Kiev, Ukraine, 2006, 8 a.m.
Dipping a teaspoon into the plastic jar and scooping out the sparkly, gravely grounds, I added them to a boiling cup of water and watched the particles dissolve into dark brown ribbons. It took about 30 seconds.
This was not right. The dark brown steaming liquid was ready in an instant as it promised — like a powdered NASA beverage. It was not coffee; it was — Nescafé.
Having arrived in Kiev late the night before, I was tired and desperate for some caffeine. I looked through the cupboards and fully stocked refrigerator of the apartment where I was staying and found nothing else resembling coffee. And this apartment was set up. The refrigerator housed what looked like two frosted glass sculptures full of Ukrainian vodka, international meats and cheeses that could have been part of a catering tray from a UN smorgasbord, fresh bread and bags of luscious red tomatoes. So how was there no bag of ground goodness in there?
And it wasn’t just the taste, I hated the idea of instant java — no grinding of beans; no brewing; no aroma wafting through the kitchen while you try to wake up; no holding of the cup to warm your hands. Just dump some coffee flakes — I mean ‘crystals’ — into boiling water. It was almost like adding fish food to an aquarium. Where was the ritual in that? Drinking coffee is sacred in some countries. Was a coffeehouse close by? Surely Starbucks was somewhere in Ukraine’s cosmopolitan capital city.
I hated to succumb right away to an American chain, and really, it didn’t matter. With a busy day of sightseeing and cathedral hopping ahead, there was no time to find one anyway. My parents Ed and Judy had treated me to this trip to Ukraine. Their neighbors, David and Tamara, lived part time in Kiev and had invited us to visit. In addition to putting us up in their guest apartment and stocking the fridge (albeit without real coffee), our generous hosts had hired a driver and tour guide to take us around. Consequently, we had a completely booked day. So, it was either go on Nescafé or run on no caffeine at all.
Nescafé sufficed. In the meantime, Kiev captivated me, so I was too pre-occupied to look for a Starbucks. While getting a lay of the land, I marveled at the range of colors the city displayed. The blues, alone, impressed, including the Wedgewood baby blue of St. Sophia’s Cathedral to the domed sapphire blue of St. Nicholas Church. The gold onion shaped spires on the stately Orthodox churches glittered in the sun. Then the burnt orange of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv’s main building created a sort of Southwestern US feel. It was summer so the foliage was vivid green while red flowers bloomed, lining sidewalks. Even the mini Eastern Euro cars sported vibrant paint jobs.
Ukrainians’ moods seemed to match the lively hues. Military recruits in camouflage yucked it up outside their academy doors before presumably entering for drills and classes. Storekeepers smiled and waited while I tried to say “thank you” in Ukrainian. With a great sense of humor, our tour guide, Natalia, laughed often. Babushkas waved at us as they walked cows down a dirt road in the Ukrainian countryside. Everyone seemed pretty happy and content. What did I have to complain about?
So what began as reluctantly spooning the granules into a mug of boiling water every day, became routine. Nescafé no longer seemed like a caffeinated catastrophe. While I sipped it every morning for five days, I looked out of the tenth story window of the apartment. I saw Ukraine wake up, too. As the sun rose steadily, Kievans emerged from the metro and bus stops. The recruits again milled about outside the academy before their training began. A lineup of cars inching to their final destinations marked the start of rush hour.
But the most eye-catching detail out of the window was the metal statue of a woman with her arms out-stretched over the landscape. Affectionately called “Baba” (short for Babushka) by Kievans, she is Ukraine’s lady liberty. A part of Kiev’s war memorial, she seemed to embrace every morning as if she, too, had just had her cup of coffee.
However, I knew Nescafé was my “Taster’s Choice” when we went for a drive in the Ukrainian countryside and stopped at a petrol station. I could feel the comatose coming on, so I got out to stretch my legs. Wandering inside the adjacent convenient store, I saw, on full display, a Nescafé station to make coffee and dress it up with milk, sugar or whatever enhanced the beverage. Just seeing the option, perked me up, and I went over to get my new source of instant gratification.
Then days after returning to the US and browsing through the aisles of Wal-Mart, I spied a jar of Nescafé. I bought it. Making it the next morning, my thoughts went right back to Kiev and the view of Baba from the tenth floor.
