June 02, 2010

To Lviv for a Cup of Coffee

I heard about Lviv coffee culture before coming here and the locals immediately reaffirmed that Lviv is the coffee capital of Ukraine. We were quick to access the validity of these statements as our project office was very basic and before getting a coffee machine we needed to address the lack of the table lamps. The very first day we went searching for a morning caffeine dose in a cardboard glass and to the disappointment of the Moscow city snobs none of the local cafes appeared to offer coffee to go. 

Stary Mury
I ended up running around with my Starbucks thermal cup and to the horror of the folk from the local cafés asking them to transfer my cappuccinos tastefully served in fine china into my plastic beast. Eventually I found a place just a few steps away from the office which had small cardboard cups and did ok espressos. Kvitka (Flower) is a tiny bar with 4 small stand-up tables, wide-selection of cheap liquors, nostalgic Soviet toffees, coffee a la Orient made in jezve on scorching sand and a small espresso machine. Every time I came for 6 double-espressos it was a little disaster for the place as all the mid-aged deputies of the City Council craving for 50 gram of cognac or vodka had to wait for my order to be prepared. Once I even volunteered to bring my colleagues to Kvitka to show them wherefrom I fetch our coffees. Now picture four suited up consultants in all their expensive gear in this little place packed with the smells of cigarettes, cheap liquor and coffee. I think it was about the end of the Kvitka era for us.

Gradually we adopted a more locally acceptable way to drink coffee – we started going out for coffee. In the middle of a working day! Sometimes twice! What an unruly team we had become! We picked up the local tradition of having business meetings over coffee: for the capital dwellers as we were this was a very inefficient way to do meetings as they would ran a risk of becoming too relaxed and getting more like lyrical conversations instead of the business talks. It is over Lviv coffee that I honed my interview and listening skills, got to hear theories of the local-made philosophers of the city's past and future and learned to grasp important bits of information deliberately hidden in the layers of the Galician chitchat.

Svit Kavy

This coffee-going routine revealed quite a lot for me about my colleagues too. I found out that men are much more dedicated cake eaters than women when my colleagues acquired a routine of going to Svit Kavy (World of Coffee) at 10 am sharp as fresh apple cake was arriving there at that time and was religiously eaten over coffee. Another colleague of mine used "coffee and cake" weapon to address "no time for meeting" excuse of the female members in our local team. Well, no wonder - the cakes are a separate matter in Lviv: the locals do have a sweet-tooth and they have had their fingers in many pies too. As a border city in Ukraine Lviv has been a melting pot of Austrian, Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish and Armenian traditions – nowadays manifesting not at least in cakes and sweets of all sorts. For example, once a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire Lviv made sure to inherit the secrets of apple strudel and chocolate cake Sacher. Western Ukrainian traditional cakes such as plyatsyk (home-made cakes) and syrnik (baked cheesecake made of cottage cheese) are very special treats that have won many hearts and stomachs: I've learnt that I can bribe people with syrnik. Moreover, the sweets making in Lviv goes far beyond the cakes and lands in baklava places and hand-made chocolate parlors. When to work?

Marcipans in Milk Cholocate Sell Quckly

Svit Kavy
As the project went on we moved our team meetings, debriefs after key interviews, serious talks and not very serious talks over coffee. It was fun to seat on a summer terrace when warm or in a cozy small cafe when cold. I owe most my remaining sanity to my little café sallies in the middle of the working days packed with meetings and document making. A cup of coffee (or later – tea) or a milk shake, dark wood furniture and a bit of good jazz at Svit Kavy or Cafe 1– I am eternally indebted to you. Weekends on which I did not fly back home I spent in reflections on the expatriate kind of living over syrnik at Veronika under the careful supervision of the waitresses who always know better.

Svit Kavy - Cups and
Veronika Pattisery
Amazingly enough after two years in Lviv when I am about to be done with the project and leave the place I still find new places. While the city centre in Lviv is very compact and many cafes are very much seen as they set up summer terraces just as the last snow melts you still need to know where to go. It is an integral part of the Galician nature to reveal things one by one as if testing your capacity to absorb. Some good cafes places are hiding from a random visitor as if saving their grandeur for those in the know. Just like that through those in the know I got introduced to in a place where besides the laid-back coffee talks you can have relaxing tea conversations. They make your coffee in a vintage coffee machine and the tea gets into life from the magical mixtures stored in the boxes. I was sipping my masala tea on a trendy summer terrace with red woven chairs and wooden floors, watching tourists and locals promenading along and it occurred to me that I have long forgotten when I last saw my Starbucks thermal cup.
Stary Mury -

2 Responses to To Lviv for a Cup of Coffee:

Stephen McCallister said...

My wife and I spent July 2006 in Lviv and started every morning with the coffee and blueberry and alpine strawberry tarts at Veronika. You blog post not only brings back these fond memories, but anticipation, as we'll be back in Lviv this summer. Thank you!

Stephen McCallister

Olga Tikhonova said...

Stephen, thank you very much for nice words and I wish you a fabulous trip to Lviv: in years it has become only a better place!

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