In Search of Lost Chai

We were in Budapest, walking up and down the streets, taking photographs in the early morning light. The stones of the church seemed to sparkle in the dampness of freshly fallen rain, and as my friend, Todd, and I rounded the corner, the looming steeple and intricate carvings of its entrance seemed poised to swallow the city…

“Oh, look!” I breathed.

“I know,” said Todd, as he focused and snapped photos with his professional camera as I tucked my hot pink tiny Canon into my pocket.

“Oh, look! They might have chai!” I said, pointing to the building right next to the church, labeled California Coffee Company. I ran to the menu, posted outside the door.

A California Coffee Company in Budapest, Hungary. Photo from

Before you judge me too much, you should know that in addition to having an unhealthy obsession with chai lattes, I have had to live without them since October. Slovenia doesn’t quite understand what I mean when I ask for a chai (more on that later), and I’d just met Todd, visiting from the U.S., in Budapest the night before. This was the first American style coffee house I’d seen in months, and I could almost be sure they would have my favorite beverage…

In truth, if there had been a Hungarian place that served chai, I’d have been more than happy to go there instead. I’d never even been to a California Coffee Company before, being from New England. But as I breathlessly ordered my chai, watched them steam the milk and add in the black tea mix, I couldn’t help but feel a swell of homesickness rise up.

It’s funny how such small things can bring forth those moments. Food, more than anything else, reminds me of home–or makes me miss it. There’s something about the smell and taste that brings on such a sensory overload that it can create a more powerful feeling than an image or a memory. It’s so present in the moment, so fleeting, and considering chai’s absence in Slovenia, so rare.

Poor Todd had to deal with two more trips to the California Coffee House during our next 24 hours in Budapest, and then 2 trips to a British cafe during our 24 hours in Bratislava, Slovakia, and 3 trips to Starbucks during our 48 hours in Vienna, Austria.

One of the things I love most about Slovenia is that it has resisted most American chains. Of course, there are a few McDonald’s in downtown Ljubljana, but there are literally no other fast food or coffee house chains. I’ve heard from locals that there was a Subway years ago, but it just wasn’t popular. To that, I say: good! Slovenia has an abundance of lovely foods and cafes, and it certainly doesn’t need to replace homegrown, locally owned restaurants and cafes with bland imports from other countries.

Photo from

But oh, how I wish they would have just one cafe that would serve a decent chai latte!

For the tea drinker, Slovenia is amazing. They have more varieties of fruit tea in the grocery store than I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously, whole aisles are dedicated to tea: Lipton, loose leaf, Teekanne, and other European brands, including the Slovenian 1001 Cvet, which makes a lovely strawberry-vanilla blend. I was first introduced to Tekkane’s “Magic Moments” seasonal tea this winter, and it has become a new favorite: a mix flavors, including mulled wine, cinnamon, orange, rum-grapes and pomegranate indeed prove that it is “delicious and fruity,” as the box claims. Add a teaspoon of honey to a warm cup, and it’s also kind of heavenly.

But no matter how good Magic Moments or any other brand is, chai will always have my heart. But my life became difficult when I first attempted to explain this in a local kavarna.

“Chai, prosim,” I said back in October.

“Ah, čaj, ni problema,” the waiter might have said in return. Ah, tea, no problem!

But, dear readers, there is a problem. The problem is that the Slovenian word for tea–čaj–is pronnounced the same way as my beloved chai. Try explaining that in a foreign language where the word chai has no resonance.

“Ne, čaj ki je črn, ampak tudi z mlekom… In ima cimet in muškatni omreh,” I fumbled. No, black tea with milk… And cinnamon and nutmeg. My poor vocabulary prevented me from even giving chai its justice in my description.

So I’d gone without, for months, by the time I arrived in Budapest, and the spiced aroma of the chai seemed to make the cathedral, and Parliament, and the Opera House, and everything else I saw that day, all the more beautiful.

At the end of our first day, Todd pulled something out of his backpack. Three red boxes, slightly crushed from the journey across the Atlantic, cellophane crinkled.

Three red boxes of Stash premium chai spice black tea, my personal favorite, so that I could make my own lattes back in Ljubljana.

Then, for a moment, the whole world seemed a little bit brighter.

Check back soon for more about Kristina and Todd’s adventures through Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia!

NOTE: Chai lovers in Ljubljana: never fear! There are a few places to get chai, though lattes are near impossible to come by. Čajna Hiša, in Ljubljana’s Old Town, features a Rooibos blend that includes milk and honey. Mueller, a German store, sells a single brand of chai tea bags and a powder mix. Maxi, the giant grocery store off Slovenska Cesta, carries a single brand of chai tea bags as well in the tea section, which has a great variety. And, as a side note: At BTC (the big mall complex), I found a very over-priced British cafe which also carries a chai latte, though when I asked for it to go (so I could walk around and do my shopping), they poured scathing hot liquid into a plastic cup with a plastic cover and straw. Where was my nice paper cup and cardboard sleeve? My fingers burned while carrying it, and I’m pretty sure I also drank some melted plastic. Yum.

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