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Paris. Istanbul. London

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What seems insurmountable to the ambassadors of French gastronomic traditions, how the break-up of the empire lead to the appearance of “semavers” in Istanbul, and what North London searches for in the southern section of the city

Paris

By Darya Knyazeva

The waiters of Paris are true oil-gauges of geopolitical shifts. In the last five years, they have learned to say ‘hello’ in Korean, to inform Indian guests how long to wait for their dishes, to ask the Americans a couple of cheery questions while taking their order, and even to douse the table in antibacterial spray before accommodating health-conscious Japanese around it.

With Russian tourists, though, things are difficult. A Paris waiter would be happy to make them happy, knowing that their guidebooks teach them to leave a 10% tip, but he cannot understand the Russians’ habits for the sake of anything.

In the 1990s, when the new post-Soviet people started coming to Paris en masse — to the city of their dreams, cooked frogs and femmes fatales with Gavroche haircuts — it turned out that the very size of a brasserie table does not correspond to their ideas of French cuisine and savoir vivre. To place oneself at such a table would indeed be impossible for anyone except a pure-blooded Frenchman, stiffened from the inside with generous amounts of coffee and wine. The table, on top of everything, was not covered with starched cotton, but with disposable cellulose instead. Were we really heading to the city of “The Last Tango” to feed ourselves at a snack bar? It was still 15 years before the appearance of Moscow’s cafe network Jean-Jacques, which made a paper tablecloth a de rigueur hipster detail, so many a brasserie unexpectedly became ‘untouchable’ due to their habits of table covering.

The Soviet person, accustomed to difficulties, found an instinctive solution to the cramped situation created by the tiny table: a shift-based usage. They quickly understood that French dishes followed a strict order, and the entrée could not be on the table simultaneously with the main course. The Paris waiter to this day has not acquired the neutral face expression which is, in fact, necessary when someone in a small group orders hors d’œvre, someone else a main course, and yet another a desert. For the waiter, this means extra routes between the kitchen and the dining hall, but, most importantly, a flagrant breach of food rules. When someone eats and someone else envies, the table communication is distorted. Serving all the orders at the same time, though, is something contradicting the very logic of the table procedure. How should a waiter know that a Russian table talk follows other guidelines than the French one, which is regulated by the discussion of the food — the actual, the past, and the possible.

All Russians, in the meantime, consume their hot drinks along with dessert, not after it. This is like celebrating a birthday at the same time as New Year, thinks the waiter, loading the last tray contrary to his will and common sense. Also, this bizarre habit of ordering black tea any time of day, sometimes even before eating, ‘to get warm’! This even led to the appearance of a special box of teabags with various flavors, of which Earl Gray disappears faster than everything else — and everything else remains there indefinitely.

The waiters of Paris are wary of a Russian appearing from three to five o’clock. Because it is the time when the Russian’s biological clock is usually set for lunch. And they become very angry when they hear that they can only be offered a salad or a cheese plate for lunch. What is it if not mockery, when a tired waiter tells you without any apologies that the restaurant’s kitchen is closed from two to seven p.m.? The touchy Russian thinks that it is him personally that they do not wish to serve there. For the waiter, though, it is self-evident that normal people have lunch from noon till two.

The most important thing, though, is water. This creates a real chaotic mixture in the head of a poor Paris waiter serving a large Russian company (with its large tipping capacity). He used to offer Russian tourists, like all of his other guests, a chippy bottle with tap water. Free of charge. Russian people, brought up with an implanted fear of infection, saw this as a personal insult. The most high-toned of them even made attempts to explain their views to the administrator — in a word, no tips.

The trained waiters, on hearing Russian, now began to uncork an 8-euro Perrier bottle. But! Russian tourists had also learned something in the meantime, broadened their horizons and found out that the water in Paris was not simply potable — it was tasty and generally great. And they began rebelling again, seeing in a bottle of Perrier a hint at petroleum money obviously expected from them. To put it shortly, no tips.

