Barista and Coffee Shop Owner
This story is taken from a recorded interview and is transcribed with very little editing to preserve the details.
My name is a rare (in the world) but typical Ukrainian name. It’s after the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko from 1800. Everyone who is called Taras has Ukrainian roots. It’s a very ‘origin’ type name and a more western part of Ukraine. I was trying to work out what is the link between Ukraine and Greece? But in 891 I think, I don’t want to mess up the dates, Ukraine became a Christian country — it used to be Pagan — and the Christianity came from Greece.
I was trying to find a translation and the meaning of my name, which means ‘The free man’ or ‘The man of freedom’. I guess it tells a lot about me because I feel I am a Gypsy inside, I’m always restless — ready to go. I never think about comfort, I think always what I see.
My eye is fed with visual things, I recognise the beauty, I see the beauty, it doesn’t matter if it’s a human or an object, I can always spot something different and very, very tiny things which trigger that. David Downton says: “That I am an artist without knowing that I’m an artist” it is kind of that which makes it even better because I don’t call myself an artist.
I remember the first home I lived in, it had a beautiful garden and was at my grandparent’s place. I had the most amazing childhood I could have dreamt of because it was great. It was the countryside it was grandparent’s love, it was grandmother’s food, a wild forest and endless fields on the other side.
I spent time in countryside from since I was born, until the age of seven — that was when you had to go to school. I was born in the city so I had to go to school in the city and my ‘torture’ was Monday to Friday — because I couldn’t stand the city. I was looking forward to Friday, the 1410 bus, that went to my grandparent’s place. That was my life from Monday to Friday, looking forward to it.
My aunty she was unable to have children and she looked after me all the time until the age of 7. So I had to reconnect again with my parents, because I got used to her. I wouldn’t be who I am without my aunty, she’s probably the most important female figure in my life. I think she’s got even more maternal feelings towards me than my mother. Even though I love my mother and she’s trying to protect me, my mother’s sister, she understands me.
I guess when I was a child, I was fed with love because I was a substitute for her own children. Now, she has got two beautiful daughters, but at that time it was a massive shock for her to live in a very close society where things have certain rules: after you get married, next year there has to be a baby. She became the centre-point of public judgement because people were questioning why? It was against the rules of the small village mentality, so I think she went through a lot of very difficult times. And I am glad that I managed to contribute something to her.
I guess she taught me that whole outdoor eating culture because she was wealthy and she loved — and she still loves — socialising and she’s a doctor, obviously she’s got an amazing connection with people and authority with children. I think she was harsh when she had to be harsh with me but she is very well mannered. She taught me manners and how to behave when in places and how to eat right, how to say thank you, give up a place for the elderly and it was basic things for my education.
She is an amazing baker and I remember, since I was a child, licking the bowl of cake dough mix, and I can do it until the age of 37 now. She introduced me to the love of food and because my parents weren’t rich and lived a very basic life I had ‘black’ and ‘white’. I had my day-to-day with my parents, they were always short of food. My mum couldn’t cook and I think she couldn’t cook because she wasn’t financially secure to do so, she couldn’t spoil me with that. And with my aunty I had a very different life.
I rebelled against my aunty and I remember that was probably the most important decision I ever made in my life because I guess I sacrificed everything. There was period of time when I was going to the church because at my grandparent’s place it was forbidden, and whatever was forbidden was ‘sweet’. So I was going because everyone was going and I started questioning religion and within the dialog with myself, I disagreed with a lot of stuff that I was told.
One Sunday when it was mass at the church, I had to go — because my aunty said “We are going to the church”. She said “How come you can sleep while other people are in the church” and she pulled the duvet off of me and said “Now you are going to get up” and I said “No”.
It was a massive gap that I had created between the two of us by not accepting her authority I guess. But I remember the adrenaline punch and my heartbeat was going probably 200 beats per minute. I made myself very vulnerable, in a sense, but also I made myself very strong because I stood up for what I had believed. I think it was the first time in my life that I said something that wasn’t suitable for her even though I loved and I always will love her. I think she didn’t talk to me for probably a week or maybe we had very cold relations because both of us had to understand what had happened — and that was my thing. And then I realised that I am strong and that was an amazing step.
