The first memory I have of coffee connected to a man is distant in time. I was maybe three or four years old, I remember I could barely reach the bathroom sink border and each morning it was the same story or, better, the same smells: my dad’s shaving cream, Iodosan toothpaste, cigarette smoke, coffee, Oro Saiwa cookies, 4711 cologne. The same ritual repeating each morning and that I observed with attention: he washed his face, brushed his strong white teeth, shaved with a folding razor like in the movies about Sicilian mafia, slapped his cheeks with both hands open and wet of cologne while saying: “Aaaaah, aaaaah, aaaah”, to mitigate the burning sensation, in the meantime finished his cigarette and finally had coffee, an interruption before another cigarette. And I looked at my dad, who appeared to me like a giant even though he was only five-foot-five-inch tall and I knew he was going to allow me something extremely forbidden that my mom would have never allowed: I could dip a cookie in his coffee, watch the coffee climb up through the cookie until it was almost completely soaked and I had to be fast and quick to take it out before it could dissolve like mush in the coffee. I was almost always able to extract it in time, quick to put it in my mouth and to savor it, the coffee-dipped cookie, complete well being, because of the coffee and, above all, for the precious secret between my daddy and me.
There followed years of milk and Ovaltine, milk and Nescafe, a little blasphemy, but this is life. And those years were not only without coffee but also, and above all, without men. A boyfriend here and there but men, zilch. Actually, there was one. His name was Piero and was my ski instructor. Originally from Limone Piemonte, he had moved down to Mount Etna where, at Linguaglossa, with two other instructors from Piedmont, he had launched a ski school. He was not tall and handsome like the collective imagination, rather a hard face as if sculpted in the rock, deep brown tan, short. But he believed in my talent and made me feel important, his most promising pupil. At the end of a particularly tiresome ski where he had taught me an uphill reverse stem christi, a late afternoon, and I still remember the noise of the ski boots on the wood floorboards. Upon returning at the ski school lodge, he prepared himself a coffee like I had never seen before: after putting the usual spoonfuls of ground coffee in the mocha, he added two cocoa powder spoonfuls. “Would you like some?”, he asked me in his typical Piedmont accent reminding me of the Topo Gigio cartoon. “Yes”, I hesitantly asked, as if he had done a love proposal. And we drank it, in two coffee shop cups, those with a thick edge and handle. The coffee was excellent, fluid, almost mellow, cocoa warm, I felt it go down my throat and give me a feeling of drowsiness and omnipotence. All could happen, all you dream when you are seventeen: conquer all summits.
From then to the coffee a few days before high school final exams in a boiling hot July of the late ‘70s was a quick leap: but that was mostly a coffee I enjoyed alone except for those breaks I took with Julius, my sweetheart of the time, a clean, green-eyed boy I badly betrayed and hurt as you can only do when you are young. And I betrayed him with Mike, a German-Dutch-American-Russian hybrid, the son of a Mister Patsosoff, certainly an agency man, even though I am not sure of which, because otherwise what would have been the reason, in those cold war years, of going back and forth between Prague, the USA, East and West Germany? Mike, with whom I flirted I flirted in French, prepared for me a coffee very similar to the one that, in the late 19th century, in Vienna, Mister Kolschitzky made with milk and honey. Unlike him, in the mild California winter nights, in the dorm where we lived, between one class and the next, before or after making love, Mike prepared for me his hybrid coffee: he would put milk in the electric kettle and when it became lukewarm he would pour it in a big mug adding some spoonful of Swiss Mocha Mint instant coffee which tasted of mint and sugary cocoa. General foods produced its International Coffees in various flavors and, just like great artists, we went through phases, hand in hand with our relationship. At the beginning it was all Swiss Mocha Mint in milk: exciting like cocoa and coffee, tingling like mint, sweet like milk. Then came Vienna Mocha, with a slight cinnamon aroma, afternoons spent making love instead of going to class. Café Amaretto, sex was king, flavor of almond, like my almond-shaped eyes, and Arab symbol of femininity. Dark Mayan Chocolate, our love and passion were at their fullest, nothing else existed. Café Français, and after many months we started growing in different directions: he fancied going back to Konstanz lake to find Yasmine, I became incredibly attracted to Mike Takahashi, handsome son of a Chinese actress and a Japanese manager, expert in Kabuki theatre, calligrapher and China ink painter of birds and bamboo. Among his paintings, the Duanxi stone for the ink and the theatre masks, he drove me away from coffee to inebriate me with tea and his Chinese quotes. “The prince of calligraphers, he told me one day, general Wang Xizhi, used to say that paper is the battlefield, the brush is the sword, the ink is the chain mail, the inkwell is the lake surrounding the stronghold, intuition is the general and talent is his chief of staff. And I listened to him completely taken. But it was a short and bitter passion, and his black tea did not follow me.
