Café notes: Coffee, the Congo, and Lynn Nottage’s play, “Ruined”

I had a great cup of single origin Congo Ituri coffee at the mall last week.

NZ restaurant espresso - 1This is remarkable for several reasons:

  • First, I was at the mall.*
  • Second, I got a great cup of specialty coffee therein.
  • Third, my beautiful pour over arrived with a side order of coincidence.

I simply haven’t the foodie palate or terminology to give you a better explanation for why my cup of coffee was so great, but the barista on duty that day was particularly knowledgeable. He probably prepared my cup with great skill. Certainly the flavor profile of the beans and the roast landed right in the sweet spot for my tastes.

What struck me as I sat down in the café with my cup and opened my library book was the coincidence. Here’s the top of the first page of Lynn Nottage’s play, Ruined, setting the scene:

“ACT ONE, Scene 1: A small mining town. The sounds of the tropical Ituri rain forest. Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

The tropical Ituri rain forest? It rang a bell. I went back up to the café counter and read the menu board once more.

That day, the Nordstrom Espresso Bar was offering a Congo Ituri microlot coffee in the light roast** I prefer. Probably why I’d chosen it from amongst several offerings, including a light roast Kona I’ve enjoyed before.

I drink Ethiopian Yirgacheffe pretty often, and regularly select it preferentially, but I haven’t hit upon another African region for beans that’s become a steady favorite. I’ll certainly seek out more Congolese coffees moving forward, however, on the strength of this one notably wonderful cup.

But here are a few painful questions that I can’t answer, all stimulated by the tough subject matter of Nottage’s play that I read while sipping said cup.

  • How sustainable is coffee cultivation in DR Congo?
  • Does coffee cultivation there typically help the Congolese people, and especially the vulnerable women of Congo whose plight is underscored in Ruined? Is it a path helping average people rise above the legacy of the nation’s bloody civil wars?
  • Are major brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks doing enough to support the individual coffee farmer in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or are these rich corporations paying less than they should for their beans because they’ve got the might to get away with it?

Honestly, I can’t answer any of these questions after a few days of searching.

Coffee is a delight to me. It is one of my daily pleasures, and, yes, a minor addiction. Coffee is also one the world’s most valuable legal commodities, like petroleum or precious metals. It’s big business on the order of tens of billions of dollars per year, and the needs of the coffee plant itself dictate that it be grown in what are often unstable, developing regions.

It can be hard to evaluate for oneself whether a coffee purchase meets one’s personal standards for ethical sales, environmental sustainability, etc.

Thanksgiving Coffee bean package of Ethiopia YirgacheffeThanksgiving Coffee, an artisan roaster I’ve patronized many times, encapsulates best what a consumer like me seeks with their motto: Not Just a Cup, but a Just Cup. I want to drink great coffee, but I’d prefer not to do so on the backs of modern day slaves.

Nottage’s Ruined is not, I should add, a play about coffee. Its setting is a bar/brothel, and beer, whiskey, and Fanta are the beverages I recall from the script. The subject matter is intense, and should be painful to anyone with an interest in social justice. Or to anyone with a heart.

Like other works I’ve read/seen by this playwright, Ruined is a story about women getting by in a world where someone else wields most of the power. It’s a tale of making do with one’s terrible circumstances, and coming to terms with it all as best as one can.

One needn’t look as far as the Congo to find such injustice and resilience, either. We’ve got plenty of it here at home in America. One of the best plays I’ve seen performed this decade was Nottage’s Sweat*** at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Aside from being a masterful work in and of itself, Sweat also inspired an “immersive transmedia” art project This is Reading in Reading, PA, the Rust Belt setting for that tale of struggle.

It can be hard to unravel the threads of thoughtful consumption in an era of broad scale multinational trade. You could give up completely, or simply begin where you can: by asking questions, and by sharing what you learn. My quick research into coffee farming in the Congo led me to more new questions than answers. Yours may yield better fruit.

Where we all benefit is by calling attention to those with less power than ourselves, and making even small efforts to do them good. Our strength increases with numbers; so, too, does our ability to enact positive change.

*The mall is not my natural habitat.

**As I understand it, it is easier to identify the flavorful nuances of a particular bean when the roast is lighter. I think I’m looking for extra complexity in my cup.

It’s a common misconception that dark roast coffee is “stronger” in every way than light. Roasting destroys some of the caffeine in the beans, so breakfast blends are usually a medium roast to maintain their power to perk!

