The Croatian Communion of Cookies and Coffee

They smuggled cookies everywhere, like children sneaking JuJuBees into a movie theater within the lining of their jackets.

During my last visit, her parents brought a package of cookies to a mountain top cafe where we opened them quietly while the Fraulein was in the kitchen watching for our Café au laits and macchiatos. The restaurant provided cookies. They were individually wrapped, laying leisurely on the saucer, and shaped like spoons to better scoop our cappuccino foam, but it was so impersonal. So individual. Those German wafers were held singularly in captivity, annexed from the true communal nature of their existence. And so they stayed that way throughout our respite.

MountainMaybe it was a survival strategy, or perhaps it was culture, but those cookies that the cafe provided always found their way into her and her mother’s stylish Croatian purses. They were rescued refugees, just like their now owners, and deserved a good home with friends and family to support their struggle for freedom.

Later on, I would recognize those mountain top wafers looking comfortable, yet a bit apprehensive, on the porcelain plate that came out of the fridge during our coffee conversations. Now, finally out of their plastic coffins, they were free to live with their fellow cookie, joyously preoccupied with idle conversation and gossip, exempt of the existential knowledge of their basic function: to be eaten.

I never quite grasped eating cookies and coffee after climbing a mountain. I thirsted for water, Powerade, Gatorade, something that would aid me in my climb, something that Michael Jordan endorsed. Something that promised the replenishment of my electrolytes. So I sat at the cafe sweltering in the tight mountain air, that much closer to the sun, sipping coffee and lightly snacking on the orange chocolate wafers that supposedly bridged the language gap between all of us.

Because of all this, now I crave sugary confections with my coffee. I search through the empty spaces of cupboards. I peer in pantries. I open the fridge, hoping that a cookie has miraculously appeared during my absence.

Cupboard, pantry, fridge. Cupboard, pantry fridge.

Sometimes I vary the routine, but it still yields the same result. The very definition of insanity. It didn’t used to be this way. I took my coffee with cream. No sugar. Half & Half. Breve. But I stayed far away from sugary morsels that usually accompanied coffee to the tables of bourgeois homes.

At her parent’s home—after the soup, salad, and meat course, each course with its own set of dishes and silverware—we had coffee.

Small, white porcelain cups with gold etching encircling the rim would escape the small dishwasher along with their matching saucer, but for only a moment to be used and immediately shoved back in once the discussion dried up. They were the unfortunate ones that barely saw the light of day.

As for the lucky ones, first there was the shiny, metal cream dispenser that sat in the fridge perpetually full, as though magic had replenished it. The only sign of use a slight drip languidly trailing down its spout, or the surfacing and eventual receding of condensation as it was lifted from its natural home within the chilled refrigerator and out into the open Swabian June air.

The other fortunate son was the cookie plate. It was white with blue, sometimes maroon, etching that showed a distant farmhouse of what may have been a Croatian or Bosnian countryside. It looked breakable. As though one more cookie heaved on its lightness would bring it down with a smash on the table. But it never did.

Bday CakeThe chilled plate contained at the very least three variations of sweets, which, like the cream, were replenished through either magic or a craft of secrecy that no guest would, could or should ever puncture for the very lack of decency that knowing might betray. These cookies never failed to appear whenever or wherever coffee was served.

And we endlessly drank coffee. The coffee-stained, glass pot in their kitchen was kept warm throughout the morning, but one never drank coffee alone. It had other functions than fuel for individual achievements. It prodded discussions. It cajoled tears and remembrances. It told our futures.

Like the day before I flew home from Stuttgart airport to Minneapolis, I was the last one to empty the coffee pot at 9pm at night. Her mother smiled at me a smile that squished her eyes and tightened her lips, and then she said in a broken English mixture of Croatian, Bosnian and German accents that now it will be my turn to host.

A flood of images and lingering questions corrupted me: how will I get these people to Minnesota? Where will they stay? How will our families communicate? My mother is infamous for her passive aggressive nervousness and judgmental facial expressions, and her mother’s overbearing nature crams the air with an anxious eagerness that bemoans the fortunes and struggles of two piqued immigrant refugee daughters who no longer need her; and not one son, nor the promise of a grandson, to delightfully and thanklessly devour her food or drink her drink.

