Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Small is beautiful

I'm in that post-travel mode where I keep finding myself comparing my home and surroundings to that fairy-tale world of the tourist visiting only the best a place has to offer, knowing full well that if we lived there we would begin to see and experience things in a more down-to-earth, less charmed way. But that's the beauty of travel, isn't it? We don't think about or see things in the same way as we do at home. And how could we? That travel mentality is hardly sustainable, especially on the budget! But I think there are also some things we can take back with us, things we may have learned from other cultures or from the experience of visiting a place with the enthusiasm and curiousity of a tourist, rather than the habits of a resident.

So I do find myself trying to re-create some of the things I enjoyed about our visit to Belgium, and one of those pleasures is coffee. Rediscovering coffee as a pleasureable drink, that is. At home, I had put away the coffee maker more than a year ago, and both hubby and I had taken to drinking tea in the mornings instead. I still enjoy this, although most of my relatives haven't gotten the memo, so we still have a bag of fair-trade coffee someone gave us for Christmas last year, stuck in the freezer, reminding me that I used to make a pot of coffee every day and a half-pound of good coffee like that would not have been around long enough to need storing in the freezer.

I had gotten into the habit of believing that if a mug of coffee (with cream) was a pleasure, then two mugs are twice as pleasant, and so on. Except after the second or third cup of coffee, not only would I get a bit jittery, I also didn't really enjoy it anymore. I didn't really like the taste by the end of the second cup, nor the coffee-mouth feel and breath, nor the knowledge that I had also consumed close to a half cup of cream along with it!

My husband had read in the guide books that in Belgium you drink cafe au lait. Naturally we assumed this would be the milky coffee beverage served in a large bowl-like mug that we know it to be here. But we figured there would be something special about it, and besides, we were in Belgium and wanted to do as the Belgians do. So when we went out to dinner for the first time in Brussels, with my sister, who has lived there for several years and was advising us on the ways of Belgians, I asked for a cafe au lait with my dessert.

That was my first mistake. My sister quietly explained, "Did you see how the waitress looked a little surprised? That's because Belgians don't drink coffee with dessert, they have it after." Ah. I immediately realized this was a lesson in mindfulness: savor the dessert while I am eating it, don't wash it down with coffee; then enjoy the coffee for its own merits.

So she brought us our coffee, and it was not what I expected: a demitasse cup (slightly bigger, actually, probably 6-ounces) of what must have been espresso, with a little container of evaporated whole milk on the side; at least, that was how I decifered the French and Dutch list of ingredients -- it was not thick and syrupy like our condensed milk, which is sweetened, but was more like, well, whole milk, with the fuller body of cream, but without quite as much fat (yet, it was whole milk, not a low-fat version -- the Dutch for that is volle melk, I learned).

I poured the milk into the coffee, took a sip, was surprised at how good it tasted (I expected it to be bitter, but it wasn't). It was served with a little ginger cookie, and a cute little spoon to stir it with. Despite its small size, it took me several minutes to drink it, perhaps as long as I would spend over a larger cup of coffee at a restaurant here. I think it was just something about the whole ritual, and the size, that led me to naturally slow down and enjoy it.

So now when I go to my local coffee shop, instead of asking for a "small" latte, which is served in something like a 16-ounce mug, I ask for two shots of espresso with a little steamed whole milk. I get it served in a small ceramic cup that the owner calls a demitasse, but it's really about 8 ounces, like an old-fashioned coffee cup. I find it a little bit bitter, but I am happy to put a little sugar in it. After all, when the portion size is small, I feel that I can afford a little sweetness along with it.

And when I find myself thinking, "That was good, I'd like another," I remind myself that the second cup never tastes as good. Old habits die hard, but enjoying the one small cup of coffee makes me feel a little bit like I'm still a tourist. Next thing you know, I'll be visiting our local museums and historic sites.