Dark roast coffee has a deeper color, but it isn’t stronger in every sense of the word.

A few days later, I found two distinct Reserve varietals from different regions of the Congo at a local Starbucks with a Clover machine (used for making specialty single brews and not offered at most locations.) I enjoyed a cup of Idjwi Island Reserve, but not quite as much as the Nordstrom Congo Ituri.

But NOT the world’s second most valuable commodity, as you’ll see misstated all over the internet. My brief bit of research suggests that was true back in the 1970’s or so, but hasn’t been factual for quite some time. If you want to read more, try this article.

***And, in what has been my favorite performance in years, I must draw attention to the quiet dignity of actor Carlo Albán who traveled with Sweat from its world premiere at OSF to New York City. He played an often nearly invisible busboy in the play, usually reacting to the “bigger” characters swirling around him, and did it with such a beautiful, aching intensity that I was frankly honored to spend a few hours with him at an OSF dinner later on. I’m not the only one who was similarly affected by Mr. Albán!

Café notes: Brew Lab Coffee, Edinburgh, Scotland

Fortified—or, perhaps, better described as “fat-ified”—with a salted caramel doughnut, I embarked upon the best espresso I’ve yet tried in the UK at Brew Lab Coffee.

doughnut on plateespresso with foam art served with sparkling waterBrew Lab is in Edinburgh, Scotland, an easy walk from the tourist madness of the Royal Mile. Located near a university, its clientele seemed to consist mostly of students and…pregnant ladies.

These notable women may also be students, but I was mildly amused to find myself seated next to someone immensely gravid on both of my visits. And, no, it wasn’t the same woman, unless she was a Mission: Impossible spy wearing an unimaginably perfect fake face. I think it is safe to describe Brew Lab Coffee as a family friendly establishment.

It is also a “coffee snob friendly” cafe. I find the coffee shops I wish to visit when traveling by searching for “single origin espresso.”

coffee shop menu board featuring espresso from Colombia and Peru

I’m not so elite a coffee snob that I refuse to drink any blend of beans, but I do find that the overall beverage quality is higher in shops that at least offer the option of exclusivity. Brew Lab Coffee features two different kinds of beans at the espresso bar: one for straight, black shots, and another for drinks blended with milk. That’s a clear marker that the drinks are going to be good.

And, yes! Yes, their espresso drinks are excellent. It is well worth a moderate walk up and down Edinburgh’s ubiquitous hills, through sometimes heavy rain, past a multitude of other shops offering fair espresso, and even with arthritic feet. Brew Lab’s coffee was so good, I did not explore the other fine options I read about online, but returned to savor it again.

heavy rain falling outside cafe doorcafe interior made of old stone, brick, and reclaimed wood

As luck would have it, Brew Lab Coffee is as charming a setting for a good sip as it is competent in the making of one’s drink. Like much of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the visitor will feel steeped in history here. The cafe’s brick walls and reclaimed wood elements are atmospheric, warm, and inviting. The warren-like layout offers cozy corners enough for all patrons, though admittedly this may not be the best hangout for those with extreme claustrophobia.

Hints of the space’s former use as an office remain in the rather cheeky access to the men’s toilets. I felt a bit indelicate photographing it as the large window offers a rather generous view. I liked the “Meeting in Progress” sign, however, and risked my Victorian sensibilities and the poor gents’ modesty with a quick snapshot.

phone displaying map to Brew Lab Coffee shop

Brew Lab Coffee is located at 6-8 South College Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AA. It’s open seven days a week, and worth the walk from the Royal Mile.

http://www.brewlabcoffee.co.uk

info@brewlabcoffee.co.uk

0131 662 8963

And two more coffee varietals for pour overs at their brew bar, making four types in total. I stuck with my preferred straight espresso shots having only a few days in Edinburgh and a tragically low threshold for caffeine consumption.

Early arrival to Iceland’s KEF (Reykjavik) airport should be followed by a trip to the pool

Flights from the USA to Iceland typically arrive at KEF very early in the morning.

Though KEF is often referred to as “Reykjavik” airport for marketing purposes, it is actually 45 minutes outside the capital in the city of Keflavik. There is a smaller city airport that handles short flights from Reykjavik proper, but that is irrelevant to most international visitors except, perhaps, those from Greenland.

“Very early” on my two flights to Iceland meant before 6 am. At least in June unlike March, this was after sunrise.

Food & transport from the airport

KEF is a fairly nice airport. It is modern and well designed. Though it could use more water bottle filler fountains. Iceland, however, is a tiny island nation with a population of just a few hundred thousand people.

