It wasn’t until I moved away from Seattle for the first time that I realized not everyone in the world becomes a coffee junkie by age 15. My memories of growing up in the Pacific Northwest are steeped in coffee. How my Dad took it straight and black as tar and my mom brewed coffee that would put hairs on your chest, and then drenched it in cream and sugar until it was unrecognizable.
I’ve heard before that coffee is so popular in Seattle because its a legal and widely available upper in one of the most depressed cities in the world. That may be true, but I think it goes deeper than that.
Rain and coffee bind Pacific Northwestern-ers together into a club not many outsiders can endure joining. The rain is a litmus test for who deserves to enjoy what this wonderful city has to offer, because they can recognize that all truly great things come with a little sacrifice. And when we crowd into the coffee shops during the winter (and spring…and fall…) months to avoid the misty air outside, a bond is forged between us and our stimulant.
But tragically, coffee plants are too delicate to grow in our spongy environment. They need sunshine, warmth and red, fertile soil, so we’re forced to look abroad to maintain what is deeply Seattle about us, depending on countries halfway around the world to supply us with our caffeine fix.
So I was struck by the poetry when, my junior year of college, I ended up in Kenya, the place where so many of my childhood memories had been grown.
During the first week of my study abroad program, I met up with the one other American studying at University of Nairobi. We flopped onto cafeteria chairs, beaten down by absent professors, cultural miscommunications and the constant racket of a language you don’t understand. And we did what any born and bred American girls would do. We set down to debrief over caffeine.
I was excited that for the first time, I was going to taste coffee grown and cultivated no more than a dozen miles away. When the waiter came over, he set down our orders in front of us, ceramic cups full to the brim with freshly poured, steaming hot, translucent… water. Balanced delicately on the side of the saucer was a neat little square packet.
We both stared at it, dumbfounded.
Now I had never even seen instant coffee until I was nineteen. The stuff was barred from our house along with Wonder Bread and cable TV. It wasn’t until a hostel in Dublin when I assumed it was hot chocolate mix and dumped heaping spoonfuls of it into my mug. Describing the result as nauseating would be far too generous.
Little did I know that was just the first of many times I would sip those freeze-dried, rehydrated coffee granules and feel deflated, confused and utterly homesick.
Six million Kenyans may be employed by the coffee industry, and it may be just a few hundred miles from the birthplace of coffee, but it turns out that Kenyans just don’t really like coffee that much.
Like any international city worth its salt, coffee culture is catching on in Nairobi. But it’s a long and slow road. Yesterday I was in the fanciest café in town, and the waiter served a french press full of coffee grounds in a creamy beige sea. The hot water, coffee and milk had all been added together into the french press. Enough to make a Seattleite cringe.
And so now that I live and work in Nairobi, I’ll continue to fly halfway around the world, back to my hometown in a damp corner of the United States, to guarantee a steaming cup of freshly brewed, properly fussed over, Seattle coffee.