My cab driver today was from Ethiopia. We got to chatting about coffee and the changing significance coffee has had since the inception of Starbucks, and the effects on some of the plantation owners in Ethiopia. He then launched into a discussion of the traditional role of coffee culturally in Ethiopia: how “your door is always open, and people stop by–and you serve coffee.” He described how coffee is a form of hospitality there–and a truly social event.
Then he told me this story: My sister wanted to visit from Ethiopia. I sent for her and when she arrived, she spoke no English. I had to work, so she had to spend time alone in the apartment. She got quite lonely and bored. One morning, she decided to make a pot of coffee. After having made it, she realized she felt funny drinking it alone–in fact, she felt she couldn’t drink it alone.
So she went door to door down the hallways looking for someone to share her coffee with her.
Those oblivious Chicagoans didn’t know how to interpret this strangely dressed black woman gesticulating at their door, speaking a foreign language. They phoned the police, who came and picked her up. They held her at the police station, until her brother came and claimed her. He had to explain the reason she was going door to door. Culturally, there was no translating this form of hospitality.