Keflavik isn’t New York City. This isn’t a 24 hour kind of town. Even Reykjavik itself, where the majority of the nation’s citizens live, doesn’t offer too much for the tourist before 8 or 9 am.

Sporty types who don’t suffer jet lag so badly could take a lovely walk or hike. Nature, in June, is open 20+ hours per day.

The wrong way to arrive: witless & unprepared

On our first visit, the kids and I rode the FlyBus from the airport to our hotel. Naturally, our room wasn’t ready yet just past 8:00. After all, typical check in times are in the early afternoon.

We sat in the lobby staring dumbly at the poor receptionist, and she did get us into our room by about 9:30 am. It was a miserable first couple of hours in a new place, however.

Icelandic pastry

A typical Icelandic pastry, according to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor

The kids were too tired to even go in search of pastries when the receptionist suggested a bakery nearby!

Better alternative: ready to meet bodily needs

Having a much better idea of what to expect upon arrival, I planned more wisely for our second trip to Iceland. Of course, it helped that it was just me and my now teenaged son. He’s reached a stage of offering more help than he requires, especially when it comes to schlepping heavy luggage about.

I was going to rely upon public transit options again, but decided on a rental car at the last minute.

We could have reached a public pool via mass transit and reasonable walks, but it would have been one nearer our lodging and after taking the FlyBus away from the airport.

Rental car freedom

The forecast called for chilly days (in the low 40’s F) and plenty of clouds and rain… in mid June.

There was also a museum I’d wished to visit on the first go ’round that remained just as difficult to access without a car. It was so tantalizingly close to the airport… but the city bus only ran from there back to Hafnarfjördur and Reykjavik every two hours. Missing it would mean a very expensive taxi ride, in the ballpark of the auto rental cost, or an unacceptably long wait.

If I found myself so exhausted from the flight that I couldn’t drive safely, I determined we would nap in the car for an hour or so before leaving the grounds of the airport. I felt better having a backup plan in place, even one in which I felt like a bit of a vagabond.

Even if you dislike driving a strange car in a foreign country, it is pretty manageable in Iceland. Traffic is light, eliminating the thing I hate most about driving near my suburban home in the USA.

Icelandic drivers rank, en masse, somewhere in the middle of the pack I’ve experienced worldwide for road manners; they aren’t as courteous as Oregonians, but behave less aggressively than New Yorkers. There’s none of the insanity of Rome or Israel.

While road signs are in Icelandic and can throw you for a loop, most turns on major roads are roundabouts, so you can just keep circling while your child navigator figures out the way, or rely upon the GPS who will mangle the Icelandic language for all s/he/it is worth so you can enjoy a good laugh while you are circling the rotary for the fourth time.

Between Iceland’s major airport and capital, road conditions are good. Consider that “possible weather events excepted,” of course, but, even in Iceland, those are somewhat less risky in June.

Breakfast at KEF: not many options

I’d already determined from my online research that buying an espresso and sandwich or pastry on site before heading out would be our likeliest spot for a very early breakfast. There is a Dunkin’ Donuts branded cafe after customs at KEF arrivals, co-located with a convenience store.

Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t open until 8:00. The people of New England will be outraged when they learn of this. Dunkin’ Donuts is bizarrely popular where I live.

Joe & the Juice was doing a brisk business, though, and it was also quite near the car rental kiosks. A turkey and pesto sandwich (hold the mozzarella for DS’s lactose intolerance) helped kick start our groggy metabolisms. Yeah, the espresso helped a bit, too! A packaged caramel muffin proved a necessary adjunct for the voracious teen.

The museum was only 15 minutes or so from KEF, but it didn’t open until 8 am. Even taking our tiiiiiiiiime at the airport, we would be at least an hour earlier than the door opened. Plus, I knew I’d feel grungy and sore after sleeping in a cramped Icelandair Economy seat.

Note: the seats have really gone downhill on Icelandair between Boston and Keflavik. I think this was the worst seat I’ve ever had for legroom. I was disappointed, remembering this otherwise nice airline as much, much better a few years ago!

Does jet lag wash off?

The solution was the local pool, Reykjanes Swimming Center/Waterworld. It was only about ten minutes from the airport, and that includes time spent driving around a construction project that barred the GPS’s suggested route. Note: this is easy driving, too, with very light traffic. I hate using rental cars, but hardly minded it, even jet lagged, stiff and sore, and in a city I’d never visited before.