My auntie has always loved what she was doing. She is doing what she loves and I cannot imagine her doing any other job. She works in the city but she lives in the village where my grandparents lived because they built her house where my grandfather was born. And even though there is a state doctor in the village, because if there is a school there must be a doctor, she is the one who is called in the middle of the night. So, any birth, any death, any high blood pressure. I think that there are about 100 houses and everyone has her number.
She is so helpful towards everyone, she has got so much dignity. I think all the closest people that I know, my grandpa that has died, my father 7 years ago and her best friend who has died of cancer around 8 years ago, everyone left holding her hand. She was giving so much hope to people, to probably the last moment they departed. She is so strong yet so fragile at the same time when I look at her. And you can upset her very easily, she is very emotional and I guess you can find a similarity in her love towards people.
My mum was forced to study what my granddad wanted her to study. My mum always wanted to be a doctor and my granddad decided that it was not good and that she should become an accountant. I think it was ‘privileged’ and it was an easy way to get a job and I think for my grandparent’s generation, security meant more than anything else.
My grandad was a driver for 40 years. He spent his whole life working as a driver. He started working as driver for Generals during the war and then he ended up in a prison because the car he was driving the General in, one of the wheels came off and killed someone.
He was a little bit of a dictator, he was of a very typical post-war mentality where people never got together from love, it was purely based on instinct, about reproduction and surviving and my grandparents bickered their whole life. But they managed to have a decent house and a decent life with a pension and stuff.
Going back to my childhood, I have had ‘three lives’. I had the ‘U.S.S.R. life’ — I was born during the U.S.S.R. — I had life in the independent Ukraine and I am British. I have tasted life in three different dimensions.
I had an amazing relationship with my grandfather. In a way we loved each other for the fact neither of us gave up their ideas. But we didn’t like each other for the fact we couldn’t accept each other, who we are, because we are very strong characters and he stuck to his rules and I stuck to mine. We had amazing fights over politics and religion but we we never put anger in it, we always put what we believe in. Our arguments were very intellectual with a lot of discussion. Going back to my childhood, I have had ‘three lives’. I had the ‘U.S.S.R. life’ — I was born during the U.S.S.R. — I had life in the independent Ukraine and I am British. So I can trace, I can sense — the same thing — I have tasted life in three different dimensions, while he has tasted life in one dimension.
I remember when I was a kid I had to do some physical work to help him: to preserve some potatoes for the winter, and I always wanted to innovate the process and he always stuck to the way he was taught by his grandfather. So obviously the method used to do that was from generation upon generation before him — and he believed in the functionality of it — it worked, so why do we have to change? At that time I was questioning everything.
His understanding of time and the world was very different, he was amazed by how life had changed in general but also he believed in safety, which was his main priority. I understand why because his father died when he was 7 and he was left with 7 siblings. So he was the eldest kid to look after all the others, people were reliant on him.
My mum did end up as an accountant. To be honest I don’t think she has ever met my grandfathers criteria and the standards he wanted her to be. I remember my mum used to work as an accountant in a secret U.S.S.R. manufacturer of electronics, for building rockets and satellites. Because the economy was so linked, when the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the whole economy went to pieces and none of the country could function on its own, because the economy wasn’t able to function.
She gave up the job and she started going to Moscow to buy goods and bring them to the Ukraine, where we lived, and she had a little market stall. It gave an amazing financial impact on my family, that’s when life changed for good, for better. That’s when my parents bought their first car, when they got a new flat and when my mum tasted life for the first time. I can’t say it was luxury — it was luxury on her scale. It was affording food she wanted to have. This gave her the push and she has never worked for anyone else since. She became self-employed and she had a little business trading, with my father, until my father passed away 7 years ago and my mum was left alone. But, she is doing some work and she has got a state pension now.
I became very cool at school because I had a denim jacket on, I became a dealer of denim goods and chewing gums — which were so foreign for that time.
I was probably 14 or 15 at this point. It was a very important time in my life because when you hit teenage years, you are realising what money is, what can money buy and it is a turning point in your life. We had some family members in Poland and when U.S.S.R. and Ukraine opened the borders, they started bringing Polish goods to the Ukraine. I became very cool at school because I had a denim jacket on, I became a dealer of denim goods and chewing gums — which were so foreign for that time.
I used to hang out with the coolest kids at school, because if they wanted a denim jacket they had to go through me! I was bringing them to my flat, introducing them to my Polish relatives and they were getting denim jackets. I wasn’t making money, my family were making money, but I was the link.