In a long series of “M”, the two Mike were followed by Mark, typical Sicilian, not tall, hairy, with dark beard and moustache, he was a wolf and I a little lamb next to him. With him coffee came in granitas with whipped cream accompanied by a brioche covered with threads of spun sugar. Methodical, each morning, at the café by his house, even before my anxious eyes, he lingered in lovable conversations with the young cashier girl. I looked at his granita slowly melting while he chattered with no decency, his eyes peering her while I was left with nothing to do but eat my granita and brioche. What a bitter flavor! Mark did not last long and I left him point-blank, with no explanations, to take comfort in the arms of Francesco, partially Teutonic, passionate scuba diver. With him coffee was prepared at dawn, before mounting the dinghy on his white Fiat 127 and the Johnson engine in the trunk next to the orange gasoline tank. The hooked octopus and the moray eels, stabbed to death on the dinghy floor, were put in a cooler and we ate sandwiches accompanied by fresh water and lukewarm coffee in torrid days under the scorching sun on the Sicilian canal sparkling without respite.
Francesco was followed by Matthew who invited me to his home at 3 p.m. to have coffee in his middle-class sitting room with a sofa covered in a floral print and the crystal chandelier. He served coffee in a silver coffeepot set on an embroidered doily that was positioned at exactly one third from the edge of the silver tray, to its side the sugar bowl filled with sugar cubes and the shiny tongs, the gold-finished beige porcelain cups, the linen napkins embroidered with his grandmother’s initials on the corner. He seemed to me like a young lady of olden times used to pay visits and host: ceremonious, courteous, polite. Too polite. He poured us coffee while I sat on the couch at an angle with him on the armchair and he chatted about his work, the sea, acquaintances, of our possible wedding. I looked at him in astonishment: what are you talking about? Hug me, kiss me, breathe me. Nothing. And on top of this, the feeling of my lips on the golden age of the cups bothered me. It was not a kind of coffee I could drink for a long time.
Daniel succeeded to Matthew, not a boyfriend, not even a friend, let’s call him a substitute with whom it was pleasant to chat to take a break from the sentimental loneliness. Sometimes it is the presence of a man that is lacking and, in my family made up of two people, my mother and me, it was indispensable to interrupt the tension between two women. So I invited him over for coffee, a non-demanding engagement, and we had it in the kitchen, two bright blue polka dots cups on the marble countertop, he looked at him inviting, I was absolutely neutral, just a sociable friend. Pleasant. Just pleasant. Yet important, he did not realize how much. Because in those moments I could forget my mother’s overbearing presence, I was able not to feel her breathing down my neck repeating “Study! Study! Study!”. It was at that time that I got the habit of making my coffee last an endless time. Nothing to do with the “pill coffee” gulped down at local cafés, mine lasted at least half an hour. Apart from its duration, my coffee started to be characterized by a philosophy of taste which sprang from a banal question: “Don’t you put sugar in your coffee?”, Daniel asked me. I smiled. “No…you add sugar to coffee and it becomes a treacle, it loses its aroma, its flavor, its smoothness around the uvula and then down the throat, to the heart”. I, soft and smooth, looked at him in that end of June afternoon in my kitchen, behind the shutters filtering a warm, striped light we tried to avoid by moving almost until near-touching, just so, to avoid having the beam of light in our eyes. “But it is too bitter without sugar”, he replied. “No…look. Try to do as I do. Take a sugar cookie and eat it paying attention to tickle each tiny taste bud, all the sides of your tongue, the inside of your cheeks, the palate. Make sure you have sugar and crumbs and grains everywhere. You will become incredibly thirsty and instead of water you will drink coffee. At first in small sips so that you can then awaken your taste buds, cause them the tremor of bitterness, at that point yearned and then, only then, will you taste coffee in its fullness. Try…Come on…”. And I looked at him while he, incredulous, did not understand whether I had spoken of coffee or sex. I had spoken about the first even though, at least myself, I am not so able in distinguishing the two.