Americans, take note: this is more like your local YMCA pool than the “Waterworld” name might imply. Yes, there is one waterslide and a children’s activity room indoors, but both of those were closed during our 7 am visit. The facilities were quite nice and up to date, but nothing like a theme park.

There are a few major benefits to hitting the pool first thing. For me, having a chance to wash my hair before sightseeing was a big one. My morning shower is an integral part of my waking up ritual. It helps me to feel like myself.

Next in importance to me is having somewhere to go before I can check in to my hotel anyway. I’m not a skulker or “see what I can get away with” kind of a person. I’m careful and rule abiding. I don’t want to nap by the side of the road or in an airport, but I’m also not up to much more than a good nap after a night flight.

Visiting an Icelandic city pool offers a great insight into what regular, everyday life is like for people here. It isn’t just hardcore lap swimmers and toddlers taking lessons like I’d see on a weekday morning at my local YMCA. Icelanders are socializing and meeting up in the water.

There were more retirees represented than any other age group at this hour and in this neighborhood, though.

The abundance of cheap geothermal energy from the volcanic activity underfoot means outdoor pools are heated to comfortable temperatures no matter how cold the air temperature is that day. In addition to a moderately warm heated pool (cooler on the lap swimming side), there have been multiple hot tubs (locally translated as “hot pots”) at each facility I’ve visited as well.

Waterworld had three: 36-39 C in both shallow and deep varieties and 41-43 C with the deeper sitting depth.

I believe there was also a cold plunge pool, but the object I guessed to be such wasn’t labeled with a sign and there was no temperature posted to help me confirm my guess. One guy climbed into whatever that was, however.

Having traveled with so much discomfort up front that I failed to raise my arms high enough for the TSA cancer inducer body scanner to clear me as a terrorist threat, I was less than limber upon arrival. I spent every minute past the safety briefing of my too-short-for-a-night’s-sleep five hour flight in fitful sleep, but it wasn’t restorative. I struggled to reach my feet for the required soapy shower before going into an Icelandic pool.

At that point, the hot pots offered unmitigated bliss.

While our two night stopover in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland, was designed primarily to ease my travel related pain and jet lag (i.e., it wasn’t intense or highly scheduled), I do believe that hitting the pools provided a soothing balm to both of these maladies.

Warm water is obviously going to ease joint pain. So does reducing one’s experience of gravity due to buoyancy, of course. But the effect upon jet lag was just as profound and somewhat less expected. I suppose the combination of light exercise and being outdoors under the sun in the morning explains most of it.

Read more about what foreigners should expect at an Icelandic public swimming pool, especially for those of us with mild mobility impairments who wonder about handicapped or otherwise accessible accommodations in the facilities.

Prevalent smoking should, perhaps, keep you from visiting Austria

Austria is a lovely place to visit. It has gorgeous scenery, world class art and architecture to enjoy, and a population that generally struck me as warm and welcoming.

img_0895Bilingual acquaintances from the German language learning camp in Minnesota we attended told us that we would be given more opportunity to practice our speaking skills in Austria when compared with Germany. I found this to be true.

Austrians were, as a rule, friendly and helpful. They really didn’t immediately switch to English when they heard my attempts to speak deutsch. (Germans generally do, in my experience. And, yes, their English is better than my German, almost to the man, and woman, and very small child...)

 

Perhaps the one overriding negative experienced by an American tourist in Österreich—if the language barrier is a benefit to you as it is to me, as opposed to a real barrier—is the constant exposure to second hand smoke.

img_1055.jpgI’m old enough to remember the bad old days of smoking sections in the closed compartment of an airplane, though, thankfully, those disappeared before I began flying several times per year to attend college. Smoky bars and restaurants where I wouldn’t go with my friends due to air pollution were a real issue well into my young adulthood.

Being in Austria is like being transported into the past in this regard. It took me several days to adjust. Young people in the USA today probably don’t have the adaptive response to scope out a cafe before taking a seat lest one inadvertently land in the stinking smoking section.

Though there was some Austrian legislation enacted in recent years to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants, I still experienced unpleasantly smoky interiors several times during my trip.

Worse yet, it seems that Austrians don’t feel a need to segregate outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers in any way. Some of us are sensitive enough that, no, even being seated the great outdoors is not enough to make it okay to sit at a table adjacent to or downwind from an active smoker.

My eyes water, and I start to cough. It’s not posturing; the smoke simply does affect me that quickly. My tearing eyes swelling shut and the irritation in my throat make me look around for the source, not the other way around.

