Monday, May 2, 2011

Budget-Busting Cappuccinos and the Starbucks Addiction

It seems silly to be posting about coffee with all the big news in the world, but it's what I had written before I heard, so here goes.

In each town I visit on this travel-slash-writing journey, I search for a café that has free wi-fi, preferably no smoking inside—though this is not always possible—and room enough for me to take up a table for hours without anyone caring.  Once I find it, I settle in, order a cappuccino and try to write something worth reading.  I do this every day.

For a budget traveler like myself, this daily cappuccino habit can be expensive.  In St. Petersburg and Moscow, for example, just a regular cappuccino cost upwards of 185 rubles—or approximately $6.00—not including tip.  When I ordered my first cappuccino, I thought maybe I didn’t have the exchange rate right.  How could a cappuccino cost more than $6.00?  That was almost half of what I was paying for my hostel bed each night. 

Thankfully the cappuccinos got cheaper as I moved west and south.  In Ukraine, the standard was 28 gryvnas, or about $3.50 US.  In Poland, cappuccinos dropped to the $3.00 range; Bulgaria, $2.15; Macedonia; $2.00; Kosovo, $1.40.  Recently I jumped back up in Montenegro, where the average cappuccino is 1.50 €.  Unfortunately the dollar has weakened against the Euro since the start of this trip, so what would have been a $2.07 cup of coffee two months ago, is now $2.22.

As I write this I am sitting in a restaurant called Parma in Budva, Montenegro.  The cappuccino here cost 1 Euro.  Unfortunately, it tastes like nasty coffee water.

This brings me to the consistent nature of the coffee in these parts.  In short, it’s hit or miss.  Sometimes the cappuccinos are well made and delicious, and sometimes they taste like bitter garbage.  I don’t know the science behind it; I think it has something to do with the pulling of the espresso shot, or so I was once told.  All I know is that it’s a real gut-burner when you’re paying upwards of $6.00 for a crap-cappuccino. But do you think I ever asked an already-grumpy Russian to remake it?  Hell no is the answer on that one. 

Here’s kind of a weird thing.  In a lot of places, and especially in the western Balkans like in Macedonia, I’ll order a cappuccino and it will come with, literally, a mound of whipped cream and chocolate drizzled on top.  I’m talking about a regular cappuccino off the menu.  Sometimes they just drizzle chocolate over the foam without the whipped cream.  So if you don’t want that, you have to specify, “no cream” and “no chocolate.”  Sometimes I forget, and spend the rest of the day bouncing off the walls from the combined sugar-and-caffeine rush.

Turkish coffee is also popular in these parts.  It’s not easy to make, and involves the skillful boiling of water over finely-ground beans in a small copper or metal container.  It’s then doled out into small cups.  It takes forever to make, so you don’t want to order one at the bus station when you only have a five-minute break.  Of course, this happened to me, and I burned my tongue trying to down it before the bus pulled out.

Turkish coffee has a very distinct taste.  It’s really strong and the perfect pick-me-up, but the problem is the leftover coffee sediment at the bottom.  You have to know when to stop drinking, otherwise you’ll get a mouthful of disgusting coffee sludge in the end.  It’s definitely a challenge for someone—like me—obsessed with getting her money’s worth by drinking every last drop.

Perhaps the most coffee kudos go to the Kosovars.  Their coffee specialty is the macchiato, which is very similar to a wet cappuccino, but slightly smaller.  It cost 1 € in the restaurant where I visited each day—the Rings Café on Nene Tereza Street—but you can get it in less-touristy-more-local places for as low as .40 €.   The macchiatos in Kosovo were, without exception, always enjoyable.

Also, around here they don’t use filter coffeemakers like we do in America.  Usually, at “home” in the hostel, the only option is instant Nescafé, kind of like instant Maxwell House.  For some reason, this never tastes good.   For one thing, there is no half-and-half to be found and the milk here tastes really funny to my American palate.  I was told this is because it’s ultra-pasteurized—so it won’t go bad if you let it sit out.  In fact, the milk here it is often not refrigerated and just sits on the counter day and night.

Usually the milk is okay, but then there was yesterday morning.  I heated up water in the kettle for a cup of instant Nescafé and poured a little milk into a glass to taste it first.  The milk was completely sour.  Immediately I spit it out, spewing sour milk curdles all over the hostel’s kitchen sink.  I felt sick, and longed for a Starbucks. 

Speaking of which, it has been 43 days since I’ve had a Starbucks coffee, and 142 days since I’ve had one in America.  I encountered Starbucks in only four of the more than twenty cities visited on this go-round:  Moscow, Krakow, Warsaw, and Sofia.  I went to each one I found, and things tasted fairly the same, but for some reason, going to the foreign Starbucks made me extremely homesick.  I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t sit in a place so familiar-looking and listen to all the foreign-language chatter around me.  It just magnified the away-ness of it all.  It especially made me miss Phil and Liz, my personal Starbucks baristas in El Segundo, California, who are supposed to be following my blog.  (Are you?)

Moscow, Russia

Starbucks sign--Moscow--advertising holiday drinks.

Inside Krakow, Poland Starbucks.

Outside Warsaw, Poland Starbucks.

Sometimes I think maybe I’ve broken my addiction to Starbucks just by virtue of being away for so long.  But let’s face reality:  my first day back in America I’ll be standing right there in line, waiting for my morning fix.  I think I've definitely experienced a specific Starbucks-withdrawal over these past months, which has led me to believe that perhaps they put a little something extra in their coffee to keep me hooked.  I have no proof of course; just a strong suspicion, and a serious jones.