No, I do not kiss the coffee cups, even though my lips are sensitive to their material and I would never be able, unless I were to find myself in extreme situations, to drink coffee from a plastic or metal or even arcopal. The fact is I am not able to separate sex and life. Some are born pessimists and see evil everywhere, I was born passionate, mellow like a jasmine-scented Arab night, and I see sexuality, pleasure, everywhere. What is more sensuous than a food or a drink? Also these penetrate, inundate.
Then I met Raphael who followed me in this story of coffee without sugar and we started to experiment with various types of cookies to see which most exalted the coffee flavor. Sugary “savoiardi”, in English lady fingers, are very good yet too big and soak up too much; crunchy albeit salty the Krumiri, better the “lingue di gatto”, also translated as lady fingers but much thinner than savoiardi, just so thin as a cat tongue hence the name, just right soft and thin. We also tried sweets, almond paste, jam-filled croissants, custard or chocolate filled “iris”(this is a typical sweet from Catania: milk bread filled with custard or chocolate cream, then breaded and fried); thank God I did not even gain a pound and we got married instead. With him, many are the memories of coffee, some tied to important moments of our story: from the first we had as newlyweds, the day after the wedding, an April morning on a azaleas flowered terrace overlooking Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Under a hot sun, we had breakfast with coffee and croissants, Rome at our feet, in our hearts the certainty of conquering the future. This coffee, of which I keep every sensation, was followed by another of joyous enjoyment which made our travel companions crazy during our honeymoon in Egypt. We were on the Nile on a boat, typical Luxor-Asswan trip, a diet of carrots, peas, and camel meat - that is why we had received a special deal – not a whiff of coffee and all Italians were in withdrawal. But we, farseeing, thanks to a mother in law’s advice to his beloved son, had artisanal roasting coffee, two cups with saucer, and an electric moka coffeepot. Each morning, from the crack under the door, a strong coffee aroma came out and everybody asked us to explain it. “We have no idea. Coffee aroma? No, we don’t smell anything”, and the only one who every so often got a cup of our coffee was an older travel companion, a well-known basketball coach with whom a parent-children relationship had set on.
From there to the pleasure of coffee in bed every morning during our stay in Turin was a short step. In fact, after our honeymoon we moved to Expo Residence in Turin, a few steps from the Po river, on infamous Via Ormea, known for the prostitutes who lined it at night but of which, in our tract, near Corso Bramante, there was not even a shadow. In front of the residence was a tiny café managed by two young sisters. Just a phone call and one of the two, zealous like only old fashioned Piedmonteses know how, for a few liras brought up light and fragrant croissants and coffees full-bodied at the right point, without excess. Then in our apartment alcove, under the blankets, watching the downpour of rain, we lost ourselves among crumbs and aromas, the only time when a kiss was denied: the pleasure of the coffee flavor mixed with the croissant butter for taste buds was an orgasm that should have lasted as long as possible. Back in Sicily, and for long years, the coffee ritual with Raphael was always the same: every morning, summer and winter, he, anxious by nature, always woke up before me and, careful not to make any noise, went to the kitchen and prepared coffee in a moka pot, always with the same artisanal roasting coffee we had taken on our honeymoon – he was a creature of habit. He took a tray and always brought me the same certainty in bed: a glass of room-temperature natural water, coffee in the daily set in use (we started with a white china set with a lemon tree drawing and we finished with one that had a balloon drawing), and a biscotto divided in half so that I had to make no effort to dunk it in the coffee and could perform this ritual half-lying, my eyes half-open, the tray resting on my chest. Anis only burnt coffee that is bid as always, since I started drinking coffee, it was sugarless but not bitter, as coffee only tastes bitter when it is burnt, low quality coffee, the coffee prepared by improvised baristas or by who does not know hedonism, the pleasure of alternating a whiplash and a caress, but that is another story.