When I was 5, I wanted to be a dentist. My aunty was a dentist’s nurse and because I wasn’t in a kindergarten I was spending time with her at her work. I always wanted to be a dentist and a driver, because my uncle — my aunty’s husband — was a driver and my father was a driver and my Granddad was a driver. I always loved machinery — and cars were something I loved — and I think it continued until probably you get a driving licence, and then something that you dreamt of, you can do. Then you get different dreams.
By the time I was 20, I was already studying modern art at the art college. Every time I was going down town I was passing by a local university and I saw the students leaning against the fence and having very visual, very emotional conversations, and I wanted to taste the same. I didn’t have a dream of what I would like to study, I wanted to be a part of that group. I have to say that I was very bad at school, I had C, B, it was never A’s but at the Art College, I started paying attention — at school I was just lazy — and at Art college I got a lot of A’s.
This gave me a straightforward way to the university, and I decided to study classical drawing. I became a part of those students on the fence, in the same place and it was amazing. My student years were absolutely beautiful. I loved the communication, I had the subjects I loved and the subjects I completely ignored and I knew the price I am going to pay but, philosophy, psychology, drawings, it was my favourite.
The whole student society, hanging out, going out, events, it was so civilised, it was something I could imagine in the films and what I saw in the films. It was such a liberation for me and after the second year I decided to leave home. In the Ukraine it is a really, really big step to leave your parent’s home because Ukraine is very similar to Italy. It’s always Mama is cooking, you can be married with children and live in the same home. I couldn’t face that.
Before art school and university I was taking after school classes in wood carving and I really loved it. That related to my first money earning experience: someone saw my work, a wooden carving board on the table, and asked who made it. It was my first order from the Czech Republic to make 80 sets of cuckoo clocks. I earned $600 on my Summer holiday and I have never asked my parents for money since. That was my first salary and that was a massive boost of, I cannot say confidence as I didn’t know the word confidence but, I think, faith in myself. I realised that the only person that can change my life is myself and I felt that I was completely in charge of my own life.
I arrived in England with 4 still wet t-shirts because I didn’t have time to wash and I left all the past behind. I knew…I had enough of it.
I have to say who has ever lived in the U.S.S.R. whatever you do after is great. I can’t say I had a great life during the U.S.S.R. I don’t know why but it was so censored, everything on every level. I love Soviet attributes and style, and Rodchenko’s style of all the posters, because it created such a unique culture in the vacuum society, which, it has become art. But life in it, I don’t think it was great. It was great for an average thinking person but whenever you wanted to go different way, you were blocked.
I graduated from University and next day I jumped on a coach to Britain. So I got a coach from a big city in Ukraine called Lviv and it took 36 hours. I remember when I got clearance at immigration and we got on the ferry from Calais to Dover and I didn’t talk to anyone the whole journey. And then it was sunrise and it was 5 o’clock in the morning, it was such a warm day, and there was this guy travelling as well and he looked different and he didn’t talk to anyone. I got so curious about him because I felt he had something ‘Westerned’, something Western about the way he looked, the way he thought. We started chatting and he said to me “Study, it is the only thing that will push you forward”. And those words have always rung in my head like a wake up bell.
There were people on the coach with Ukrainian jams and honey and stuff, I hated it because they were bringing luggage, I felt they didn’t want to change. I arrived in England with 4 still wet t-shirts because I didn’t have time to wash and I left all the past behind. I knew…I had enough of it.
I remember the day I arrived in England and I remember it felt it was home. I didn’t know where, what, it was. It was the smell, it was the air temperature, it was even the way people behaved, it was the perfumes they were wearing. It was such a shock for me to where I came from and where I ended up — and it was such a great beginning of the journey, it was such an unknown beginning of the journey but I knew it was going to be a great journey.
The reason why Britain is so important to me is Britain allowed me to be myself and that’s why Britain became this haven for me which has…which is important to me in so many different ways. I always said that Britain is the Step-Mother you always wished to have. It is the best Step-Mother you can have.
I always believed that you can make home where you are. You don’t have to have a particular building, I have always called every room that I rented in London home.
My current home is the best place I’ve ever lived. I never thought I would be able to live in a place like this, I don’t know why, It looks so posh but I don’t feel posh. Every time I put the key in the door I still cannot believe that is where I live. I don’t know why because it’s just people who live there, they make it posh. Nothing else is posh about it, because it used to be a school and was built in 1881.
