Thursday, May 7, 2009

High coffe

Hoch Kaffe

Hagai Cohen
Although externally I look quite normal, I am not perfect. My defect is not visible to the naked eye and it is hard to explain. To put it simply, I do not like anything sweet.
Growing up, with this imperfection was not an easy task. It seemed that kids were more understanding than grown-ups. When I told a friend, "I don't like chocolate," he would respond, "That's all right, I don't like spinach.” But if I would say that to a grown-up the immediate reaction would be:” What? Nonsense! Everybody likes sugar. I've never heard of such a stupid thing." And then more questions: "Not even ice-cream?" or "What about chocolate fudge? Not even that? I don’t believe you." And so on.
Grown-ups were quite upset about my aversion to sweets. Their biggest concern was that it might become a trend. Meaning that more and more children might develop a dislike to sweets, and the best weapon that they had ever had against children, would be rendered useless, "No ice-cream after supper if you don't eat your cauliflower". The poor child would eat the entire cauliflower just because he liked ice cream. With me it never worked. Nobody ever made me eat food I didn't like with a promise of an ice- cream. Grown-ups never understood. All they could do was comment, "What a stubborn boy!"
"Hoch Kaffe" was a daily routine, at my friend, Meir Besserkopff’s house. If you are only interested in the meaning of the expression Hoch Kaffe you should skip reading now and go directly to the last paragraph. However, if you really want to understand the full essence of the words then just be patient.
My friend Meir was born in Israel, to parents, who had been born in Germany and left for Jerusalem in 1934 following the rise of Hitler, It was during High School that I met Meir, and we very quickly became good friends. We went to the same sports club together, we studied music at the same music school, and a lot of our school homework was done together, mostly at his house.
Meir lived together with his younger brother and parents in a huge apartment of twenty fives rooms. In fact, this apartment was a full "slice" of a big house - an entire floor. On the other floors of the same building there were at least five apartments in the equivalent space. To make it easy to find your way in this large labyrinth each room was given a specific name, - the morning room, the coffee room, the laundry, the mud room, the cold room, the stone house and so on.
Each of the rooms was heavily furnished with cumbersome dark walnut furniture. Each piece of furniture looked so massive that it seemed as if they had been built on location before the house. It was impossible to imagine that they could ever have fit through the door-frames.
Meir's father was a professor of history at the Hebrew university. His mother ran the ‘estate,’ together with three hired hands; a maid, a cook, and a secretary. They too resided in the apartment and were on immediate standby 24/7.
Reflecting back on it today I am sure that Meir never had an egg salad sandwich or humus in pitta bread. Whenever Meir expressed a desire for a snack (through the right channels of course), he would get (only if it was not too close to a scheduled meal), a huge silver tray full of small things, they called "canapĂ©’s". These were coin size, round slices of bread, each piled up with goodies such as smoked fish, various cheeses, all kinds of processed meats, decorated with fancy vegetables, black and green olives, tiny pieces of red, green and yellow peppers, tomatoes, lemon, capers and more. Each one of those microscopic club sandwiches looked like a flower. They were all arranged together on a big silver tray in the formation of a giant flower. A work of art, that would cause a guilty conscience to the person eating the ‘installation’. It was the only food that Meir was allowed to eat with his bare hands, and only in the morning room.
Nobody in Meir’s house spoke unless spoken to first by a higher authority. I glimpsed Meir’s father a few times but never heard his voice. He probably had nothing to say and had no need to enforce his authority as everything went so smoothly in this well lubricated flawless household.
My friend Meir had a split personality, he used to joke with me about the strict rules and codes in his house when he was out with me, but complied with the discipline to perfection when he was home with his parents and servants. Meir used to joke about his communication with his father. "When I want to talk to my father" he said:"1. I write a draft. 2. I take it to my mom for approval. 3. Once approved, the secretary types it and puts it in an envelope. 4. The maid takes the note to my father. 5. My father consults his calendar and sets a date for next October, and so on".
Once, while studying for an exam together, Meir and I were unaware of the time until all of a sudden there was a knock on the door.
Meir jumped, as if he had been bitten by a snake. It was obvious that Meir had missed an important duty.
"Its Hoch Kaffe, Master Besserkopff," said the maid, in German, from behind the door.”
What is Hoch Kaffe?" I asked Meir, "We are just having coffee," Meir replied, and rushed me into the guest bathroom. He pointed at two small towels with my name on a piece of paper next to them. He introduced me to a secret button on the wall, by which the toilet was flushed. He left the room saying, "You may wash your hands now".