Of my philosophy of the pleasure of sugarless coffee – not bitter, I reiterate, but sugarless, because good coffee is never bitter but full-bodied - preceded by a cookie, I spoke about to the owner of a café just below my apartment. He was I think the only café in the city that did not have a closing day, open from dawn to the middle of the night, maybe to give its owner the certainty of not having to stay at home. Gerilli, the owner, who was called by everyone by his last name, never preceded by Mister, listened to me just out of politeness without really taking me seriously when I suggested he would do well to keep on the counter a small dish with teacakes to enhance the flavor of the coffee he served: “You give your customers the option of choosing the type of coffee blend, you should also give them the opportunity of enjoying coffee in different ways. Next to sweetners, white sugar, and cane sugar, try to add biscottini”. “Yes Ma’am, we’ll see”, he replied. A few days later I found what I had suggested: biscotti, simple and chocolate-glazed, and, also, whipped cream. “You know you were right?” he told me. “Customers like this story of the cookie, above all women, maybe because they are always on a diet and a cookie satisfies the whim of something sweet with not too many calories”, he continued in his Sicilian dialect. Yes, sometimes one cookie suffices to extinguish the languor which hits when you least expect it and you must satisfy, right away, immediately, because otherwise you feel sick. Then coffee, like a lashing to the center of the heart and the stomach, to remind us we are alive, even in those moments when it is just a thready pulse that let’s you know you are alive. And I started to have more and more coffee, with Raphael, because I felt dead inside of me, devoid of yearning for life. Depression? No, much worse. It was my not wanting to realize I had immersed myself in a reality which was not mine, which did not belong to me. Unaware. And coffee with a cookie each morning did not make my awakening sweeter, it was a cage of an apparently golden habit, my cage.
Run away, get out. But how? It happened by chance, while I was at the airport, I met two blue eyes that pierced my soul. The devil’s eyes. I did not lower my eyes, did not look away, and I looked for him at the check in line. We both were on the same flight to Tel Aviv. A few rows apart and I could still see him because he was sitting diagonally from me. “Coffee, please”, I answered the stewardess. And that swill, accompanied by coconut cookies, burnt my tongue with its sour flavor. I perceived the bitterness going down my throat and I don’t know how I thought that flavor was connected to that stranger’s eyes. We got off the flight and without letting me breathe, those eyes took me and drove me in the taxi with them. I was gawping, dazed, like a bunny rabbit in front of a snake, still, waiting to be swallowed. And this is what happened. He ate my soul, with no pity, leaving me with the bitter taste of a terrible coffee blend which is forgotten on the stove for too long. It causes a nausea that lasts for days, the disgust, the rejection. And I threw up. I threw up my soul, the years, the low-heel moccasins, the pearl string, the knee-length skirt, the shapeless hair, the extra weight. Everything came out shattering my chest, I gasped without respite, fearful that retching just one more time would have killed me.
Then it was over. And I found peace. I resurrected. And resurrecting I found again the taste for life and I accepted more coffees, many more. Whoever stopped me on the street could enjoy my conversation over a cup of coffee. I listened to confessions, rejected loves, dissatisfactions. I, my coffee, and my cookie listened to the unravelling of stories in a thousand cafés of a thousand cities. Hundreds and hundreds of hearts opened up to tell each its own pain. Like rivers in flood, they spoke. And to all, from the stillness of my soul, I repeated the same: yesterday is gone, it does not exist; tomorrow must still come, it does not exist either; only today exists, now, so take your cookie, dunk it in your coffee, look at the liquid penetrating and softening it until it almost melts, then bring it to your mouth and perceive its every sweetness, each amertume, each grain, each touch of chocolate, raisin, coconut, let them envelope each taste bud and enjoy it. Then, in veneration, take your cup of coffee and let the aroma penetrate your nose and reach your brain and start enjoying it even before it passes through your lips. Then, let your lips feel the first warmth, part them and let coffee touch your tongue, let it awaken primal memories, close your eyes and remember your name, remember who you are. It’s a matter of moments. Like life.