the uncle put three whole spoonfuls in his coffee. Now that was a rebel!

These days, I work as a teacher in companies so I can only observe the workings of the office on a superficial level. I still see the cup of coffee, who makes it, who delivers it, and in what manner as representative of how the office works and who has the most respect or authority. In one company, a company which owned a chain of Polish gas stations, I loved to drink coffee and SDC10131 until they finished our contract their coffee was at the top of my City coffee ranking. They had a mega-industrial coffee maker right next to the conference room. One morning my student, the main accountant, made me a delicious coffee and then set in to complete a very difficult grammar task I had given her. She was concentrating with all her might when suddenly my cup broke into 3 pieces and coffee ran over the edge of the table. Brain power! In the same office there was a fantastic secretary. She was and is one of the nicest people I have ever met. She always delivered the coffee to the lesson on a tray. She was also fond of low-cut white blouses which caused everyone to pause as she lowered the tray to the table.

In another company, I got to know years later that I had been victim of the coffee called “Renata’s Revenge”. In that company they have everyday coffee, special good coffee for guests and special “special” coffee for difficult guests or contract negotiations. The coffee was named Renata’s Revenge after the secretary Ms. Renata. Unfortunately, when I negotiated the contract I had to make a quick exit after a strong but delicious cup of R.R. Now in that company, I will only drink coffee prepared for me by my students not by Ms. Renata. One of my students always asks, “Coffee? In a cup?’” That question cracks me up every time. It’s as if she is offering in a cup or….not in a cup, but perhaps in my hands. In fact, she wants to know if I want to have coffee in an elegant coffee cup with a saucer or if I want to have a mug but my version is funnier. Coffee straight from students is also no guarantee of quality as once I received the rinsing cycle water from the coffee machine with milk and sugar. Na zdrowie.

I can report that the hot new trend in company coffee is the three layered coffee macchiato style. They are really good but that is a lot of coffee and considering that I am offered (and almost always drink) a coffee in every lesson that makes for one wired English teacher by the end of the day.

So as I stood in the coffee and tea aisle, I ran through all my coffee stories in my mind and had a chuckle. We bought fruit tea and black tea and a huge jar of coffee for my mother-in-law for Christmas (that’s what she wanted). We didn’t buy any coffee for us because we had already been to a specialty shop to buy a little coffee for us and also as a gift for the girls’ nanny for Christmas. In another aisle, we bought ice tea and ice coffee as well after a lot begging from Lizzie. At home we also have “grain” coffee and INKA which Lizzie calls coffee for kids. I think we’re set.

Happy coffee drinking to all!

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  • Reply
    December 18, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Cheers!Powiedziałam ja – drinking my favourite black Italian coffee from my favourite cup (a present from my father-in-law). Hah!

  • Reply
    December 18, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Właśnie o to mi chodziło!

  • Reply
    June 23, 2021 at 6:05 pm

    Haha Your first coffee experience is not uncommon for Americans in Poland. My first challenge when ordering was to address the question ” Rozpuszczalna czy świeża?” Not expecting a quiz on types, I responded ” Prosze prawdziwa kawa.” and prayed that would suffice. Then, being a coffee addict, as I suspect you are too, I slurped that cup down to the uff! grinds on the bottom! It took a number of these incidents until I was conditioned to stop just before that last, usually satisfying gulp, and avoid the grounds. I have to say that the coffee prepared in this fashion was very good, even better without the grounds.
    On the subject of tea, my wife always takes her tea with milk, not lemon. Most places brought out milk when requested, but I sensed it was generally treated as a “special” request. My mother and babcia always had lemon with their tea, so I suspect this is a tradition that goes way back in Polish culture.

    • Reply
      June 24, 2021 at 4:18 pm

      All these years later, that Turkish style coffee with the grounds at the bottom is my go-to way to make coffee 🙂 I agree that it does taste pretty good.

      Tea with milk is called bawarka in Polish and I usually drink it when I am sick. Now I am converted to the tea with lemon, the Polish way 😉

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