I remember the tin can of Folgers that sat on the kitchen counter when I was a child. I used to open it up, press my face inside and inhale. Coffee was among those foods whose aroma conjured up future happiness, like the scent of vanilla extract and the promise of birthday cakes with cream cheese frosting, or pumpkin seeds roasting in the oven and the promise of jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween. Coffee was slow, weekend mornings, standing in front of my father as he brushed out the knots in my long, curly brown hair, scanning the headlines in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on the table next to his mug, while my mother flipped pancakes in the shapes of zoo animals in the kitchen. Coffee promised me the morning, the start of a new adventure, a day unsullied.
Twenty-five years later, when my grandfather woke up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. on the morning of August 30, 2016, he made a cup of coffee before he killed himself. Before he laid out black plastic trash bags on the floor, he settled a paper coffee filter into his coffee maker. He added twelve or thirteen scoops of ground coffee into the filter, creating a little mountain of grounds, dark like the color of potting soil. Some forgotten grounds speckled the counter. As the coffee brewed, he supported his once robust 6-foot tall body with his walker – too proud, and if he was honest, too exhausted to sit down at the nearby table while he waited. He poured himself a single cup of coffee into a chipped, white porcelain mug, a souvenir mug, like one with the words “Someone in Florida Loves Me.” He could have placed the mug on the tray of his walker, as he inched to the small table where he eased himself down into one of the wooden, Windsor chairs. But he left the walker at the counter, gripping the coffee in one hand and the kitchen table in the other, moving his 80-year-old body precariously like a toddler trying to find his footing, but on his own. It was quite routine, except there was no newspaper in front of him today. He took his first sip of the coffee. It was black and strong, nearly overwhelming in its acidity, and exactly the way he preferred it.
I know exactly how my grandfather liked his coffee because I was the one making it for him two days before he died. I was the one piling the grounds high, as he sat in the Windsor chair, telling me, “Almost. A little more.”
I was the one wiping the counter, not to remove the crumbs of coffee, but scrubbing away months of spills and baked-on grease left to harden. I was the one who offered to visit, to welcome him home from his stay at a rehabilitation facility following a surgery to repair his collapsed lung.
It was me who filled the “Someone in Florida Loves Me” mug, and then again for a refill.
It was me who told my mom how frail he had become, and how stubborn he still was.
In the 30 years spent with my grandfather, decades of once-daily phone calls and summer-long visits to Pittsburgh, I’ve repeatedly been told that he wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t stop drinking, gambling, smoking. In the years since he died, I’ve been told why.
“He’s a Serb,” my mother said of her father.
Though I waited on the phone silently, she didn’t elaborate.
What it means, my mother told me, is that my grandfather was stubborn and proud. It was nearly a year after his death, but she accidentally used the present tense when she described him, though she corrected herself. It means, she said, that though he was raised in the United States after his family moved from Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1939, his culture has so finely imprinted on him, that he can no more change himself than the average American can change their innate individualism or materialism. He was three years old when he came to the United States and I wondered whether this was an excuse. It seemed like a way to blanket an entire country, a massive region really, with some basic characteristics. I asked my mother if she believed this.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been to Serbia.”
Coffee didn’t interest me until after my grandfather died. After his death, I ordered cups of coffee from diners, hoping that it would smell familiar, that it might trigger some unremembered memory of him. At home, I used a small hand grinder to pummel the whole beans I bought in bags, as if I could physically expel some of my resentment over his death.
I could imagine him planning out his death, while I filled his refrigerator with microwaveable meals that he could cook on his own, as I did months of dirty laundry, and folded the new pants I bought him to replace the ones with holes in the pockets. I had come to take care of him, and he let himself be cared for, but only until I was gone.
I paused in my grinding. Or maybe he hadn’t been thinking that, at least not yet. He was impulsive. He had been in pain. My father told me I should be compassionate, but my father was almost unfairly unbiased. Once connected to my grandfather by his marriage, now many-years divorced, my father and my grandfather were like strangers before he died. Should I have taken away his shotgun, I wonder. I should have taken away his gun. My mother tells me that she should have told me to take away his gun.
It didn’t really matter if I felt resentful or guilty, because, either way, I was angry.
I brewed intense cups of coffee for my boyfriend as he slumbered out of bed.
“It’s so bitter,” he said, adding milk to the brim of his mug.
The month before my grandfather’s death, I celebrated my birthday in Greece. My grandfather left me a message that I would replay constantly after I couldn’t conjure up his voice at will.
“Your grandfather loves you very, very much,” he said.
He often spoke to himself in the third person. The emphasis was always on the “you”—or on me, rather. It should have seemed detached, him referring to himself in the third person, but it seemed more intimate. He loved to refer to himself as “Grandpa” or “Ggrandfather” as if the role subsumed his identity.
I sat at a café in Naxos, scrolling through my phone.
