A Cup of Turkish Coffee

Sometimes a cup of coffee offers much more than we had previously imagined, as Joan Leotta recalls.

Anxious to cross into Asia, to be able to say, “We have traveled beyond Europe,” my mother and I took the ferry across the Bosphorus, the body of water that divides the city of Istanbul into twin cities—one in Europe and one in Asia.  We had no place in mind to visit. Our plan was to get off at the first stop on the Asian continent, just long enough to sip a cup of coffee while we waited  the twenty minutes until the ferry chugged back to our stop, ready to return to the European side of the city. 

We watched the café owner pour thick sweet coffee from a cezve, into china liners set into matching brass cup holders. He chatted with us in broken English, telling us about his life and Turkish history. We listened, carefully, with ears becoming more attuned to his accent with each sip of the thick liquid. Other customers then commanded his attention and we were left to admire the water while we waited for our ride back to Europe.

It was almost time for the return ferry when our new friend came over to retrieve our cups.  

“Let me tell your future from the coffee grounds,” he offered. We smiled and nodded assent. He bent over the cups to “read” the remaining swirled, muddy grounds.  

Looking up, he announced, “I predict a trip.”  

I clapped my hands in appreciation. He bowed and then explained a bit of what he called, “basic reading techniques.”

We shook hands and then fulfilled his prophecy by boarding our ferry to ride back across to the European side of the city, glad for our conversations with him and chuckling over his brief efforts to train me in the art of fortune telling by reading coffee grounds.   

Back in the European quarters of Istanbul, we then walked to the main Istanbul bazaar. We browsed, loitered, bargained until, having fulfilled every possible, even imagined, need for souvenirs, we decided we wanted lunch.

My mother asked the rug seller to recommend a place for us to eat. We had purchased a miniature from him for a dollhouse. He suggested the café inside the bazaar.  So, we meandered through the booths and aisles, dodging other merchants until we reached the bazaar café. 

Truly a local place, there was no table service. The cafeteria line offered kabobs, lamb stew, rice, and something that looked like eggplant and lentils. Local food for local people—and food my mother and I loved. We loaded our plates with lamb and rice, requested mint tea at the drink station at the end of the line.

Mostly men sat at the communal tables—a few workers and some who appeared to be students. My mother asked, in the universal language of gestures, if we could join the group at one table. The workers nodded to us. The workers seemed a bit uncomfortable over two strange women sitting with them. The students did not seem to mind, save one.

That one, an angry young man, stopped eating when we sat down and proceeded, as we ate, to harangue us, in English, gesturing wildly with his fork as he spoke.  

“You Americans do not appreciate our culture. You Americans do not like Turkey. You Americans….” 

We had listened patiently through the first two of his accusations but before he could assail us with a third, my redheaded mother (who never heard an argument she would not join), jumped into the fray, making it a conversation, albeit a loud one. 

“I love Turkey,” she replied at the same volume as the angry young man. Smiling, she added, “My daughter loves Turkey too.” I nodded in agreement.  We then proceeded to tell him of our love of Turkish cuisine. We also tossed into the verbal fray, the bits and pieces of Turkish history we knew—Kamal Ataturk, Hagia Sophia. 

The young man put down his fork. As my mother continued, green eyes sparkling, to tell of her enchantment with his land, he returned to his lunch. Still attentive to my mother’s ongoing explanation of how much we liked Turkey, he ate a few mouthfuls and then spoke again, the  volume now a little lower. “Well, maybe not all Americans,” he finally admitted. My mother was a difficult force to resist.

Then he, my mother, the workers and I began to chat, going back and forth about America and Turkey, same and different customs, talking across the Bosphorus of our divergent lives until laughter replaced anger and discomfort at the table. 

I went back to the drink station and ordered coffee for all at the table. A few of the workers had to leave but the other workers and all three of the students spent some more time talking. When we were finally ready to leave, I tried to scan the young man’s cup, to surreptitiously read his coffee grounds. His hand was in the way. I only hope that his future spoke of life with a softer heart. 

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