Paris is the most visited city in the world, but local waiters still fail to develop an immunity to the visitors’ peculiarities. This is because the tourist office never fails to assure them that it is the gastronomic tradition — not the Eiffel Tower — which is the principal lure of France. And they are the ambassadors of this tradition. And yet, in spite of their independent demeanor and defiant behavior, the ambassadors are still quite susceptible to tips and use these materials to study the basics of ethnology. This means tea at eight p.m. And a dessert with the tea, please. After all, sometimes people come into a brasserie not to complete another point of their tour program, not to learn something about foreign life — but simply to eat and drink.

Istanbul

By Nadya de Angelis

Imagine a typical scene that could be titled “Istanbul Market in Bad Weather”: a boy makes his dexterous way through a noisy crowd, a silver tray with glasses in one hand, an umbrella covering the steaming tea from the rain in the other. One of those glasses is mine. The main rule I have learned in Turkey: in any complicated situation, drink tea.

The Turks drink tea everywhere and all the time, from early morning till late at night, at work, at home, during parliamentary sessions, while traveling, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, while signing contracts, in the shops, sitting in a hairdresser’s armchair, in July heat and in January frost. Small wonder that Turkey proudly ranks number one in the word for tea consumption per person — 7.5 kg a year — over three kilos more than the next contender, Morocco.

One could imagine that tea was a traditional Turkish drink. This is not true, however. A hundred years ago, there was no tea culture whatsoever in Turkey. Throughout its long history, quite a number of civilizations flourished and declined on its land — Urartu, the Hittite kingdom, Troy, Byzantium, the Seljuq dynasty, the Ottoman empire — all those different states united by one simple fact: their citizens did not drink tea. In the ‘pre-tea’ era, the Turks preferred such beverages as boza (which is kind of similar to the Russian kvass), salep (a starch drink made from orchid root), ayran and, of course, Turkish coffee. The centuries-long popularity of that drink is even captured in the language: ‘breakfast’ is kahvaltı in Turkish, which literally means ‘before coffee’, while ‘brown’ is kahverengi, ‘coffee-colored’.

But in the early 20th century, the national love for coffee was suddenly threatened by political events: the Ottoman empire broke down, having lost the Arab Peninsula, and coffee that was produced there became an imported and much more expensive commodity.

A new national symbol was necessary. It was brought to Turkey by seasonal workers who used to toil in the tea plantations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Krasnodar Krai. The Soviet government was using those areas to launch a mass production of tea, the Russians’ favorite since the 18th century. Observing the neighbors’ successes, the first president of modern Turkey, Atatürk, provided subsidies for the farmers who wanted to grow tea. The president himself, by the way, preferred a strong drink (rakı) to both tea and coffee.

Attempts to grow tea bushes on the shores of the Aegean and Marmara failed miserably, but Turkey’s moistest region, the eastern province of Rize, turned out to be perfect. Things proceeded so well there that two of the local towns have even changed their names: Mapavri turned into Çayeli, and Kadahor into Çaykara.

From their northern neighbors, the Turks have also borrowed a tea preparation device, albeit with significant modifications. The Turkish 'semaver' is not exactly similar to the Russian samovar: these are basically two teapots, a larger and a smaller one, on top of one another. Water is boiling in the lower one, while the upper receives its portion of tea, is filled with boiling water and subsequently warmed by the heat of the lower teapot. This results in a strong flavorful brew, which is then diluted by boiling water. The perfect tea is strong but not bitter, with a beautiful reddish brown color, which the Turks call “rabbit’s blood”.

In the course of just a few decades, the Turks did not only fall in love with the tea, but also invented many rituals and rules of use, which compete with the Japanese tea ceremony in complexity. They do not drink tea from cups, but from small tulip-shaped glasses, which provide a chance to enjoy the color of the drink, not just its taste. Also, a tulip is symbolic for the Turkish culture (one of the eras of the national history is called “the Tulip Period”). Milk is never added, but sugar is added almost every time (which gave birth to a new proverb, pretending to be an ancient one: “Sweet tea — sweet talk”). There is even a special style of tea-drinking, called kıtlama: a lump of sugar is not put into the glass, but into the mouth, where it melts, mixing with the hot drink. A teaspoon is always offered, and if a guest does not want to have more tea, he puts it above his glass. Tea bags are not familiar in Turkey at all, but there are tea swindlers, though: in some touristy places, they add soda to the tea to make the drink look darker.