This sentence came to me as a big surprise, what could it mean - I may wash my hands.
For a few seconds I was sure something very bad had happened to Meir. First, the jump at the maid's knock, then this stupid hand-washing directive, it could only mean trouble.
All of a sudden it came to me as clear as day, in this household nobody was supposed to know what you are planing to do in the bathroom, it is a private matter between you and your body. It is inconceivable even to imagine what one could be doing there. Thus, the Besserkopffs used a code, "wash your hands" so that nobody would ever guess what you really did in there.
Meir was waiting for me after I had finished "washing my hands" and escorted me to the coffee room. Everyone was already seated as we walked in, except for the maid, who was standing on alert wearing a fresh apron and a clean cape.
Meir's father stood, with a very angry face, watching the big pendulum clock that showed one and a half-minutes past five O'clock. I was not sure but it seemed as if everybody was waiting just for us - the father, the mother, an uncle, I had never met, and Meir’s eleven year old brother .
The table in front of me was loaded. There were two plates stacked one on top of the other, a cup and a saucer - all matching Rosenthal china. A spoon, a teaspoon and an oddly shaped fork- all solid silver were neatly arranged next to the china. Straight away I spotted what I thought were cookies, but the Besserkopffs later explained that they were "petit-fours". On a serving table next to the coffee pitcher there were two different cakes, one moist or creamy usually eaten with a spoon, and the other dry, eaten with the odd shaped fork.
At that moment Meir's mom signaled to the ‘alerted’ maid who immediately started pouring the coffee and passing it down the chain of command, starting with the father and finishing with Meir's brother.
I was watching the perfectly executed drill when I was surprised by the maid who sneaked up behind me and inquired, "Master Gonen what kind of cake do you prefer?
She caught me unprepared. It was the first time, and I think also the last that anyone had ever called me Master Gonen. I, however, was not planning to eat any cake. I took a moment to recuperate and then responded, "Thank you, I do not eat cakes." The maid's words to me were the first words spoken in the coffee room, and after my answer was emitted the silence turned into a deep silence. The air stopped moving, and I am sure that even the cakes took it as a personal insult.
"I am sorry madam, nothing is wrong with the cakes. I merely do not eat anything sweet." I said, answering the question that Meir's mother had not yet even asked. Though questions quickly followed:
"Not even a chocolate?"
“Not even a chocolate madam," was my answer.
"But you must eat sugar," she said “it's good for your health."
I knew for sure, that this coffee party was not going to be my cup of tea, and the worst had yet to come.
It was the time now for the ceremony of sweetening the coffee. On the table over the snow white starched linen table cloth rested two lidded jars full of sugar cubes. As I watched the people around the table I wondered how was it possible to make a simple coffee drink so complicated.
Each one in turn (according to hierarchy) removed the lid from the sugar jar and held it in their left hand, then with their right hand they picked up the specially provided silver tongs.
Now, to pick up a sugar cube is a skill of competence, experience and long training. One should figure out beforehand, which one of the cubes should be picked up. It must be the one cube that once removed will not disturb the peaceful rest of the other cubes, or cause them to move, or make noise or tragically damage any of them ‘God forbid’.
Now the tongs had to grip the cube at the very end because it was absolutely forbidden to wet the tongs whilst dropping the sugar into the coffee. OOPS, did I say dropping? Pardon my language, dropping is an obscene word I think ‘launching’ would be a more appropriate word or perhaps ‘inserting’. This is an operation which definitely requires fine motor skills, which are probably not yet developed in a person under the age of twelve. Meir's brother was not allowed to sweeten the coffee himself, hence the maid had to do it.
There should be no splash while the cube is inserted, and absolutely no waves, not to mention any noise. And this is not all, after the sugar is in, there must be a certain pause. One must give time for the sugar cube to break before commencing to stir. If enough time is not given, the sugar cube might clink once or twice on the side of the Rosenthal, an inconceivable offence. On the other hand, if you do not take any chances and you give it a little extra time, you will immediately observe a few raised eyebrows, as you are slowing down the others, and the coffee might get cold.
Now to the stirring itself, yet another pre-calculated motion: The spoon was held between the thumb and the index finger in a vertical position with the rest of the fingers spread apart and kept as far away as possible from the coffee. The next and final maneuver is the stirring action: three or four consecutive turns. At no phase of this stage should the spoon touch any part of the cup.
