Thursday, September 06, 2007

A cup of coffee in the morning…

Russian or Turkish coffee pots; a very good way to make coffee.
Today was Tatyana's day off and so we tried to have a restful day. Tanya has a varied schedule and doesn't generally know when she will have her days off until Sunday. Mostly this is not so problematic but sometimes it can be a bit grating. This last week was one of the more grating periods. The book shop granted Tanya an additional day off for the week when my dad was here but then decided to only give her one day last week to make up the time. That one day off was the previous Tuesday so effectively she ended up working 11 out of the next 12 days so as you can imagine she was a little on the irritable side.

On top of this she has had a remarkable string of bad luck in terms of breaking things and this has been especially true over the last two days. This morning in fact while washing the clothes, she noticed that she had neglected to take her phone out of the pocket first. This was a very traumatic moment as you can imagine. I suggested we should at least pause and have a cup of coffee. However, while moving the breakfast dishes she accidentally knocked the French press coffee maker off the counter, the glass cylinder smashing into several pieces. Trying to be smart about things and understanding that getting to the actual coffee drinking as soon as possible was imperative, I found a glass pitcher in our china cabinet which was about the same diameter as would fit the plunger and offered that as a coffee maker. Unfortunately, this rather attractive glass pitcher was not designed for hot water and promptly cracked as soon as Tanya poured. More tears, more hysteria. So much for coffee.


Actually though, that French press coffee maker carries an interesting story because it was not our first one. We had bought our original French press coffee maker last December and had been in love with the thing. Up until then, coffee had not even been all that important to us. Probably this was because we couldn't make anything even close to a decent cup of coffee. The Russians have two ways of making a cup of coffee; they either simply pour hot water over coffee in a kettle and let it sit or they do a more exotic variation where they they put water and finely ground coffee in a metal cup with a long handle which is then passed through heated sand until it boils, the coffee, grounds and all is then poured into a cup and mixed with a lot of sugar. I guess this is sort of Turkish style but they call it Russian anyway. The cups make nice gifts. But as an American, I prefer a large cup of coffee and so we had been relying on instant coffees, which suck, but which I guess is actually the norm around here. You can't get fresh bread 'till 9:00 anyway so who cares about decent coffee, right?

But once we had decided that we wanted some decent coffee in our lives, last winter we threw caution to the wind, muscled up and bought a French press coffee maker along with a couple of matching glasses. The cost of one of these things is around 38,000 rubles, about $18 and this was a really hard decision to actually part with this much money, just for coffee, but again as having a nice cup of coffee available is one of those basic luxuries (and this is not an oxymoron), the holiday season and the accompanying potential elevation in our humble lifestyle dictated that it was indeed worth it. And we did make good use of the purchase: Literally, our social lives tripled as we not had the ability to "invite friends over for coffee." That 38,000 was not only worth it, it turned out to even be a good investment.

But then one day early this spring for some reason the thing decided to break as we were pouring hot water into it. I don't know why a French press coffee maker should break from having hot water poured into it. Obviously one would think that French press coffee makers would be built specifically to withstand the heat of hot water being poured into it, this being the rasons de être of a French press coffee maker in the first place. More likely though as this was a Russian version of a French press coffee maker it had a different prechin dlya zhizn that being to make as much money as possible, therefore breaking from hot water being poured into it would be a desirable attribute because it necessitates the purchase of another unit.

Regardless of this though I decided not to take this lying down and straight away returned to the place I bought the thing and demanded that I get another French press coffee maker, or at least a replacement glass cylinder. The lady who owns the shop was at first rather hostile to the idea. She did not guarantee her products. She had no idea how the glass cylinder actually broke. She did not even know how we had used the thing. Being the only American in Pinsk has its pluses though and my celebrity status mixed with my refusal to say anything critical of the owner eventually charmed the lady into agreeing that yes, it is a specifically obnoxious happenstance to have a French press coffee maker break because of putting hot water into it. She told me that I could come back after two months, after the next time she goes to Moscow, and she would be happy to replace the unit at that time. During that period I tried writing to the manufacturer, a firm located in Hong Kong and not Moscow, and asking for a replacement cylinder. After my first four requests went unanswered, I told them I was willing to pay for the glass and the postage if only they would be kind enough to send us a replacement. No luck. Still unwilling to part with another 38,000 rubles, I did in fact come back to the store two months later only to find that the store no longer carried French press coffee makers. Apparently, said the owner, the glass cylinder were prone to breaking when people poured hot water into them.

I eventually bought the second one last July during the time when Anya was not at the kindergarten. The reason I mention Anya in this I that by way of trying to keep her amused in the mornings while she was at home, I started taking her shopping with me at the market, an activity she took to like a fish takes to water or a bird takes to the skies. If a dress was the right color or looked like it belonged with something she already had she simply had to have it. And me? Well, cob webs in the wallet or no, I didn't have even close to the coldness necessary to turn the girl down especially when something she fancied matched her shoes or purse. Anyway, it was just after she got a pink skirt with a matching cotton top (there were spangly butterflies on there if I remember) that I realized that Tanya was beginning to get angry because apparently I had money to spend on Anya but not on her. Fearing I would start to take some serious grief about this new skirt and top combo, Egor got some fishing gear and Tanya, well, I sprung for a second French press.