I, personally, do not depend on the tea-brewers’ that much: from my last trip, I brought home an electric semaver, glasses and two kilos of tea. Now I can, like a decent Turkish housewife, call my husband to the table proclaiming “Tea is served!”, even though the breakfast is still bearing the proud name of coffee.

London

By Anastasia Denisova

A friend of mine, a professor of journalism called Charles, claims that one can jump right into any small talk using a magic question. Contrary to stereotypes, the question is not about the weather or the Queen’s latest hat. According to Charles, you can ask a question about the relations between the North and the South, and it would be appropriate in Bulgaria or in Portugal no matter what. It could be applied to food or education. The Charles Equation works in London as well: as soon as you mention the difference between the two banks of the Thames, a violent argument breaks out like a hurricane in the prairie.

Historically, the northern bank has been the area of wealth. The most expensive dwellings, palaces and penthouses are in West Chelsea and North Hampstead. But as soon as you cross the river following one of the postcard bridges (the monumental Tower Bridge or the shaky Millennium), the smells, colors and prices change immediately. The southern district of Brixton is a London legend. Barely ten years ago, hoodlums with knives roamed the local streets, every pub saturated your clothes with a suffocating aroma of pepper, nutmeg and Jamaica smoked chicken, and only the taped bus speaker did not sport a local patois.

“During WWII, the British Army recruited many volunteers from the Caribbean, and after the war the Empire opened its doors to people from the former colonies, which resulted in crowds coming to the country from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan,” says Beverly the barista who works in Brixton. “My grandfather came here in 1948 on the legendary MV Empire Windrush with 492 other Jamaicans who added some color to the portrait of Britain.” The locals were not too friendly in the beginning, but then they became more accommodating, grew accustomed to reggae music and started to add nutmeg even to sausages with mashed potatoes.

You may joke all you like, but the spirit of peaceful coexistence in the environment of multiple cultures is the foundation of Brixton. If you are looking for a Lauryn Hill concert, this is the place to go; if you are looking for alternative rock groups who mix Kusturica with pop opera, try the Hootananny club, they are used to that and much else. If you want to try the Japanese savory pancake okonomiyaki — direct yourself toward Brixton Village, which has all kinds of cafes from the whole planet. Finally, this is the only place to buy authentic wooden earrings from a true-blue Congo matron in a kerchief and bracelets going all the way from her wrists to her elbows.

“Right by the Brixton tube station is where the Electric Avenue begins, and every Londoner thinks that it is named for the crazy parties of the district, but it isn’t!” giggles Beverly. “Actually, in 1880 it was the first street in the capital to be lit by electricity.”

“Brixton is what is called a ‘tough cookie’,” adds the Portuguese Manu, who sells the bacalhau cod in Little Portugal. “The district is amazingly attractive, a real mixture of cultures, a palette of differences. You have to remember that you’re not in Disneyland, though: do not brandish an expensive phone in the street, watch your bag, do not follow dark lanes after sunset.”

“To appreciate the spirit of south London, begin your day with a breakfast at Brixton Village, print out the map of the famous multicultural graffiti and try to locate the most bizarre one,” advises Beverly. “Then have a look at what’s on at Ritzy cinema.”

In 2008, the inhabitants of Brixton, who were completely in love with their district, even introduced their own currency, which you could use to pay in local cafes and shops. No one demanded independence from London, though. After all, Brixton is an inseparable part of the British capital. What about the relationship between North and South? It’s great! The first comes to visit the second on Saturday night, knowing that in the morning it would slightly smell of nutmeg.

Published on: December 20, 2017