“You’re so close to the homeland!” my grandfather’s cousin wrote on my Instagram post of Athens.
The homeland was Serbia – close because Greece’s mainland was already in the Balkan Peninsula. I opened the map on my phone and I stretched my thumb and index finger in the shape of a backward “L” and I could connect the two countries easily.
But when the waiter delivered the wine and bread, I set down my phone and I never replied to my cousin. There was something unnerving about having a “homeland” that I’d never visited, like I had seen myself in a mirror that only showed me from the waist up.
I wish I remembered the first time someone told me about the prevalence of café society in the former Yugoslavia, or about the importance Balkan people place on coffee.
I knew it wasn’t my grandfather. Since he left Yugoslavia when he was three, he probably never had traditional Serbian coffee. He rarely talked about Serbia. I remember peeking into his bedroom when I was five or six years old when he was on the phone with his brother Pete.
“Grandpa sounds funny,” I told my mother. “Something’s wrong with his voice.”
My mother peeked in the bedroom.
“He’s speaking Serbian,” she said, although she never learned the words herself.
Hearing my grandfather speak in another language was so perplexing, so terrifyingly strange, that I eyed him warily when he emerged from the bedroom.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
When I refused to answer, he scooped me up and dangled me upside down from my feet until I couldn’t stop laughing.
I finally booked a trip to Serbia this May out of frustration, as much as curiosity.
Months earlier, in January, a distant cousin, a Zoroya, who shared my grandfather’s last name, was in Key West at the same time as me. I messaged him, asking if he wanted to meet.
When my boyfriend and I walked into the restaurant, I knew instantly who he was, though we’d never met in person. Aside from our tanned skin, dark brown eyes and hair, there was something in our mannerisms that seemed eerily alike – the way we made direct eye contact, how we smoothed our dark eyebrows, the territorial arrangement of our silverware while we waited for our food.
“The Zoroya genes must be strong,” my boyfriend said.
My cousin had found me through Ancestry.com, where our DNA was a match. We could trace our common ancestor to my grandfather’s grandfather. He ran a few groups on Facebook that connected family members with the last name Zoroya, not just in the United States, but in Serbia, Croatia and other former Yugoslavian countries.
When we spoke about my grandfather, I described him as I remembered him – a man who would give his grandchildren $100 to spend frivolously at Toys “R” Us “because money was made to be spent,” who chain-smoked from the age of 10 years old and “wasn’t about to stop now,” who would mail the algebraic notations of chess moves to an opponent for a game he played in his head because “exploiting weakness is more important than pure skill,” who would hang up on my uncle when he was “tired of listening to his bullshit,” who would spend hours on the phone with me when I was 10 playing nonsensical games “because I love you, granddaughter.”
I wanted to know if he was the man he was because he was Serbian, or just because.
“Stubbornness is a Zoroya trait,” my cousin said. “As is being extremely intelligent and attractive.”
I pressed him.
“I’ve heard those generalizations, but I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been to Serbia.”
I didn’t know if I was asking the right questions, but I knew that I wouldn’t find the answers in the United States.
When I got off the plane in Belgrade, I was alone. I was surrounded by Cyrillic script, but there was some familiarity in the prototypical airport surroundings, the fluorescent lights, the faint smell of bleach, the uncomfortable metal chairs with their faux-leather seats. As I rode the bus to the city center, I tried to describe the landscape in my head. There were plain, concrete block buildings in the brutalism style once popular during Tito’s reign of Yugoslavia. The bus passed large buildings, some governmental structures, built in the more aesthetically pleasing Baroque-style—a holdover from Austro-Hungarian rule. The cityscape wasn’t particularly remarkable—it was ugly even—but I wanted to see the people. From the protective windowpane on the bus, I stared at the people walking on the streets.
Most seemed tall, and they walked with their heads high, instead of staring at the screens of cell phones, and they seemed paired off intimately, two-by-two. When I arrived at my rental apartment, I soon fell asleep on top of the sheets, listening to the start of raindrops, with the window cracked open, imagining I was Noah and deciding which creatures would be saved on the ark.
When I left the apartment the next morning, I went out to hunt coffee. I was armed with a few key Serbian expressions, including how to order coffee. Domaća kafa, or domestic coffee, is the safest way to order it at a café. This is because in Serbia, the Serbs refer to it as Serbian coffee, the Croats refer to it as Croatian coffee, the Bosnians prefer Bosnian coffee, and so on, throughout the former Yugoslavia. But all countrymen will admit that the coffee has its roots in Turkey. It is a holdover from Ottoman Empire rule, and to call it Turkish coffee, is generally acceptable.