You should try doing the next performance in sequence: Firstly, lift a full cup of coffee and put it back on the saucer without making any noise. Secondly, try to drink the coffee with closed tight lips, without releasing any sipping sound. Lastly, try to eat a cake and talk with the same closed mouth. If you manage to do it right, you will be qualified to have coffee with the Besserkopffs.
As you have probably guessed, there was nothing for me in drinking sweetened coffee, there was really no reason for me to worry about the delicate skill and precise procedure of launching sugar in my coffee, or stirring without a rustle. I felt confident in my prowess. However, I was not aware that Meir's family used the coffee procedure as criteria for assessing the level of manners a person had. In fact, they wanted to compare me to Meir. To get positive reinforcement that he was reared better.
The moment they acknowledged that I did not use the tongs and the spoon they felt they had lost strategic ground. I felt the growing tension but did not contemplate for even one second starting to use sugar for the sake of the Besserkopffs.
The first to speak was Meir's mother who said: "You may put sugar in your coffee!" As she was addressing me I had to answer. "Thank you madam, I think I'll have my coffee without sugar". This statement rendered everyone speechless. To me it felt like the quiet gathering of the clouds before the storm. I felt sorry for Meir who didn't know what to do and may have had some regrets for having invited me.
Suddenly, the uncle dared to talk to nobody in particular. Although it was none of his business, and he was not in charge of my education, he felt his input may be important. So he spoke into the air. (The term transmitting blind’ is very descriptive.) “Sugar is a very important element of nutrition. Pilots take chocolate as an immediate source of energy before going into combat." As the uncle had not spoken directly to me, I did not feel I needed to respond.
Although I was ready for almost anything I was suddenly taken by surprise. I could not imagine that the master of all masters, the closest mortal to the creator - Mr. Besserkopff would be interested in my coffee drinking but he was. Mr. Besserkopff picked up a fork and clinked on his cup of coffee to draw everybody's attention and started to talk. I was very surprised to hear his voice as I had never heard it before, it sounded as if the voice did not belong to anybody and was coming from outer space. He spoke for some time before I started to listen to what he was talking about.
Our ancestors were gatherers. They collected grains and their body's had to work hard to separate the roughage from the carbohydrates. Their body had to work once again to break the carbohydrates into sugar, which is the only form of energy the human body can use. This is a very inefficient process which causes a negative balance of energy. It doesn’t leave much energy to make the body grow. Today, thanks to an Englishman in Brazil who invented the process of sugar distillation we now have the purest form of energy ever found. The very same man even used pure sugar as a medicine to cure his sick wife. Today the body does not waste energy processing the sugar, so we are taller, stronger, and we live longer.
I was half listening and half thinking “I’ve got to get out of this place, but how?” I could not just get up and walk I had to do something for Meir who I had never seen looking so down before.
Mr. Besserkopff was not finished; he kept talking about Meir and how healthy, and tall he was. He emphasized the fact that Meir was never sick with any children’s diseases. Meir looked miserable, and I was becoming more and more uncomfortable. I tried very hard to come up with an exit plan for Meir and myself.
It came to me like a divine light, like a board to a drowning sailor. I stood up and said, "I am sorry but I have to wash my hands". These were the best winning words I had ever used. It was like sticking the dagger into the bull's heart, the final knockout. I was on their ground and I had used their very own weapon, for a blow under the belt. I knew very well that nobody would question what exactly I needed to do, or what had made my hands dirty. I also knew that Meir would come after me, but I did not want to take any chances so I rushed to the bathroom and locked myself in. Twenty minutes later I came out very quietly to find Meir peeping through his door, with the maid on standby to destroy all the evidence and to disinfect the bathroom. Meir smuggled me safely out of the house.

"Hoch Kaffe" stands for the coffee people in Germany drink at five o'clock, at the "high part” of the day. The Englishman who discovered how to distil the sugar was a real person. He was sure he had found the ultimate pure food. What Meir's father forgot to tell me though, was that the very same Englishman killed his wife by feeding her only sugar for three months. Meir himself, brought back to life, some children’s’ illnesses that had already long been forgotten. He was sick for three years, virtually non-stop, during his army service. He contracted all of the children’s diseases he had been deprived of as a child. They came along with all of the possible textbook complications.
Unfortunately, I never had Hoch Kaffe again. I was banned from the house of the civilized people.
The End

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