I’m thoroughly ashamed to admit this, but there was a time when I actually preferred Nescafe to the real thing. I can’t believe that I’m using your post here as a platform for my confession but I can’t bear to hold this ugly secret inside me for any longer.
Hand on my heart, confession over, I can now reveal that I have not touched Nescafe for over 4 years. Steph, I’m sure being a world traveller and caffeine fiend that you will be familiar with Bali Kopi? It’s the most genius invention. In Indonesia they grind the coffee beans so fine that you don’t have to put them in a cafetiere or coffee machine. Instead you put a heaped spoon into your mug, pour on boiling water, stir and then add milk and or sugar to taste. It’s as convenient and easy to use as Nescafe but it’s not been adulterated in any way. After getting a taste now for real coffee, have no fear, t I shall never imbibe the gastro horror Nescafe again 😀
I love your confession, Lottie!! I say you do 10 hail marys (sp?) Definitely, I get this because when I came back from Ukraine, I preferred Nescafe, too. I have drifted back to drip coffee, but yes, for a time — it was instant for me. I’m adopting the term “gastro horror,” by the way.
I LOVE the coffee in Bali — I fondly remember the first day after we woke up in Ubud and had Bali Kopi while incense wafted through the cafe and Balinese music played in the background. Our poor waiter — I asked him for several refills. Then, of course, there is Kopi Luwak mmmmmmmm even if it is poop coffee! 🙂
Thanks so much for your confession post. I wonder what the Spain will have for you….. xxxxxx
Really enjoyed this piece. My family is Ukrainian so it’s always interesting for me to read takes on the country. If you ever go back, I recommend the city of Lviv in the western part of Ukraine. There cafe culture runs supreme and it won’t be Nescafe — unless you want 🙂
Thanks, Lydia! I loved being in Kiev and Ukraine. It’s funny because, illogically, I half expected it to be gray and overcast and for the people to be dour and serious. (Too many anti-USSR propaganda and movies from the 1980s) But it was anything but those qualities. In fact, I have been working on a post that addresses erroneous expectations that become somewhat ingrained even when you don’t want them to be. Logically, I know the shines in former Soviet republics, but why, then, was I surprised to see it shining brightly?
I would go back anytime. And thank you for the suggestion of Lviv. I would love cafe culture and I might even sneak a Nescafe on the side. Thanks for the comment ) Cheers — Steph 🙂
Kiev looks really interesting. Instant coffee doesn’t do it for me, but neither does Starbucks.
I have been spoiled by good coffee in Itlay.
I love Kiev — it has so much history and it’s vibrant as well. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m sure you must be spoiled by good coffee in Italy as well as most food and beverages! Cheers
Nescafe always brings back memories of Papua New Guinea. It’s funny, because PNG is a coffee producing country and yet both the locals and foreigners drank Nescafe.
Wow — how ironic that everyone drinks Nescafe in PNG. I just had a Papua New Guinea roast today at a coffee shop and thought about how good it tastes. Is it wildly overpriced in PNG?? Interesting.
Everything is exorbitantly expensive in PNG and most of the population is very poor. Typical story of a place that’s rich in mineral wealth, but none of the locals get any of the profit.
That made me laugh really loud >>> “adding fish food to an aquarium”. It’s true! Even though I never thought about it like this. And I drink a lot of Nescafe especially while travelling (just more practical)…
Nescafe is definitely more practical and I wouldn’t hesitate to bring it on a trip although I have drifted back to regular drip coffee. Thanks for reading and the comment! Cheers — Steph
That statue is super awesome.
Interesting, as if I pull off my envisioned trip to Eastern Europe in a couple of years I assume I’ll visit Kiev as I want to go to Chernobyl. After the US next month I’ll start getting into planning and research mode. I grew up with Nescafe in the house – it was a staple for ‘smoko breaks’ on the farm!
Thanks for the comment, Hayley! I can’t believe I was hating on Nescafe before I gave it a chance. It’s practical and tasty. Definitely visit Keiv — there are so many beautiful sights. Chernobyl should be fascinating. I’d like to go there as well. Cheers!
Very interesting post about Nescafe Coffee.
Thank you for readingt. After some resistance, I truly enjoy drinking Nescafe now!