IT’S FUNNY – I never really drank coffee until I came to university. Perhaps that explains quite a lot.
Nevertheless I do wonder if part of what coerced me to caffeine was the fact that I wanted to be able to go into coffee shops and order something with resolution, and that something not be a diluted-with-chocolate inbred cousin of coffee, topped heinously with whipped cream and marshmallows. I also wonder if it’s the smell of ground coffee that wanders out of its doors, or the mishmash of seats that beg to be sat on, or the cultural mysticism of the Kaffeehaus in Vienna and much of central Europe. In any case, there is something undeniably and universally inviting about coffee shops that I’m happy to never come to a conclusion on that one.
Although they’ve been around for centuries, coffee shops – or coffeehouses – are, in my British eyes at least, a mild touch of the exotic, a flavour of hybrid European-New York cosmopolitanism that has spread across the world. The best equivalent I can think of would be a tea room (which have seen a revival in recent years) or a nice hotel serving afternoon tea in its plush dining rooms (again, something which has seen a great revival). As awfully civilised as they might be, neither has quite the same cultural importance to the UK in the same way that a Kaffeehaus does to Austria. Therefore I can only decide that our best equivalent is the pub. I love the pub, once I’ve got accustomed to the faint smell of yeast and inevitably lost the £250,000 on the Deal or No Deal machine in the far corner, but its appeal is distinct to the coffee shop.
Unlike a pub, which lends itself to socialising, dining and the occasional bit of casual violence in certain pockets of urban sprawls, when you step into a coffee shop (and I’m not talking Starbucks, people, but more the cosy, cutesy independent ones with chalkboard menus and just a few hundred Twitter followers), there is a palpable sense of activity going on around you. You can almost hear cogs ticking and ideas bubbling. Recently I, too, have found myself and my revision settling in coffee shops for stints in the afternoon, sitting peaceably at a table with espresso and some form of cake. When revising German adjective endings becomes a little too much of a headache, I look around the room occasionally (OK, perhaps more than occasionally), and the scene never ceases to intrigue me. There are people chatting with each other, people reading, people working, people drifting off, and people simply just having a cup of coffee. Everyone is welcome. Such a mixture of people doing different things isn’t found in the pub – people go there to drink, to eat, to talk. Coffee shops are that too, but a percolator for ideas, inspiration and imagination. They can be buzzing places of social interaction, or equally quiet places of contemplation. It’s no coincidence JK Rowling took to cafés in which to write Harry Potter, or Rachel and co. convened over coffee in Central Perk, or artists gathered to discuss whatever artists discuss in coffeehouses across 19th century Europe. Ironically I’m not writing this at a table strewn with serviettes and brown sugar, but the idea came to me at one, of course. So if you want to leave somewhere, having paid for a cup of coffee but taken away a certain something more than just coffee, you know where to go.