“Try the coffee.”
The suggestion was a simple one, delivered warmly by an attendant in a Turkish restaurant in the heart of Istanbul one July day.
But what she didn’t know was that I wasn’t a coffee drinker.
I shook my head and pointed to my half-finished cup of warm Turkish tea instead, the drink I was perfectly content to sip at the table where I sat. I smiled politely, followed by an affirmation (in my best Turkish) of, “I’m enjoying the tea.”
She reached to my overturned coffee mug and righted it atop its saucer. “You really should try the coffee.”
This woman was nothing if not persistent.
A trip to Turkey that summer was one I had planned as an escape. After a hectic academic year of teaching an overload of freshman classes at my community college, being unceremoniously passed-over for a department chairperson job advancement, and weathering some challenging upper-level administrative changes to boot, I felt I deserved a break in the middle of the summer to regroup, recharge, and regrow.
Istanbul’s exotic landscape, its reverberating echo of the Call to Prayer bells, and its seemingly endless supply of mouth-watering Turkish Delight provided stimulation to my senses that was both unexpected, yet welcomed. I yearned to inhale the elixir of everything that pulsed in this ancient city, all of its culture and vibrancy.
Did I mention the Turkish Delight?
Aside from stuffing my stomach with that sweet concoction, I was attempting to balance it all out with the local beverage, which was why I was drinking the country’s well-known brewed tea. Turkish tea—or so I had read—was a drink not to be repudiated in the country. So, I thought I was doing as the Turks were doing. I was happy to be drinking their tea, and, besides, I had never been a coffee drinker.
But, as the attendant graciously poured a cup full of steaming, oil-slick liquid that morning on-the-house, I acquiesced to a new beverage that I thought would be just something I’d try that day, obliging the attendant and wishing her a Turkish “thank you” in response to her gesture.
A bitter first taste of the mud-thick drink resulted in my automatic reach for the carafe of fresh milk on the table. Though many Turks drink coffee without milk, my tea background had me yearning for something lighter, smoother. I poured the creamy liquid on top, stirring it in a swirl of caramel-colored patterns until the entire cup was a uniform color to my liking.
I cradled the warm cup between both hands and took another sip. This time, the scent and flavor took on a new life, something all-enveloping. There was a distinctness of texture, a boldness of taste that provided something richer than I expected that morning.
But more than just the taste, the care with which I found myself completing the simplest of tasks—stirring the milk, blowing the liquid top, circling the rim mindlessly with my finger in between quiet sips—surprised me. I wasn’t concerned about the time or about the travel plans I needed to confirm for that day. For those few minutes where I was focused on the coffee, I was also focused on me. Slow breaths, calm thoughts: something about that cup seemed to grant me permission to take time to myself.
As I let thoughts wash over me in those still moments, it was more than a beverage. The Turkish attendant’s insistence on my having a cup was like the granting of a gift. I was trying something new. I was taking life a little more slowly. Sure, I could have done this on my own back at home—but would I?
Of course not.
In this place, under these circumstances, I was. The pleasure of it all stung, and I found that I became bitten, not only by what I thought was the travel bug, but also what became a coffee lover’s bug.
My habit of a morning cup of coffee continued back home to the States. At first, I was simply following the schedule I developed while on my two-week trip. After that first restaurant morning, I had taken to accepting a cup of Turkish coffee at other breakfasts and even after lunches. The offer was always kind, the cup lovingly poured and presented with a pride of hospitality that mirrored the warmth of the culture I experienced everywhere I went.
And no doubt about it, the Turks certainly knew how to make a good cup of coffee.
At home, I had to make the coffee myself. I couldn’t find a blend of Turkish coffee in my local supermarket, so I bought a bag of fair-trade beans at a mid-range price. Once brewed, I added milk as I had in Turkey, and the flavor was distinct enough from my previously-trained tongue-for-tea that even the first sip caused me to mentally recall sounds of the Grand Bazaar and smells of the Spice Market. The coffee was a vessel, and I was transported.
In addition to evoking memories, my morning cup of coffee also had another positive effect: it was allowing me permission. Before my trip, I had been moving so fast through work and motherhood that I hardly had time to relax or relish the joy in simple pleasures. I started back to another busy fall semester, resuming my life as a professor and a mom, replete with all of my other daily responsibilities: the cooking, the shopping, the budgeting, the planning, the driving, and the worrying. None of those were going to disappear, but silver linings in all of those chores were beginning to surface now that I was awakening to the joy in it all.
The cooking? An opportunity to experiment! The shopping? A scavenger hunt for exotic foods from my travels! The budgeting? A challenge of finding money to squirrel away for the next trip! All of my everyday duties and routine tasks were taking on a new life as I realized how much I enjoyed my life.
Now, I was finding some unexpected happiness in the quiet moments alone every morning where it was just me and my latte. Coffee became my simple excuse to steal a few, much-needed moments alone to myself.
When I did, I felt invigorated. And it was more than just the caffeine.
That academic year, I tried some new techniques in my classroom. Changed-up some of the required readings for my literature sophomores. Made more time to meet one-on-one with my freshman students.
I even said “yes” to a few committee assignments.
There are still plenty of days where my back is against the wall with deadlines, where my steady stream of class lectures leaves me hoarse, where my kid manages to tell me right when I’m tucking him into bed that he needs to bring two empty milk jugs to class tomorrow for a project. But when I have just a few minutes of downtime, I’m able to put it all into perspective.
My life is my life. And my life is good.
Every summer when I now travel internationally, one of the joys I have is trying a country’s slightly different blend of coffee. Iceland’s is smooth, France’s is rich, and Peru’s is mild. This summer, a highlight was not only drinking Costa Rican coffee (so earthy! so aromatic!) in the rolling hills of the Naranjo region where it is grown, but also touring an orchard co-op of Arabica coffee plants. As my feet plodded across soft soil and I ran my hand along branches bursting with beans under massive limbs of shade from trees towering above, I felt a content fullness, a completeness of journeying to my own place of happiness.
I thought travel itself might bring me to that happiness. And in many ways perhaps it has. But, I also credit coffee.
Life has a funny way of filling us up. What does the filling is different for everybody. For me, I know what nourishes me, not only on a substantive level but on an intensively personal one as well. New experiences, time to reflect, and permission to enjoy simple pleasures is what my daily lattes do for me.
And when life does throw a curve—at work, at home, wherever—I find I am apt to deal with them by now looking for the silver lining. There’s always happiness to be had, always some way to experience joy.
It may be hard for some to understand, maybe especially those who don’t fancy themselves coffee drinkers. It really boils down to this: the simplest of pleasures can bring the greatest of joys.
My body is better with coffee. My life, too, is better thanks to the domino effect enjoying it has had. I’m thankful for the Turkish restaurant attendant’s persistence in offering me a cup those summers ago, for the simple gesture really has had a lasting impact. Though connoisseurs may still decry my approach to always adding milk to coffee, it’s my latte, my batte. I’m enjoying it, one cup at a time.
Audrey Wick is a full-time professor of composition and literature at Blinn College in Texas. Her work has appeared in college textbooks published by Cengage Learning and W.W. Norton as well as The Houston Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, among others. Audrey believes the secret to happiness includes life-long learning and good stories. But travel and coffee help, as readers will discover through her included essay. Connect with her at www.audreywick.com.