Anyway, this was the model that got swept off the counter this morning. Well as I said Tanya has had this string of bad luck and not enough time off of work so I decided that we should take some time off and go shopping for a new coffee maker. NOT A FRENCH PRESS MIND YOU, I am off those for good, but something to use to make a decent cup of coffee in the morning. Unfortunately though, Tanya's mood was as black a dark Turkish roast and after looking at a couple of different drip Euro-style coffee makers, all of which cost between $35 and $50, she decided to give up. She wasn't interested any more in coffee makers and she would just assume go and buy a box of Nescafe and be done with it. I decided to take a look in one more shop.

This last shop had some interesting things, some nice kettles and even a small percolator, something we had not seen anywhere else. If it had been larger I would have got that. And they also had some long handled Russian boiling pots of about $20 or so. Tanya was telling me that she had had enough and wanted to leave. I was getting angry and was defiantly tired of trying to be nice about things and about spending money I didn't have on stuff I should not have had to buy in the first place, but I started to stare at this one-and-a-half litre sauce pan they had. It was not very pretty; it was made of aluminum, had a cover and a short handle. And it was very cheap; only 11,000 rubles, about five bucks. Just next to it was hanging a little colander with a fine mesh and just next to that were the Russian cups.

A simple sauce pot; just as good
"Let's make the coffee in this." I said. She thought I was pointing to a kettle.

"You're crazy. I won't ruin a nice pot for coffee."

"No, that little pot there with the handle."

"I would never drink anything that came from that."

"Look, what's the difference. It is just like one of those Russian pots only four times cheaper and five times larger."

"I have a headache, I am going home…"

"Listen, it is made of metal. Even if you throw it across the room you can't break this one."

Her face darkened. I could see the muscles of her jaw clench and unclench.

"I would not put this in my house. It is a cheap piece of shit. I would be ashamed to show it to people."

"Well I like it. It is simple, it's cheap and I think it will work."

"You don't care about me do you?" She was now close to tears. "You are crazy. Give me the keys, I am going home!"

That did it. I told the lady to give me the pot and the little colander and paid 14,500 rubles for both. I held up our new coffee pot so Tanya could see it. She turned and marched out of the store. She wouldn't even look at me.

I caught up to her and fell into step along side. We were literally snarling at each other; she at me for buying this "cheap piece of shit" and me at her for being so unreasonable.

"You didn't even understand how those Euro Mr. Coffee machines worked!"

No reply. The troops were amassing at the border for a real battle royal. We were silent all the way through the market but then suddenly on the street just outside the market, we came upon this golden (literally) tea pot which was being sold off the street by the local contrabandists. The contrabandists are private dealers who buy things in foreign countries and sell them near the markets without paying for a place or showing any papers as to where they bought their goods. This coffee/tea pot was probably from Poland. It was all gold and looked like it was maybe made in India or China. What had caught our eye was that when you opened the lid, there was a built in, removable screen where you could put your coffee or tea. The system was simple and Tanya was intrigued. The contrabandists wasted 25,000 rubles.

"Look what they have here waiting for us." Tanya cooed, "This looks like it would make a very nice cup of coffee and it is pretty too" She was being sarcastic and gestured in the direction of my aluminum saucepan and mini-colander.

I was mad. I was really mad. The tea pot was about as ugly as anything I have ever seen. The thought struck me though that because was so ugly, there would probably be some real long term suffering over it being in our possession. Bingo.

"You want it?" I said in Russian.

"You see, this is the sort of thing a woman wants in her house…"

"You want it?"

"An investment in the kitchen is never wasted…"

"You want it?"

"You were so quick to spend the money and look what we could have had…"

"You want it?"

"And now we have only this piece of shit and we don't have the money for this beautiful…

"You want it?" Several of the contrabandists also repeated the question. Tanya stopped, realizing she was now on the spot to make a decision. After a short pause an evil smile crept onto her face. Probably she was thinking that making me pay for this ugly thing would make me suffer. She nodded her head. I quickly counted out the money and put this ugly, cheap, gold plated chunk of crap in our bag and marched. We stopped on the way to get to get some fresh bread and a couple of pastries to go with out "coffee". After the milk store we split up, Tanya going to bring Anya home from kindergarten and me going home to make coffee. There was exactly zero choice as to which coffee maker to use.

The French press: Over rated, over priced and way, way, way too fragile
I dropped in two tablespoons of ground coffee and filled my five-dollar, plain-and-simple aluminum pot with cold, filtered water and set it on the stove to boil. I spooned into our mugs some crème and some concentrated sweet milk and then set our lunch on the table. When the water first boiled, I used a trick I learned from watching someone make Russian coffee once and lifted the pot until the boil settled and then returned it to the flame several times, each time removing it when the rolling boil returned. I then poured the coffee through the strainer and mixed mine and had a sip. Perfect. Better even that anything we ever got out of that damned Russian/French press and cleaner too. Tanya and Anya got home a few minutes later and when she tried it she agreed that it was indeed a fine cup of coffee and after several sips and a few bites of fresh pastry, started to relax a bit. You could see that she felt much better. A good cup of coffee will do that for you. After a few minutes we found ourselves staring at the golden pot.

"It really is ugly, isn't it?"

"Yes it is. You want to bring it back?"

"I would never do it."

"Why not?"

"It's an embarrassment."

"More embarrassing than having it in the kitchen?"

"This is the truth."

"So what are we supposed to do with it?" I asked her.

"You don't want to use it?"

"I wouldn't drink one drop from it if I lived to be a thousand."

"Maybe I can give it to my sister and mother."

"That would be nice. Do you think they will like it?"

"No. But anyway it is nice to receive a gift now and then."

"Tell 'em it is for tea."

More soon…