I managed to get the house when the market was its lowest and accidentally I end up surrounded by people who are art critics, and doctors and stuff and I’m there, a barista.
I guess I love the silence at home….I just love that. I think with silence comes truth and in silence you see things you don’t want to see and home is the place you can relax and allow those things to enter your head. You can have a discussion, you can open up to yourself. Silence can be very loud. Really, really loud. It’s so difficult to see the truth about yourself especially. And because the truth, it can be painful, it could be something you don’t want to know about yourself, but in silence you face yourself.
I’m a barista, a coffee man. Physically I work 4 days a week, and it’s 40 hours. Mentally I am always at work. I can’t disconnect with the shop because I think Coffee @33 is the only real relationship I’ve got.
There is nothing wrong with perfection. When I make coffee I try to accumulate my whole previous experience into that cup of coffee I am making you. And at that point of the time I am trying to achieve perfection. I think when…when mum says goodbye to you when you are leaving or mum hugs you that is perfection because no one else can do that.
The unity of people through a drink, it always amazes me how many people became friends through my shop, coffee has an amazing impact. I had a vision, I always knew, because it wasn’t a question if, it was when, I have a coffee shop. And I had a vision of a man sitting with a single espresso and reading The Guardian for as long as he wanted. That’s the vision that drove me towards the coffee shop, and this is the reason we never clear cups before you are in the shop. That cup of coffee, it’s your anchor to be in the shop, and you can stay as long as you want. You know, I hate when you have your last sip of coffee and someone says “Oh would you like another one?” No I won’t.
I used to work for Tinderbox London and we were making 3000 coffees a day but we never had one-to-one relationship with the customer and that’s what we’ve got at 33. Because we remember the orders, we know how you feel and strangely enough, people will tell us the truth. We know if someone feels shit, they tell me. And I love that because…And I think without realising, as you said, it is a society, it is a network of people, you know, going through that.
I am so grateful that people open up to me and tell me “You know Taras, I am divorcing,” and it’s fantastic because as people imagine British society: so closed and reserved, people are closed and reserved because they are ignored and they are not listened to. Or someone does not want to listen to their problems. We have become that stranger on a train journey, that people are not afraid because we don’t judge, I think.
It’s probably 6 months ago, it’s almost a year, we had a customer who was coming for coffee 3 times a day, had cappuccino with 3 sugars, and he lived in a council estate in that tall building, the twin towers…and he hung himself. We were gutted. He never bothered you, he was always quietly in the queue there, and you ask him…he just says “Hello” but there was always an element of sadness in his eyes. It was a really, really sad day when we realised that he was not with us anymore. Seeing someone 3 times a day, probably for the past 2 years, and choosing us as a shop…you know, if he wanted a coffee fix, he could have gone to any other coffee place you know, I don’t know, something drove him towards our shop.
A day off for me means a cup of coffee to start with and then a call to Ame (my business partner) to find out how the shop is doing. I have a very lazy morning, I never do anything serious in the morning. I can’t, my brain doesn’t function. I get the 10:19 train to London, (laughs) it has to be 10:19, I get so upset with myself if I don’t get the 10:19. I feel if I don’t take 10:19 my day is wasted or I’m late for something so important and I don’t know why? It’s just that 10:19 train.
I think the journey to London allows me, again, it can make the parallel with my journey to Britain, sitting at the window seat, I’m always looking forward to passing by Gatwick airport and I see what airlines are there. It’s because it has such an independent life, it’s a country within a country, it has a complete independent operational system and the way it operates and everything has an order there. Everything is in the right place, you know it’s fascinating. I have always been fascinated by planes and airports.
When I get to London I try to avoid crowds. As much as I like to walk I can’t stand passing by Buckingham Palace with the tourists and cameras. My favourite walk from Victoria is thorough Green Park and there is a little mews, where the Royal buildings are, there’s a little passage I always like to take and then you end up on Dover Street, there’s always little people and that’s nice. I always go for lunch first. And then I just go for a coffee, maybe a bit of shopping. I like buying socks.
What’s missing from my life? Hmm…. I’ve never had a relationship I’ve always wanted. I will explain why. I have never had a role model in my life who I could look at and say “Oh my god, they have had an amazing relationship”. I have never seen my parents happy, I’ve always seen my granny and my granddad bickering and my uncle and my aunty never holding hands. I have never had a family holiday. So, I think I am asking too much because I am looking for perfection and I could never achieve that because people say that a relationship is to, kind of, use each other. I don’t believe in it, I believe that relationships should be because you want to be with that person and unfortunately the domestic stuff brings its corrections into a relationship and different events happen, and you come back from work in a different mood.