Worse yet, because smoking is taken so much for granted in Austria, newcomers into a restaurant or onto a terrace who plan to smoke don’t think to take seats at a maximum distance from non-smokers who are already there. Try though I did to sit “far away” from all the smokers in otherwise lovely cafes, I was constantly being smoked out by new arrivals in Austria.

img_9405

These polite Austrian smokers sat at the stern of our pleasure cruise ship on the Danube, but the entire open top deck stank of cigar smoke from one man sitting forward at the bow

I gather that the xenophobic right wing government* currently in power is working to defend the rights of smokers even more violently valiantly in Austria. What a tragedy for the health of Austria’s citizens. Because, while I am easily swayed by libertarian arguments on many issues, smoking is simply not the same as free thought or speech.

The smoker has at least the option of a filter between himself and the known carcinogen he opts to ignite and inhale; standing nearby, my right to breathe freely is stolen from me.

Smoking in public places fundamentally infringes on the health and safety of others in the space. There are few other vices so directly malevolent to the public good.

Heavy drinker? While you could overindulge and vomit onto my shoes, you may be a quiet, maudlin drunk and not affect me at all. There is no equivalent for smokers. Anyone in the presence of a lit cigarette is being affected; the only remedy is to leave.

When someone invents the “smoker’s spacesuit” that operates with complete isolation of its user’s air supply and exhaust, there will be room to discuss the rights of smokers to light up in crowded public spaces.

I acknowledge your right to smoke, but I’d say the responsibility you shoulder when exercising that right is to maintain a great distance between yourself and others while you do so. The fact that you can no longer smell smoke from a few feet away is a part of the burden you’ve elected to carry with your habit; healthy people can be negatively affected at a dozen feet or more.

I was charmed by many kind, witty, thoughtful Austrians whom I encountered there. It was otherwise a wonderful place to visit, and there are many sights around the country I’d love to come back to see. Until a more modern and health-conscious public smoking policy has been enacted, however, I will probably stay away, and I would most certainly never take my asthmatic child to such a dangerous place.

Schade. What a shame.

*Self styled as the “Freedom Party,” though formed by former Nazi party members after WWII. Once again, do we see the same party harming others to grant themselves more freedom to enjoy their own lives?

A NY Times article I read while writing this post goes into more details of the political situation.

Kvikk Cafe at KEF airport is not so quick, but the server may fill your water bottle if you ask

Maybe Kvikk is Icelandic for, “Learn patience, grasshopper.”

I timed it: 13 minutes waiting in line to pay for a coffee drink I then needed to make myself at an automatic espresso dispenser at the Kvikk Cafe in KEF (Keflavik airport serving Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik.)

It wasn’t the best cafe experience I enjoyed during my second visit to Iceland.

At least a Kvikk Cafe purchase earns you a seat nearer to the C gates.

Like many European airports, there is no seating at most of the gates themselves. Presumably, you’re expected to wait and spend lavishly in the large commercial hall you pass through after the obligatory* Duty Free Cathedral Promenade.

Customer service in Iceland is usually very good and seems always to be given with courtesy and a warm smile. Servers at Kvikk Cafe may also fill your water bottle from their tap behind the counter if you ask nicely after the crowd thins out.

Tap water is Iceland is some of the best tasting water you will ever enjoy. Mysteriously in light of this fact, the Icelanders overlooked installation of bottle filler fountains when they upgraded their major airport in recent years to meet the demands of the tourist boom.

Perhaps they thought they weren’t needed since filtering wasn’t a requirement? But I saw no drinking fountains in KEF, either. I avoid buying bottled water on principle most of the time; in Iceland, the idea is positively outrageous.

If anyone knows of a drinking fountain anywhere in Keflavik airport, please share this information in the comments.

water fountain bottle filler - 1

Water fountain with bottle filler

Update: We found one bottle filler on our return flight via KEF! Look near the toilets in the food court.

Your alternative? The bathroom taps, but they are the automatic style and only dispense heated water. It will probably still taste better than what comes from my faucet at home, but isn’t what I want to put in the plastic water bottle I chose for my traveling convenience.

*Seriously so, IKEA floor directional arrows style. The direct route from security to gates is via the Duty Free Shop with its stink of imported perfume.
Note: I find almost all perfume to be merely a source of expensive, unpleasant odors, but I’m very chemically sensitive. I suppose local, organic Icelandic perfume would be no better.