I’ve been cafÃ© sitting for a long time.
I’ve sat in some great cafÃ©s and a few mediocre ones and even in a couple of pretty decent chain cafÃ©s (yeah, I’m looking at you, Starbucks across from my apartment in Beijing, you surprising devil, you).
A good cafÃ© can give birth to anything, from the Harry Potter series to the French Revolution to your next hot date. It can turn a bad day into a “geez, what was all that fuss about?” day, as you relax with your feet up – metaphorically, because few public places actually allow you to put your feet up on the tables – and a cup of coffee.
This is all to say that I’ve discovered along the way that not all cafÃ©s are created equal. First of all, good coffee is not everything. Really, truly, despite what all the coffee evangelists say. I can live with sub-par coffee if the cafÃ© is great. If the place is terrible, however, no amount of heavenly angels-are-dancing-on-my-tongue coffee can make up for it.
So what are the elements of a perfect cafÃ©?
There are the obvious fixtures – decent coffee, free wifi, cute barista and so on. But here’s the thing: a really great cafÃ©, one that you can call home, transcends all these obvious elements to possess that one characteristic that makes you call it yours. Samuel Johnson once said, “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” To appropriate Mr. Johnson’s sentiments for my own purposes, I’d like to state that we who would find the perfect cafÃ© must first carry the elements of a perfect cafÃ© with us.
So you see, it’s not about the blackness of the brew or the speed of the free wifi or even, the cuteness of the baristas.
It’s the slow turning ceiling fans, the warm wood paneling lit by iron sconces, the magazines and books left behind by past patrons, the smell of coffee in the air. It’s hurrying home from the library after dark, hands full of books, and stopping for a quick espresso, thinking about the long subway ride home. It’s Saturday mornings with a latte and a three-egg omelet and the weekend stretching out deceptively in front of you.
The ones you remember, the ones you carry around inside with you, are the cafÃ©s that have embedded themselves into your personal history. That cafÃ© next to your college where you first felt like a real citizen of the world, arguing after class about politics and partying. The quiet alleyway cafÃ© where you wrote your first short story and thought it was brilliant even though it really wasn’t.
The bright Starbucks in your hometown where your best friend told you he was in love with you.
These are all incarnations of the perfect cafes that have existed in my life narrative so far. They highlight the journey like diamonds studded into a silver necklace, signifying all that I have ever searched for in my life.
Because wherever I go, a cafÃ© is what I look for to keep me grounded and balanced and sane. I seek them out to remind me that no matter how far I go or how much I change or which city currently surrounds me, there is a cafÃ© somewhere out there which will smell like coffee and feel like a warm embrace at the end of a long day.