Interview with 2018 Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Rachel Purdy

Interview with 2018 Cheuse Center Grant Recipient Rachel Purdy

Rachel Purdy loves adventure. For five years, she traveled North America in an RV, working as a freelance journalist and writing a travel blog. Her love of travel was cemented after receiving a grant to study modern short stories at the University of Cambridge. She is pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts from George Mason University, where she studies creative nonfiction writing. 

What have you been up to?

It’s only been about 5 weeks since I’ve been back to the U.S. after 2 months of traveling in the Balkans. I’m still going through a culture shock. I forgot how fast things move here. Aside from re-assimilating, which I think is progressing nicely since I’ve bought a planner to itemize my life, I’m trying to figure out where to start with all the interviews and notes from my trip. It’s almost an overwhelming amount of information, but it’s also the best problem for a writer to have. I’m also seriously considering opening a rural coffee shop in my house – if I figure out a way around the licenses and permits.

What did you learn by the end of your time abroad?

The last time I traveled by myself in a foreign country was 8 years ago, but this trip was the first one where I had a specific mission – to drink coffee and learn about culture and politics in a region of the world where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language. I learned very quickly that walking is the best way to get a sense of people, to breathe in the smells, and to stumble upon an adventure. It may seem counter-intuitive, especially to me as a former reporter, but hanging around was the easiest way to encourage someone to start a conversation.

I also learned about how great an influence a culture, even one that you are removed from, can have over you. I understand my grandfather better because I know more about Serbs, and I see these personality traits passed down to his daughter and son, my mother and uncle, and I recognize them even in myself.

What inspired you to learn more about coffee culture in the Balkans?

My grandfather was born in Belgrade right before World War II. I’d always wanted to know more about my Serbian and Croatian ancestors, as well as the culture and politics of former Yugoslavian countries today. Since I’m writing for an American audience, I wanted another way to connect to readers, especially those who don’t know much about the tension and conflict in that region. Coffee seemed like a perfect meeting point between our pumpkin spice lattes and the Turkish-style coffee in the Balkans. The cultures might be worlds apart, but we all share the same fondness for that bean.

Did Croatia making it the finals in the World Cup change your experience of culture or coffee in the Balkans? Why or why not?

Although I played soccer growing up, and my mom even coached middle school soccer, I’ve never really developed an interest in watching professionals play on television. I devote so much time to watching weekly NFL games and following the Warriors and the Heat during basketball season, that it seemed like a peril to my already dwindling productivity to add another sport to the mix.

But there’s something different about watching football in Europe. They’re mad about the sport. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the matches because of the passion of the fans – almost impossible not to. I remember watching the World Cup Final in Korčula, a Croatian island off the Dalmatian coast, on my birthday, and I felt depressed when they lost to France. But I was more upset at the loss than any Croatian. “It’s an honor to get silver,” locals told me. I’d already learned much

about national pride talking to people in coffee shops, but this expanded my understanding of pride in the face of “defeat,” and even how “defeat” is defined.

How is American coffee culture different or similar to that of the Balkans?

Both cultures love coffee and crave coffee, but the coffee itself is so different. The Turkish-style coffee, known as Bosnian coffee, or Serbian coffee, or domestic coffee, depending on which country you’re in, is a ritual, rather than a quick caffeine fix. There are variations, but you generally boil unfiltered coffee and water together, and perhaps some sugar, in a small pot on the stove. Before the water boils over, you are served the pot, which is about the size of a coffee mug, along with a smaller cup, to pour at your leisure. It’s best to let the coffee settle a bit before you pour. You can still find espresso drinks at some of the restaurants and coffee shops, as you would in the U.S., but if you ask for an “Americano,” you might get a completely blank look. One Serbian man asked me, “If you Americans like coffee so much, why do you treat it so cruelly?”

Aside from the different ways of brewing coffee, the act of having coffee is even more contradictory. In the U.S., we have our coffee to-go, in large Starbucks cups, loaded with sugar and cream. We may even sit at a café, but rarely without a cell phone or a laptop to keep us occupied. In the Balkans, coffee is slow. You must converse with your coffee companion – to gossip, to complain, to strike a business deal – and you should smoke. If you are alone, you must watch people and you should smoke. There is no rush to leave, and if you pull out a laptop, you’ll will be outed as a foreigner instantly. It is gauche to work in public. The Balkans might be the last refuge to sit and have a coffee for three hours doing nothing else but observing the world around you.