The understated importance of a familiar cup of coffee

Although I may have a caffeine addiction the humble cup of coffee isn’t just about getting the morning buzz.  It’s far more than just blindly getting the stove on and mindlessly guzzling the first cup, it’s as much about where I get it, and a sense of belonging, familiarity, and routine.  My current perch is a local cafe (Loft on the Square) in Belfast, where I get that “Cheers” feeling… you know the one… “where everyone knows your name”.

For years I’ve traveled around the world and it was this year that I had 60 countries, 20 of which I’ve worked in.  In all these years it’s been the cup of coffee that’s created a sense of stability and belonging.  Why?  With so much change in my life I had to find some stability.  To do that I sought out cafes that provided a good atmosphere or a good view, friendly owners or staff, a decent coffee, decent food, preferably free wifi, and comfortable.  I’ve descended upon many a cafe in my time, but I’ve been pretty lucky in most places I’ve lived.  Not only have I managed to find a good cup of coffee in some odd places, but I’ve found some good friends too.

So the morning coffee has provided me with somewhere I can feel like I’ve escaped my hotel room / apartment, ventured into the world when there’s no other place to go, and allowed me to feel at home.  For me it’s about creating a familiar space (not in my own living space) that I can feel connected to the world, enjoy good coffee, and sometimes get to know people around me.

My favourite, and without a doubt the place where a lot played out, is About Thyme in Nairobi.  With the majority of the seating on the garden terrance, amazing food (particularly when hung over), and a charming owner, I found myself there 2-3 times a week.  It became so much part of my life that I did two photo exhibitions there, and the lovely owner (Debs) joined myself and a friend for Christmas dinner one year.

Another favourite was in Dar (Hot in Africa) which has, sadly, closed down some time ago.  Other spots include the amazing Barnum Cafe in Rome.  I must have worn holes in the seats I sat there so frequently and for so long.  I got chatting to some fascinating characters: the self styled Marlon Brando (as pictured here), and then promoter for a band called Will and the People.  A frantic and vaguely reggae styled English group that was to play at the cafe and a local venue.  I ended up taking shots of the shows and a behind the scenes shoot of their MTV video production that was taking place around the city.  Barnum Cafe is also the home of one of my photos, a remnant from an exhibit of some of my work.  A bar where I would be plied with multiple excellent cocktails under the premise I would take photos for the owner.  The two day hangover was hard to forget but a fun night nonetheless.

I’ve also had my fair share of unfortunate issues in cafes.  One such occasion, whilst trying to settle in to a new city and with no friends around, I stumbled into a conversation with the PhD candidate waitstaff. The subject related to how people perceived the world and I found it really interesting. I guess I was naive and hoped I’d found a new friend. I never heard from her again after I bumped into her on the street with my then girlfriend.  I guess I misread her intentions for chatting. I was sad at the time, as I thought perhaps I’d found a friend when I really needed one.  I’ve also found myself in a spot of cultural awkwardness when trying to pay the exact amount for my bill in Canada, not really understanding the tipping culture or at least getting myself mixed up about the order of things.  It was awkward, and made me feel like I didn’t really belong anywhere (it was during a low point of the first time I spent a decent amount of time there).

So the humble coffee, in a local cafe, has brought me good friends, amazing experiences, and awkward moments, but mostly it’s given me routine in an otherwise chaotic and rapidly changing world.  I guess we all have ways to cope, but I’ve found that a familiar spot and a good coffee has really helped provide stability and enriched my life.

What gives you stability and calm?  Feel free to share in the comments 🙂

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