Sunday, November 11, 2007

Coffee, tea or watermelon juice

If your greatest pleasure is to sit in a coffee shop and read, are you dull and boring? If your most important goal when you're in a new place is to find that cafe, does it make you a loser? The problem with both those questions is that the answer is probably yes.

All I can say is, once I find the cafe, a stranger's city suddenly becomes mine. And 90% of the time I prefer my own company to 90% of the rest of the world's. Give or take 10. So there.

There's no rule to choose them by – I just know when I walk in whether it's the one I want. But I know it is never, ever a Starbucks. Or rather, hasn't been so far. I have lately become a seeker of wireless internet, so Starbucks might enter the lists.

There were two in Bangkok. One, all battered wood, catatonic junkies and heavy-eyed backpackers. The other, full of stylishly chunky furniture and arty types with trust funds. My Chicago one was gleaming chrome and steel, full of people from Ally McBeal. In Izmir, it was a low table on a pavement in a crowded souk. Pasadena's Kaldi had the soul of an old English coffee house and the face of a lady who lunches in LA. The one in Ithaca was a pretentiously unpretentious "family place". Providence provided an entertaining hole in the wall, full of students being pretentiously unpretentious. Beirut contributed two as well – another students’ hang-out near a university and a trucker’s cafe halfway to Nabatieh, where the scent of fresh manakish mingled with that of lemon groves and nobody spoke English.

I never got a chance to find the ones in Boston and Cape Town, but their presence throbbed around me like the memory of caffeine in my veins.

In Mauritius, a cool, shaded sanctuary, with questionable pictures on the walls and an unquestioning acceptance of generations of foibles, was a lot like the one that started it all for me. Like most of Bangalore, my secrets too have been absorbed into the air of Koshy’s – long afternoons reading a book, when I was supposed to be in class earning a degree, long mornings writing my own instead of what I was being paid to write. Warm, theatrical evenings eating mince on toast with an excitable cast of characters. The occasional breakfast or lunch with the family. New friends. Old friends. Ex-friends. If you sat long enough in Koshy’s you would meet everyone you knew. You still do – though now they often turn out to be the baby siblings of those you thought they were.

With every wave of change that sweeps Bangalore, we hold our collective breath from afar. And then sigh with relief that Koshy’s survived. Beautiful, colonial Victoria Hotel became a mall. Premier Bookshop became an office tower. Nobody negotiates Gangarams’ eccentric shelving now that Landmark displays books like CDs, so maybe that’ll go next. To make way, perhaps, for a Starbucks.

But I’ve forfeited my right to take a lofty stance about Starbucks since I was delighted to find a Dome cafe in Singapore, and chose it for the sheer familiarity – it looked exactly like mine in Dubai, down to the posters on the walls and the etching on the mirrors. In my defence, the menu is entirely different, even between the two in the same city. It seems their only “signature offering” is the service. When you’re absorbed in your book, they don’t bother you. And if you’re writing, they treat you as a sort of sacred trust. When the fifth Harry Potter came out, I went to Dome to start it over brunch. And ended up sitting there, reading, until eight in the night. I was left severely alone, and the waiter who badly wanted to talk about the book waited all day, until I asked for the bill, to do so.

The one I’m sitting in now is not bad either, but it’s no Dome.

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