“Now we’ll never make it to our dinner reservation.”
My father grumbled as we traipsed up the stairs to collect our coats and rejoin the old family friends waiting for us in the Polonia Palace lobby. The couple – childhood friends of my grandfather – had only invited us out for “a coffee” so I didn’t see what would prevent us from making our reservation for dinner in three hours.
As I found out, an invitation for coffee, at least in Eastern Europe, entails more than grabbing a quick pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks. We went to A.Blikly, one of the oldest cafes in Warsaw, and a place that I found exceedingly elegant. We sat down and started with hot drinks and decadent pastries, and then proceeded to a bottle of Chardonnay for the table, toasting to health, to my grandparents, to family in general.
The café didn’t – like so many of its counterparts in the States – feature any patrons typing away on computers, catching up on emails while a cup of coffee ordered four hours ago sits beside them. Like us, the other patrons were caught in a moment of purposelessness, not bothered by things like emails and appointments but instead focusing on the task – or, more appropriately, cup – at hand.
They seem to have a different approach to caffeine in Europe. At home, we use caffeine for efficient purposes – namely, to stay awake. We have our morning coffee to kick-start our day or meet a friend for an afternoon cup in the middle of the day, usually to accomplish some ulterior purpose of business or necessary conversation.
Henry James’s classic quote about afternoon tea -- “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” – though admittedly overused, is appropriate here for its use of the word “ceremony.” My extensive field research on this subject – namely eating a maximum amount of scones while in London – I can confirm that true English high tea is indeed something of a ritual. In addition to the tea, there are three key parts: finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and cake. There is elegance to afternoon tea. The presentation of the food on a tiered tea tray, the delicate china cups, the surprisingly artful tower of sugar cubes in its cut glass dish. These random details add to the overall ambience but I think I find them particularly impressive because they’re unnecessary; the entire act of afternoon tea is.
Afternoon tea – like the coffee in Warsaw – is a time designated for doing nothing purely practical. The presentation of the food, the elegance of location, the tiny accumulation of unnecessary but charming details… These things come together to create an experience that seems suspended from normal life and normal responsibilities. In some ways, a warm beverage seems like the perfect excuse to take a break – a steaming oozes an image of relaxation. On the other hand, I mostly associate tea and coffee with to-go cups and efficiency. While I would never denounce the practical benefits of caffeinated beverages, I think that the Europeans might be onto something in their beautifully purposeless rituals.
~ Grace Singleton '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler