I’m jetlagged in New Zealand---nothing new for those of us who regularly travel across oceans and datelines. But where I used to lie awake and count the hours of lost sleep like sheep, I now just get up and start the day, which for me must commence with coffee.
I’m staying at The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel, a grand name for a homey B&B in historic Ponsonby, an inner city neighborhood of Auckland just two kilometers from the central business district and home to some of the city’s hippest cafés, boutiques, and restaurants. It's a place where local Aucklanders stroll the streets, care for their white picket fences, groom their flowering trees, and wave to their neighbors; an area that in the ‘30s was more well-known to prostitutes, drunks, and criminals. Sally and Gerry, the owners of the Great Ponsonby, likened the neighborhood to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. I see the similar quirks and individuality in the DNA of both neighborhoods, and am so glad I chose authentic Ponsonby as my home base in Auckland.
But back to the coffee. My room, the Green Room at the Grand Ponsonby, is a little outbuilding much like I imagine a cottage would look like at summer camp, if I’d ever gone to summer camp. It has a screen door and a slanted roof and wood floors that slope and creak below my bare feet. A small square table is tucked into the corner against painted teal-green walls on which hangs a pastel sketch called "Samoa 2002" of pacific islanders swimming in the sea. In search of my morning jolt in the room's kitchenette, I opened the cupboard and found a canister labeled “Plunger Coffee.” I smiled. It’s amazing how quickly we forget things yet how easily the memories flood back at the whiff of a sentimental scent, with the first notes of a song, or in this case, at the reading of a word.
One morning several years ago at my home in Brussels, Belgium, where I lived for six years, I was talking to my Dutch friend Saskia about a coffee social we planned to host at my house for the parents of the children in our daughters’ class. Saskia speaks English perfectly, despite having never lived in an English speaking country. Since I only had one of those fancy one-cup-at-a time-coffee makers at my house, I asked her if she had a coffee pot I could borrow that brews 6-8 cups at a time, à la a Mr. Coffee.
Saskia shook her head no and said she did not have one of those.
“But I can bring a plunger if you’d like,” she said earnestly.
I laughed out loud. I planned to have 25-30 people in the house, but hadn’t realized we needed to worry about the plumbing too.
“Well, our toilets work pretty well,” I said. “We have two bathrooms and guests won’t be longer than two hours. Plus I have one plunger and don’t think a second is necessary.”
Saskia looked at me like I had antennae sprouting from my head.
In hopes of clarifying things, and clearly thinking she had made a linguistic gaffe I said, “In English, a plunger is the device we use to unplug the toilet.”
I added the pumping hand motions or effect.
Slightly miffed that I had corrected her, she said, “Well, it is also the name of a type of coffee pot; the kind where you push down the top. Isn’t that called a plunger?”
I was stumped. To be honest, I knew exactly what she was talking about, or so I thought, but had no idea what it was called.
“Isn’t that just called a coffee pot? Or I know, it’s a Thermos,” I suggested, raising my index finger in the air for emphasis.
“Surely a Thermos is a container in which you keep drinks hot,” Saskia tossed back in her accented English. “But you don’t push on the top.”
Darn it. This non-native English speaker was teaching me my own language. Of course she was right. She gave the perfect Webster’s definition of Thermos.
I thought about it a few seconds more then told Saskia I knew what she meant; that what she was talking about was called a Pump Pot---those coffee pots with a round disk on top that, when pushed, force coffee out of a spout.
Finally we were talking the same language.
“No, a Pump Pot won’t do,” I said, “Because I’ll still have to fill it one cup at a time with my coffee maker.”
Saskia gave me another look that told me she thought I’d really gone mad.
“Well I think this will work as it is quite large,” she said politely. “You put the coffee grounds in the bottom, pour boiling water over it and let it rest, then press the grounds down with the top. It makes about eight cups at a time. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?”
Eureka! I hunched over in a fit of laughter.
“Oh, you are talking about a French Press!” I finally said.
“Yes, I think it’s French,” Saskia said. “But in Australia it is called a plunger.”
Before that moment, I had no idea that my friend's mother had lived in Australia for 11 years as a young girl and had learned English there. We talked for an hour longer about her mother and her parents, about how they'd met and ended up in Holland--all things that helped round out and color the portrait of a friend whom I've come to love so dearly. Things I might not have known or thought to ask about had it not been for the plunger talk.
We have laughed about this conversation many times over the years and sometimes when I’d go to her house she’d hold up the French Press and say, “I have the plunger! Would you like a cup of coffee?” Though we live thousands of miles apart now, Saskia and I still see each other each summer and enjoy chats over coffee, from a plunger or otherwise.
And today in New Zealand with my Plunger Coffee next to me, I am thinking about my friend with a smile and am reminded that even when we speak the same language there's still much we can learn from one another.