What makes this Turkish-style different from what Westerners picture as coffee is that it’s unfiltered. The coffee is both heated and then served in a džezva, a small, long-handled copper pot filled with the brewed, unfiltered coffee and hot water. A few bubbles should emerge as the džezva is on the stove, but it shouldn’t be boiling. Sugar can also be added during this step, but many prefer it black. Sometimes the coffee is poured from the džezva into a ceramic cup and served this way. I had read many techniques about how to drink this coffee. Some people advised continuously stirring the coffee so that there are no grounds left in the bottom of the cup. Others encouraged leaving the “mud,” the grounds left at the bottom of the cup, to settle.
I wished my grandfather had taught me how to drink this coffee. As a child, he loved to teach me useful things, like how to tally the totals in a blackjack game or how many brick phone books it would take to prop my head above the steering wheel of his car as we cruised over hills. I felt like an imposter, sure to be caught out, when I visited the café recommended to me by my Airbnb host.
I sat down and I puzzled over the menu. There were cartoon drawings of various coffees, a tiny cup for espresso, a cappuccino with a portion of milk, a latte with an even larger portion of milk, and so on – all Italian-style espresso drinks.
“Domaća kafa?” I asked.
“Ne,” the waiter said, shaking his head.
After a few minutes of broken Serbian and broken English, I gave up and ordered an iced coffee.
Perhaps this café was inauthentic.
But this happened again, and again. I started to wonder if the books I’d read that described the emphasis Serbs place on the ritual of drinking Turkish-style coffee were part of some conspiracy—a propaganda campaign to lure unsuspecting foreigners to the Balkans with the promise of unlimited caffeine. It had only been a week, but the impatient American in my head was anxious.
So I made a very un-American decision, a very Balkan decision I’d later learn, that I would stop seeking out coffee, and let the coffee find me.
I still drank coffee, four or five cups of espresso every day—a moderate amount by Serb standards. I still spoke with Serbs, but I stopped asking about coffee. I oscillated between moving—I walked eight, ten, twelve miles each day—and sitting—spending one or two hours at a time in a café, just observing, not using any of the armor that I would at home, like books, or a cell phone, or even a notebook.
In the mornings, I wandered. When a certain café struck my fancy, I stopped and sat down. When you walk up to a restaurant in Serbia, you can sit anywhere. If you inquire about a table’s availability, the waiter will look at you, look around at all the empty tables, look back at you, and then wave his hand to indicate anywhere—you may sit anywhere. If there is a small “Reserved” sign on the table, you should ignore it. There are no reservations.
Once I understood the process, I watched. When an interesting couple would sit down at a table nearby, I would try to interpret conversations using body language and facial expressions—it was surprisingly easy to guess the nature of a relationship—lovers, business partners, friends, acquaintances. When I heard English, I eavesdropped.
One afternoon after walking nearly eight miles along Kneza Mihaila, one of the busiest pedestrian streets in Belgrade, I sat at the first restaurant with an open table outside, Snežana. I was exhausted and hungry, but the place seemed like a touristy restaurant, with a large binder for a menu, so I was skeptical about the food.
I ordered a pizza.
A group of two men and two women were at the table across from mine, speaking an unfamiliar language that wasn’t Slavic. I watched the men drink two bottles of wine, before ordering four large pizzas for the table, and then a round of beers, pivos. The waiter watched them as I did, wondering what they might do or say next, like the lit fuse of a firework.
Heavily-accented English interrupted my imaginings. Two women in their early 20s sat down at the table next to mine, and I listened to their conversation. One of the women lived in Belgrade now, but neither carried themselves with the confidence that Serbian women possessed, women who promenaded on the streets wearing impossibly high heels, flicking their long, dark hair over their shoulders and frowning at men who stare at them.
“You must try the coffee,” the local said to the visitor.
“Is it special?” she asked.
She nodded, and when the waiter appeared, she ordered domaća kafa.
A few minutes later, a copper tray with a džezva appeared, filled with brewed, unfiltered coffee and water, along with two small ceramic cups. As she artfully poured the coffee in the cups, she described the ritual of drinking coffee.
“It’s more than just the coffee,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle here, very important.”
I looked at the table across from mine, and I noticed that the men and women were drinking espressos now, rather sedately. The men spoke softly, so quietly that I couldn’t have understood them even if I spoke their language. The women answered in kind, occasionally raising espresso cups to their mouths where their lipstick stained the white porcelain the color of sangria.
The two women at the other table never ordered any food, but they stayed, talking, until the domaća kafa was cold.
I didn’t order coffee that day, and although I circled the restaurant a few times in the next two days, I never went back while I was in Belgrade. I’d found what I was looking for, but it didn’t seem like it would warm me in the way that I wanted. I was scared that it would just be a cup of coffee, and nothing more, and I needed it to be more.
Rachel Purdy is pursuing an MFA from George Mason University, where she studies creative nonfiction writing. As a recipient of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center fellowship, Rachel traveled to the Balkans, where she started working on her current project, a memoir about family and identity through the lens of coffee and cafés. She has received support from the Key West Writers’ Workshop and is a 2019 Tin House Scholar. Rachel serves as the editor-in-chief of the literary journal phoebe.