The bustling sounds of the cafe swirl together with the pleasant aroma of freshly-baked croissants and imported coffee. I sit on a barstool that’s too tall for me; fingers drumming idly against the hardwood countertop as the Torontonians mill outside in the sub-zero weather. After I grab my drink, the barista and I exchange smiles as I retreat back to my perch; content to people-watch in the wifi-free cafe. The couple in the corner share a mocha, the vivacious group of teens fool around with their whipped cream; swiping dollops off each others’ cups. The child shrieks as he burns his tongue on the hot chocolate and his mother laughs as she braves a sip of her coffee. I sit happily with my elbows propped up against the table and my London Fog in one hand. With each sip, the warmth spreads throughout my body, imbuing me with newfound strength like a gentle hug. My body relaxes; exhausted after a long day of school, and my mind slips back into buried memories of places I’ve been. Places that don’t even seem real to me now.
Tea and coffee, it’s so simple, isn’t it? Something so pure, a part of lives across the globe. Six places. Six experiences. Wildly different, yet all united by a common thread.
In Toronto, it’s routine. The amorphous blob of commuters rushing through Union Station, snippets of conversation flitting through the air like butterflies. There’s a small stand in the corner by the GO train platforms, tucked away and temporary.
In Toronto, coffee and tea are usually just means to an end. The byproducts of study sessions at Starbucks, furious all-nighters, the nervous hours before an exam. Simply for the aesthetic sometimes, the look of having a drink in your hand. It’s that thing you only drink for the little boost of caffeine; a stimulant to keep you awake. The drink is only there as a necessity to keep you awake in the morning, keep you running through the day.
Of course, there’s beauty in it as well. Beauty in holding the cup close to your face, the steam warming frozen skin as you chat with your friend. There’s the beauty of being a regular at a local coffee shop, the barista knowing exactly what you enjoy.
The whole notion of bigger is better, with the fancy lattes and frappuccinos. Drinks that are almost as much sugar and fake saccharine syrups as they are coffee, but to some, they still taste wonderful. There’s that amiable, beautiful culture of individuality in places, accented with the warm, inviting aroma that welcomes you with wide-open arms.
In Saudi Arabia, it’s pure. قهوة عربية (qahwah arabiyya) they call it; Arabic coffee. Served in ornate tea sets, gold handles and shining teacups that sparkle as if touched by the stars themselves. The beauty is in the serving of it, not simply the drink. It’s constantly there, at breakfasts and social gatherings, served in those elaborate glasses.
The drink itself is bitter and dark, a pitch black colour that mirrors the night sky. An acerbic liquid that flows down your throat, the taste of sugar notably absent. It’s not unpleasant in the slightest, it brings a certain aroma of purity, tainted only slightly with hints of cardamom, and other rich Middle Eastern spices.
In Italy, it’s espresso served in cups smaller than the palm of your hand. Somewhere off the coast of Positano, there are jagged cliffs where small vibrant houses in a stunning array of colours sit. At the place where the cliffs meet the vast expanse of glistening water, there is a small town. Lemon trees and small dinghies dot the shoreline where a coffee shop sits, filled with neighbourhood residents and tourists alike.
Some old men lounge there, on creaky white plastic chairs under a large umbrella (although it is not raining or sunny) with small cups of late-afternoon espresso in their hands. They’re talking animatedly, catching up on something I will never know.
It’s a bitter sharp taste, strong with a smell that packs a punch. It can be downed quickly, and gets your head buzzing a million miles an hour. I’ve always found the machines the most fascinating, though. Hulking contraptions of gleaming metal; hissing, steaming, brewing, and doing all sorts of fantastic things that somehow translate into a wonderful cup of coffee.
The coffee itself is so varied, based on the different times of the day. Milky is for the morning, and espresso is for any time of day. It’s as much of a social call as it is a drink, and the delicious coffee is as smooth as the words of the company brought by friends and family.
In Istanbul, Turkey, it’s black tea, and the most delicious apple tea I have tasted to date. It’s not just a drink there, it’s a way of greeting, so ingrained in that society it’s almost considered rude to refuse.
