Appreciating the Cultural Significance of Coffee

I started drinking coffee when I was a little kid. Maybe that’s a stretch—my grandma, or Yiayia as I called her in Greek, would give me a cup of decaf that was mostly milk. I would sit with her while she had her cup, and we would talk about the events of the day. The combination of Stella D’oro breadsticks and hazelnut coffee is one of those childhood memories that always brings me comfort.

The summer after my sophomore year of high school, I started working in a bakery. I would go in a little before six in the morning to load up all the shelves and ensure everything was running smoothly. It was my summer vacation and I was 15, so of course I was never going to go to bed at an adequate hour. This was the summer I rediscovered coffee, except at this point I would drink it by the bucketful without creamer to maximize my efficiency and cut out unnecessary calories.

For the next few years, as I was navigating high school and college preparation, I quickly developed a reputation among my friends as the coffee fanatic. I would drink around four cups a day, sometimes more if I felt like I needed to be extra productive. It served a functional purpose: to get me through the endless cycle of school, cross country, and college prep.

Coffee meant something very different to my Yiayia than it did for me. She was born and raised in Greece, where the culture around coffee is predicated on the idea that it is something to savor, a break from a busy day. When I return to the village where she grew up, as I do most summers, I walk through the town square and see people at cafes sitting outside  for hours, talking, smoking cigarettes, and playing backgammon. The people in my Greek town treat coffee as a social activity, which has caused it to become an essential part of everyday civil life.

While in Greece, my family starts dinner in town around 10 or 11 at night. We sit with our coffee until three in the morning, just talking and enjoying the beautiful nights. This is a liberal use of “we”—I’m known to doze off at the table.

Compared to my inhaling black coffee at three in the morning while I study for a test, this appreciation makes me feel like I am treating coffee the wrong way. For me, coffee is a pragmatic choice, not for comfort, but for utility to get me one step closer to success.

The difference between my Yiayia and I is that I grew up in the fast-paced culture of New York, engulfed in an American society where productivity determines worth. She grew up starving under inhumane circumstances during World War II, coming to America, and working hard for everything she had. For her, coffee was her break, a time to recharge and refuel in order to persevere through the difficult circumstances she had been dealt.

Nowadays when I speak to my Greek relatives, who mostly live in Athens, they tell me that this is a tradition of the old village. Now the major cities there are industrialized and in many cases people have adopted these American attitudes.

My uncle always updates me on the coffee trends in Greece—last year it was a Greek variation of a cappuccino. Still, whenever I am in my town I order a traditional frappe—not the Starbucks drink, but the coffee and foam mixture that is a staple in any Greek establishment. Fusing my American and Greek influences, I still take it black because I am now used to the taste and cannot stand sugar or milk in my coffee.

I do not drink coffee every day anymore. Not for any profound reason, but purely because it makes me too jittery and shaky to focus on my tasks. I do drink it once in a while when I need to get a lot of work done or want to stay up late, but not nearly as much as I used to. I’m sure my looming final exams will prove to be one of these exceptions.

At Boston College, you never have to look far to find coffee. It’s served in every dining hall and is free during finals. It proliferates our campus and is the key to survival for many students. “The Director” is a drink served at Hillside with four shots of espresso, in my opinion epitomizing BC students’ love for caffeine. Because our university culture all but mandates constant attention to our studies, organizations, and friends, coffee can feel like the only means by which to achieve this survival.

When I find myself up late and hyper-caffeinated I often think back to the coffee I would drink with my Yiayia, if you can really even call it coffee, and all of the trade-offs that come with the change of consumption. I do not think that either preference is normatively superior, but they are just two of many ways that different cultures value coffee. As we approach finals, I will keep my Yiayia in mind and try to step back and enjoy my coffee, rather than just use it to do well.

Featured Image by  Anna Tierney / Heights Editor