WineThat favor, and slight responsibility, fell upon me. And drink I did:

One shot of home-made plum Slavonian vodka before eating.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One glass seltzer water during dinner.

One more shot of home-made plum vodka before the main course.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One cup of coffee. Cream. No sugar. With cookies and cakes for dessert.

One German bier with her father after the table is cleared, with salted snacks emerging from cupboards.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One more German bier, if her father was feeling talkative.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

I have been spoiled by the attentiveness of a mother whose only heterosexual daughter has brought home a boyfriend from across the Atlantic Ocean. The first boyfriend they have had the pleasure of hosting and being introduced to in over a decade. The pressure was grand. It was bulky. Fat, yet dexterous.

It tied our tongues. It spoke up in between the silences or the lost moments of translation. It coughed when I nodded in agreement to a word or phrase I did not understand. And it eventually wore her and her parents out.

They would have liked my coffee. I make it four cups at a time in a metal, double-lined coffee press. I ground it one pound at a time and kept it in an airtight container. I would have had snacks ready. Confections of the American breed. Oreos, perhaps. Sugar cubes for her and her father.

I could imagine hearing the dismissal of apologies for mismatched coffee mugs while I poured. A lingering disapproval as I offered cream from the Land O’ Lakes container. The subtle noise the plastic flap the Oreo cookie wrapping made each time we wanted one would be like a siren warning us that something isn’t quite right. Something is mismatched. One of these things is not like the other.

But that moment never arrived.

So, now I’ll continue my search for cookies, and pour myself another cup of coffee while I write about a distant land and a distant way of life. A life without the constant hum of American television, or the hopelessly forlorn pride of single parents, or an inharmonious collection of dishes that betray an utter unpreparedness for guests, or the clenched beauty of traditions that are to be cherished and passed on with force against reluctance.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and consider what I’ve gained and what I have lost.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and ruminate on how my past informs my future.

But first, just to make sure there are no cookies, I’ll check the pantry again.

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Halt Your Enthusiasm!

I am here in Germany visiting my gf, and I happen to be here when the city of Mainz is celebrating their annual Johannisnacht festival. Last night was the final night, and it was celebrated in style with a 15-minute firework display, which my gf and I watched from Theodor-Heuss Bridge that links Wiesbaden and Mainz.

Johannisnacht 1On the first night of the festival, Friday night, my gf and I walked to the city center where the festivities were held and ate a bit of food and had a beer or two. That was the night I learned my first lesson in Germany enthusiasm: Wait until the song, event, phenomenon, is completely finished before celebrating. I am quiet serious. That Friday night we enjoyed a few songs from an all too impressive Black Sabbath cover band playing at one end of the festivities. Being a Sabbath fan from my teenage years, I sang along and cheered whenever I was struck with excitement. And for this, I received some good ol’ fashion German upbraiding: the stare! First, yes, I was the only one clapping… of which my gf informed me I was, um, premature in my celebration (soooo American, she says). And then I got a stare. The stare from an older German gentleman whose fun I was apparently ruining. Lesson learned.

Three night later and I am about to test my new found knowledge at the final celebratory night. It was tough. It was tough for this red-blooded “didn’t-know-how-American-he-was-until-fireworks-came-out” guy NOT to “oooh,” “aaah,” and cheer every time some pretty colors burst over the Rhine. So, I was quiet. I stood and listened to some sparsely hasty, yet hushed, German excitement over the larger fireworks. But for the most part, the collection of citizens in the photos below didn’t make as sound during the whole fiery procession.

Only one dared to make a sound. As an acute cluster of fireworks dissipated, one promisingly remarkable firework shot forth into the sky. As the dormant firework traveled upwards, I heard from a man on my right as the rocket shot high, a barely audible remark; a lovely admission of the pretense of excitement echoed in the most German way possible. A small, yet significant, word was uttered in an almost official tone: “Jawohl…”.

Fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Fireworks 3Fireworks 4

Jawohl. You’re damn right, “Jawohl”.