Walk into the lobby of a boutique hotel to check in? Why yes, I would love some tea!
The tinkling sound of silver chimes as the door to a carpet shop opens, and suddenly a tea-tray with small cups of black tea appears. Glasses that curl perfectly in the palm of your hand and golden spoons with ornate handles to stir in saffron sugar cubes. Sitting on plush cushions, surrounded by hand-woven oriental carpets of deep, royal colours, the sweet tea gives way to soft conversation, doted with the sharp notes of the drink.
The tiny glasses are practically expected, wherever you go. It’s the famous tea, or apple tea if you’re young, that marks the conversation and the experience in every new place.
Bottomless, tinted with an array of different spices, each sip like fireworks of flavour in your mouth.
Prepared with the utmost care, shaken with a perfectly steady hand, pride taken in a good cup of a drink that’s synonymous with the country itself. It’s part of the culture, with its absolutely gorgeous flavours, so prominent wherever you go.
So simple, yet it’s still such a specific taste; one that you yearn for even when it’s been years. It’s world famous and so divine that even when you barely remember what it was, you still recall that it was something beautiful.
In Egypt, it’s strong and sweet, with a pitch black colour. The light feeling of the Egyptian tea and copious amounts of sugar taste good together, the black tea exciting your taste buds all the way through.
It’s a strange idea, drinking scalding tea in a boiling hot country, yet somehow the liquid feels good against the blistering heat, the sandy expanse.
It’s a hazy memory, of a warm day and the sight of towering pyramids in the distance. The smell of sand and fresh sizzling meat on the jam-packed streets of Cairo. The thick scent of car exhaust fumes mixed with that of the perfume stores. A small side-of-the-road restaurant with a neon orange shopfront that served the creamiest pasta, and a bittersweet black tea that came in small yellow satchets.
At home, it’s achingly familiar, a presence I haven’t lived without. Pakistani chai; half milk, half strongly brewed black tea, and some white sugar. A dark caramel colour, and a smooth milkiness that tastes like home.
I’ve been carrying it for as long as I can remember. In the evenings, to my parents, at functions, to my family. After dinner, there’s always a call around the group as to who wants tea, and at a certain age, it’s almost a proud feeling when you get asked, like you’re now officially a bit older.
It’s not like it is in Toronto’s culture, where you have to be “old enough” to drink caffeine. My childhood was dotted with sips, it was a conversation piece. It’s not so much as something to keep you going fast, it’s something to slow down upon. Siting with a cup of tea in your hand, surrounded by friends and family, the floating feeling of fervent joy invoked by being surrounded by loved ones. That’s the feeling that accompanies tea in my culture.
It’s sweet and creamy, not bitter, fruity, or ridden with any exotic spices. It runs across your tongue like the smoothest honey and scalds your tongue if you drink it too early. It’s the mark of happy post-dinner conversation, stretching late into the dwindling evening.
As rich in history as they are in taste, these drinks stretch across continents, political lines, and cultural divides. We’re brought together by this simple act, the drinking of tea or coffee. And it varies so much among the 7+ billion people on this earth.
Tea, chai, te, thee, شاي, thé, coffee, espresso, قهوة عربية, café, kaffe, kava, kafè, whatever it is you call it, we all love to drink it. It’s so familiar, to so many people, and it’s unbelievably exciting to see how it tastes in the countless other places across the world.
I savour the last sip of my tea latte, watching the residue of the tea leaves and the moisture at the bottom of the cup run together like ink on a wet paper. The cafe seems silent for a moment, all the little conversations are just background noise as my mind wanders back to all the places I’ve seen. I smile, and think fondly about everywhere else I have yet to see.
So let’s go.
Alisha Ahmed is a high schooler from Toronto, Canada. She loves long car rides with friends, the view of the city at night, stargazing, and going to different cafes in cities around the world. Alisha can often be spotted thriving at the library or in a bookstore, curled up in a corner reading The Great Gatsby while drinking a mug of black tea. Her work is forthcoming in Advance, Three Drops from a Cauldron, and Plum Tree Tavern.