Is there Something in the Coffee?

I stood in the doorway, clutching two bulky plastic 2-liter bottles of Orange Fanta, waiting impatiently after knocking on the door. I shivered in the cool October night. I hoped that I hadn’t woken up the whole family; I just needed to see my friend Evalina to share with her my wonderful news.

I heard footsteps on the stairs and suddenly the door yanked open and a face covered with an unsightly white paste in a blue turban poked out. It took me a second to realize that Evalina had a beauty mask on her face.

Upon recognition, she smiled and was obviously surprised by my unannounced visit. I held up the bottles with my arms outstretched, grinning uncontrollably.

“Zdravo Evalina!” I bellowed.  I spoke the next few words carefully, my enthusiasm barely restrained, “Mojata cestra e…vrabotuva!” (My sister is engaged).

Evalina blinked for a moment and then quickly responded, “Chestito!” (Congratulations!)

She stepped out into the night air to embrace me and ushered me inside. We quickly but quietly climbed the stairs up to her bedroom. Almost all of the lights were out but I heard the sounds of a TV coming from one of the other bedrooms. The house was small for Evalina’s large family, hidden behind old, ugly, concrete Communist bloc apartment buildings, one of which was where I had called home for a year. Evalina’s bedroom was just large enough to hold her small group of friends. We entered Evalina’s empty bedroom, and I placed the heavy bottles of soda on an old wooden coffee table. Evalina stood by her bed while I sat on the small Krevet, which served as a sofa or a bed.

“Checkaij” Evalina said (Wait), leaving the room suddenly and returning a moment later with two clear plastic cups. “Nazdravije! Chestito!”, we toasted to each other.

Evalina pumped me for the details about my sister’s engagement. Of course I would go back home, to the United States, for the wedding. My only sister had always been my closest friend. The strange thing about it was that I had never met my future brother-in-law; they had met just after I had left home to join the Peace Corps and came to Macedonia. I had seen photos of him, tall and lean, standing next to my beaming sister. There was no question that the two of them were madly in love with each other. I couldn’t have been happier when, about half an hour prior, standing in the living room of my cramped, fourth-floor apartment, rotary phone clutched in hand, my sister gave me the good news. She asked me to be her maid of honor and I literally jumped up and down shouting, “YES!”, in reply.

I was excited to share this happy news with all of my Macedonian friends, but especially to Evalina. She had predicted my sister’s engagement only about two weeks earlier. In Macedonia, as in many places in the world, people socialize with drinking coffee. You risk being a social outcast if you do not practice the custom of visiting with your neighbors and friends, and drinking coffee, on an almost daily basis. Macedonia, once part of Yugoslavia, is a poor country by Western standards, but they are very rich in their greatest resource: their people. The people don’t have money, but they do have a lot of time. Time to visit and get to know the neighbors, time to reminisce, time to complain and time to dream, all while enjoying a hot cup of coffee with friends.

Occasionally, at times, some women have the practice of reading coffee grinds, which is essentially like reading tealeaves. So, like the price of two for one, not only can you enjoy a cup of potent “Turksko café”, but you can also have your fortune told afterwards. I always took these things as entertainment with an abundant score of skepticism. However, once I remembered Evalina’s prediction and how eerily similar it resonated with my sister’s engagement; I had to acknowledge the amazing coincidence.

“Teeay e prima a ponuda” (You will receive a proposition), she had told me two weeks prior, in the same bedroom we sat in now. “You will say yes…and you will be very happy.” Her words reminded me of a Chinese fortune cookie: “You will travel a great distance.”

Yeah, sure, I thought doubtingly. My job often required me to travel the five-hour bus ride to the capital of Skopje, nothing new there.

“And you will be very, very happy.” She kept emphasizing that, which struck me, because the only thing at the time that I could think of that would make me extremely happy is if my Macedonian Counterpart, the intimidating bully of an English teacher I was forced to work with, suddenly ceased to exist.

Now, two weeks later, her prediction had apparently come true. How could this young Macedonian woman, only four years younger than myself, have known that my sister would get engaged (she didn’t even know that my sister had a boyfriend) and then call me at 10 o’clock at night (1pm Seattle time) and ask me to be her maid of honor, requiring me to travel halfway across the world and causing me the greatest joy since I was accepted into the Peace Corps? As Evalina pumped me for details about the wedding, I pumped Evalina for details about her coffee-grind reading abilities. How long had she been doing it? How did she know how to read them? Had her predictions come true before? Evalina just smiled at me like an elderly woman smiles at a young child.

“Neznam,” she said. She didn’t know how it worked; she just read the dark ooze of grinds clinging to the bottom of the cup like one would read the newspaper reports about the rising numbers of unemployment.

Had her predictions come true before? I asked her.

“Nekogash,” she said (Sometimes). She flashed me a knowing smile while I looked at her face, still covered with the pasty white gooey mask that would at some point reveal her beautiful face underneath.

I looked at Evalina and thought about the many things that made us similar and yet, so very different. She, like many Macedonian women, lived at home with her parents and younger siblings. She would live there until she got married. Once married, she would leave her family forever, often an emotionally heart wrenching experience, and move in with her new husband and his family. Although Evalina was an intelligent woman, and would go on to university, she was likely to join many other Macedonians who are educated and unemployed. Not only that, but she was unlikely to have the opportunity to be able to ever leave the country, either for work or for pleasure. Unlike me, who had moved out of my parent’s home to attend university, completed my degree, had the opportunity to work, and save enough money to travel around the world, all as a single young woman.

I realized that the moment of silence between Evalina and I had become awkward.

“Mozhay da piem minogu café” Let’s drink another cup of coffee, I said.

Jill Warner
RPCV Macedonia, 2005-2007