But there is something I’m looking for, is that purity — when people are not afraid to say what they feel. Because we are so protected with spikes and we are so central inside, that sometimes people next to you could be the most important but we are afraid of something, we are afraid. I think people love cats and dogs more because they can’t get a “No” from them. And I think humans are so terrified of your response. That unconditional love towards the animals sometimes scares me.
I felt like I always prioritised relationships more than anything else and sometimes it worked in a damaging way because people are maybe not ready to take that, but then, then you learn but, if you can’t be yourself with the person you are with it’s not really working.
I think society in different decades had a very different meaning. I think society during the war meant to survive together. Society post-war, it was the husbands were at work and the housewives were gossiping outside. Where I was brought up, it was a great mass, a grey mass of people who have to obey to the rules. And, in current time society is lot different because we are so busy with our lives. Sometimes people live in the same building without knowing their neighbours, and I understand that because you come back home so exhausted. Society has become Facebook friends and chatting online, and that has become a society (laughs).
It is a very difficult question because now Mr Cameron talks about society, society, society, I don’t think it exists in the same way it has. People have become so individual and your home has become the society, your home has become this fortress, this castle, where your life is. I hope my neighbours are alright.
I can tell you, in my block of flats, there are 23 flats. I know quite a few of people, I don’t have any really personal relationships with the neighbours except one, her name is Pauline, and she is amazing. We have dinners, we hang out in the garden. She works in Charleston House in Firle, she’s very educated and I have very lovely conversations with her. And to be honest I don’t need more and I don’t need less.
I think those relationships are on the perfect level to satisfy both of us. She broke her leg, we looked after her. When my partner Rob had an injury a couple of months ago and I had to come to work, she was the only one I could rely on.
I don’t moan because…I think because I am happy.
I cannot stand people that moan, it irritates the hell out of me. It drives me absolutely insane. I think our customers are people enjoying what they are doing, we have very creative customers. Everyone has a story to tell and I absolutely love that, I love that aspect of my job. When I go back to Ukraine, I see a lot of people who moan and people moan for different reasons. But as my friend Helen from Ukraine says “If someone moans, give them a passport to Ukraine and take the British one away” and then they will make the journey back and they will never moan again.
I do believe in the power of money. I can’t say I’m a guy who doesn’t believe in it. I love making money, because business is about making money, and to succeed you have to be financially secure. What I am saying is that to make money, to create enough income to pay rent, to create income, to afford members of staff and to buy a coffee machine, it’s all based on finances, and it’s a side of the business you cannot ignore. Making money gives me a lot of drive.
I like formulas, I like knowing where I am standing with the figures in the shop. I like talking to my suppliers and I like a challenge. Because business wouldn’t be called business without it.
Money helped me to have home in the U.K. because I needed it for the deposit. Money buys me a ticket to go and see my mum, to see people I love — I care about, and money helped me to go and see places I like. I have lent so much money to my friends that I have never seen back. I don’t regret it because I hope the money they have consumed helped them to make some conclusions as well, and I hope they used money in the right way.
But I cannot say that money is the main drive in my life. It’s a secondary thing, or third, or fourth. There are a lot more things that stand forward of that. I never thought that business would come to that point, in terms of turn over. I could never have imagined those figures. Because when we opened the shop we had no financial experience — neither of us. And we approached business from the other side, we said “How many coffees do we have to sell?”
I think that the purpose of life is to enjoy what you are given, what you are given for free. I was watching the last episode of Mad Men and one guy said to Tom Draper that “The best things in life are free” and it’s so true. Because you can ignore a sunny day like today, you can say “Oh my god, I’ve got to pay the mortgage” but a mortgage is something that gives you a home. We can make a decision of spending a whole day on the sofa, or having a walk on the beach. So I guess I want to believe my purpose of life is to make someone happy, who I have been with, I am with and I am going to be with. I would like to believe that.
What the reality of it is I don’t know. I do enjoy what nature is giving me. I like travelling and exploring, and I think the moment we are born our purpose is to explore yourself. It is probably the most difficult task you can face. Because exploring yourself: you do it from the day you are born until the day you die and everything else that comes with it.