Super Starbucks Me: Exploring the Cafe Culture

Why do travellers love cafés? The answer is really simple.

The phenomenon known as café culture

BY PHILL FELTHAM

Travellers, tell me if this sounds familiar. Norah Jones gently singing “Don’t Know Why” in the background while you’re drinking a frappuccino with your Lonely Planet Guide, deciding where to travel next. A park, museum, or maybe just some café hopping. Decisions, decisions. Thankfully though, Taipei, the capital city of the small island in Taiwan, has an excellent selection for café enthusiasts.

I, like many of you, have made cafés my home away from home. Besides listening to Norah Jones on my iPod, there’s nothing more relaxing than ordering a hot chocolate, finding a couch to sit on, and reading for an hour or two. They don’t have a couch? That’s okay. Just sit on a hard chair, absorb the cafe’s comfortable atmosphere, and chitter chatter with the friendly waitress or the curious locals.

An essential part of a coffeehouse from the start has been its social functions, providing a place where people can go to hangout, talk, write, read, play games, or while away time individually or in small groups.

The United States’ liquor laws prevent anyone under 21 from entering a bar, so the coffeehouse has become the ideal choice for the American youth. In Paris, France, Parisians can choose between a brasserie or a bistro. A “brasserie” café usually serves single-dish meals and a “bistro” functions as a café and restaurant. Food at a bistro has been known to be cheap, however, in recent years, prices have become increasingly expensive.

It’s too bad our café culture secret is out. You can thank our favorite American writer–and café creature–Mark Twain or the modern American movie for this tragedy. Actor Ben Stiller played a novelist spending days at Starbucks to write a novel. Darn movies–stereotyping us. But it’s okay. These kind of movies give enjoyment or reflection anytime I flick on the boob tube. Since living in Taiwan, I have now made it my goal to visit one café in every country I visit.

In Canada, cafés are my home away from home. Nestled cozily in a Tim Horton’s Coffee and Donut Shop–not a café–sipping French vanilla cappuccino and reading a Harry Potter book.

We all know Tim Horton’s: the Dunkin’ Donuts of Canada, the fast food joint of the coffee industry. I’m proud to say I was an employee for three years. For those that do not know the Tim Horton’s story: Tim Horton was a famous hockey player in the 60s who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Buffalo Sabres. Simultaneously, he opened Tim Horton’s, a small coffee shop that grew into a large coffee-pushing corporation. Donut shops, often busy,  lack the comfortability offered by cafés–but hey, sometimes compromising is required.

In Taipei, Starbucks reigns. Now mind you, there are plenty of Starbucks in North America; the number of stores in Taipei gives the Tim Horton’s ratio in Canada a run for its money. The café, usually two-to-three floors, is often overcrowded with patrons. The only drawback is the lights go out at 10:00 PM at many Starbucks locations.

Taipei is has many cafes. Besides Starbucks, big franchises like Barista and the German ice cream giant Häagen-Dazs compete with the individually-owned stores. Chocoholic, a small café on Yongkang Street, offers many chocolate beverages and desserts. Cha For Tea and the Rose House are elegant, yet peaceful tea houses with locations throughout the city. Even McDonalds, which can be found on almost every street corner in Taipei, has a place called McCafe. It’s actually not too bad. Another popular option in Taiwan–especially in the cities of Kaohsiung and Taichung–are the outdoor cafés or patios at night.

The café can be a great meeting place if you’re on the road. Maybe other travellers, like you, are new to the area or just passing through. They, too, will gather at your café to meet locals and fellow foreigners.

Whatever your beverage or pastry preference, cafés have attracted backpackers and expats alike for years and, from this traveller’s point of view, always will. IT!

Phill Feltham is a freelance travel writer who taught English in Taiwan for two years. He is also the Publisher of The Weekly Wanderer.

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