It is six in the morning in Saint Louis, eleven in Paris. It is just before lunch at one in Beirut, on my favorite person’s birthday.
© 2016 Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved
If I could I would meet you anywhere in the world to celebrate today. Perhaps instead I can offer you my memories of all the wonderful times and places we have met.
For nineteen years we met almost every day, at a wobbly kitchen table, over cereal and milk. When we got old enough to be rebellious, we met over the instant coffee of which Dad disapproved. A little later, we met across the street from the campus main gate, over kaak with cream cheese, more coffee in brown paper cups.
On Friday nights we met over whiskey and wine, in bars in Gemmayze and Hamra. We met on the corner of your bed a few hours later, for a debrief of the night. We met over sushi the night before I left home, then you drove me to the airport. You promised me you’d meet me soon on the other side of the ocean.
And you did. In DC we made pancakes in the kitchen, had dinner on the night bus to New York. We met in a skating rink in Boston, and in San Francisco, on a terrace overlooking Golden Gate Bridge. The day I graduated we met Mom, Dad, and the third member of our crew for breakfast at my favorite café in the world. Four years later, in Paris, for another graduation, we met up there again.
In twenty-four years we defied every time zone, devised the most outlandish itineraries, met in the dingiest, classiest, most random places. And when we couldn’t, we met over Skype.
You met me Chez Paul in Charles de Gaulle airport, for three hours of us over coffee and croissants. I met you in Paddington Station for a wedding and a week of morning espressos. We met in a five star hotel in Houston to celebrate two birthdays in one. We met on either side of the shower curtain many times, over news too important to wait.
We met in wedding dress boutiques. In your favorite London coffee shop. We met in hospitals and at funerals, departure and arrival gates. We met on a bench in front of a dolphin fountain, missing a little boy we both loved.
We met for an hour one Christmas Eve, for a fifteen minute breakfast last July. And I’ll never forget the three planes you took to meet me, for one night when I needed you.
Last year you met me for Prosecco in November, and we each made a wish for the year. I said I wanted to be a writer. You told me to do it.
M, I’m featured in this month’s issue of the Four Seasons Magazine.
Dear reader, if you would like to read the article, you can find it below. Or you can enjoy it, in a bathrobe, in your complimentary copy offered by every Four Seasons Hotel in the world. It is a piece about people and cultures meeting every day over breakfast croissants and coffee, inspired by a lady who met me at my highest, my lowest, and every place in between, and never stopped believing in me.
I love you.
Until the next time, the next place, we meet.
Meeting for Breakfast
A simple coffee and croissant inspire a meditation on the unexpected cross-cultural origins of everyday things.
It is 7:00 am on an indigo morning,
on the terrace of a Paris café. “Un café crème et un croissant, s’il vous plaît.”
In this perfect time and place, as I nibble the delicate pastry and sip white froth from the coffee cup, I think of the millions of others performing a similar ritual all over the city and all over the world.
Every morning of every day, civilisations meet for breakfast. Conversations are launched, thoughts shared. Philosophies are developed, movements born, books written, recipes exchanged. Cultures and identities are blended—creamed and scrambled, flipped, poached and flambéed. For evidence of this mixing and mingling, I need only look as far as my croissant and coffee. As I savour my breakfast, I contemplate the journey it made to reach my table.
Before it settled in Paris, the coffee of
my café crème was Turkish and black. In 1669, it went on a trip in an Ottoman ambassador’s coffers, from Mehmed IV’s saray in Constantinople to Louis XIV’s château in Versailles, and from there to an Armenian merchant’s booth in the Saint Germain fair.
Coffee stand gave way to coffee shop, on the Quai de l’École by the Seine.
A few years later and a few streets up, an Italian, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, served the steaming beverage in Paris’ first true café—here, at Le Procope—and by 1686, kahve had morphed into café. Soon, it was fuelling philosophical debates and revolutionary thoughts: the Encyclopédistes, the révolutionnaires, writers, scientists, artists, all brought together over coffee in this café.
The croissant would come later. Its voyage began in Vienna, where in 1683 the Austrians had just driven back the invading Ottomans. To celebrate, a soldier-turned-baker with a sense of humour made a crescent-shaped pastry—its form reminiscent of the moon on the fallen opponent’s flag—and served it, sweet as victory, with cream and coffee.
Two centuries later, in 1838, this kipfel went to Paris with Viennese baker and entrepreneur August Zang. Amid the pots and pans of his Boulangerie Viennoise, the Austrian pastry fused with Persian phyllo dough, and the quintessential croissant—delicate, flaky and French—was born.
It is 8:00 am on a pale blue morning, on the terrace of a Paris café. “Un autre croissant, s’il vous plaît. Et un café crème.”
At the table to my right, two men are absorbed in an early-morning game of chess—a contest of strategy born in India and bred by nobility and military leaders along the lines of their conquests, from ancient Persia into Mesopotamia and from North Africa into Spain. Chess made its way from Baghdad into Europe when the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid presented Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne with a chess set to mark their alliance against Byzantium and the Umayyads of Spain. Buddhist pilgrims transported the game along the Silk Road from India into China, where today the action moves along the intersecting lines of the board.
Meanwhile, my café neighbours keep the pieces within the squares, the original Indian infantry, cavalry, elephantry and chariotry pieces now replaced with pawn, knight, bishop and rook.
Finishing my second croissant, I reach for a 10-euro note to pay the check. My mind wanders back over the long journey of paper currency, from the hands of Tang dynasty merchants, who wrote private bills of credit, receipts and exchange notes, to Marco Polo travelling on horseback, carrying paper money from Kublai Khan’s China to Italy.
I think of its spread into Europe and around the globe, and the subsequent developments of banknotes, fixed denominations, and the high-tech materials and security designs we use today.
With my final sip of coffee, I reflect on how we all are linked, through nearly every item we touch at every moment of the day. Our worlds are meant to meet. With each encounter, we change the people and objects around us, those changes ripple out to others, and we change ourselves. We move around the globe and across time, through things as simple as a croissant and a café crème.
It is 9:00 am on a bright yellow morning, on the terrace of a Paris café. On the table, the remains of breakfast: an empty porcelain cup, a few flaky, golden crumbs. A perfect breakfast, in a perfect time and place, descended from so many that came before. ■