Rome to Chongqing. A Mecca to a Dearth of Cafe Culture.
Rome (or Italy in general) – the origin of café culture, and a thriving modern scene. I enjoyed that scene – the countertop service, the Euro 0.90 to Euro 1.15 espressos, the bowl of sugar cubes, the efficiency and casualness of service, the in and out flow of one-timer and regular customers, the ‘for-here’ service assumption. I loved it and took part, first thing in the morning and again throughout the day – a small break, pick me up, moment of indulgence, moment of interaction, a moment to stop and be present.
Chongqing, China – the caffeine intake has declined precipitously. The don’t drink anything! Water, beer, liquor, wine, tea, and most relevant, coffee. Starting the day with a coffee – the process of making it, or buying it, and feeling the rush of that first sip.. Mmmm baby. Love that. Well, that was hard to come by in Chongqing. Starbucks is trying, with locations in the most upscale areas. They’re selling the brand, the experience, and pushing the more exotic drinks – frappe, soy and dairy and oat latte “this” and cappuccino “that” (e.g. “this” flavoring/coloring, or “that” foam style). The Chinese go to Starbucks midafternoon, 1pm to 5pm (I know because I’ve been in the shops all day for a couple days – reliable internet, power, bathroom). The Chinese seem to go not for the caffeine dependency of a quick moment to break and reset, but more for a novel or special experience. In Chongqing, outside of Starbucks - convenience stores, hotels, fast food restaurants, food stands – no coffee, no gleaming chrome espresso machines, no industrial Bunn drip-makers. It’s a first-world problem. It’s a personal problem. But, I can say with a lot of pride, I’ve endured and made it through ;)
People’s Park Tea House
I just did a most rare thing for 10 minutes, and it was wonderful – nothing.
I’m at People’s Park, Chengdu. This moment reminds me of a moment in Hanoi, Vietnam, on a Saturday late-morning at an open-air corner coffee shop that was full of men on little stools doing not-so-much, slowly drinking coffee and the associated bottomless tea, a lively and content babble in the air.
Today, this morning, is again a Saturday late-morning. It’s Chengdu’s first sunny-ish and dry day in a bit, and the pond-side teahouse/outdoor pavilion/connected gazebos is being thoroughly enjoyed by the Chinese locals and Chinese tourists. Like everywhere, no westerners. It’s kind of like an outdoor beer garden – the informal jumble of tables and chairs, the groups of all sizes, the servers floating among it all. Tea was 16 RMB, about $2.50. Seems like a lot, for China, but it buys you space in a pleasant setting for as long as you would like, and it appears it is bring your own snacks, or even meals. The server brought to my table a saucer, cup and lid, a bag of tea. She poured the bag’s contents into the cup, a generous portion of deep green shriveled tea leaves. She uncorked a mega-size thermos (seemingly stainless steel encased in an inexpensive and well-used plastic shell), poured a bit of the hot water into the cup, covered the cup, re-corked the thermos and left me with the thermos to re-steep to my content.
And content I am, here. It’s lovely to do not much and watch others luxuriate in the same slow pace and their solitude or their socialization, men and women, young and old.
The only thing bringing me discontent is the Chinese patrons’ method for eating sunflower seeds. They shuck and eat them one-at-a-time. Who does that!!?
The Coffee Conundrum
In Starbucks. It’s reliably good wifi (for China), drink, bathroom, power, routine, normalcy. At Starbucks, I most prefer their drip coffee – it’s robust, thick, it spreads warmth and power through the veins from the first sip. But they never have drip coffee in China. They have the machines, but they sit unused. I’ve asked for drip several times, saying drip and gesturing toward the machines, in the same spot as always, right behind the register. Most of the Starbucks employees have enough English to do Starbucks commerce, but when I say drip they furrow their eyebrows in confusion. Then they see my gesture toward behind them, they turn to look at the drip machines, they look back to me and say, “Ahh.. uh.. okay. A few minutes.” Then they go through the process of prepping the machine, pulling out a filter, adding the right amount of grounds, firing it up and brewing a vat. I’m sure that I’m the only one that will have/order one out of that batch, or maybe even order one all day. Last time I asked for drip, the barista asked, “Maybe it’s okay if I make Americano instead? I charge you the same price.” “Sure pal. That’s fine.” And fine it is. But, dang, it’s just real cozy and familiar to get a nice Starbuck’s drip.