Following on from my Love-Hate Relationship with Lonely Planet, the lovely Mitch (AKA The Ambling Bristolian) has written about another thing we have a love-hate relationship with while travelling… Starbucks.
The first time I went to Starbucks, I was 17 years old (it was one of those dates that wasn’t actually a date but I really wished it was a date) and I was told to order a chocolate coffee milkshake sort of thing. You know the one I mean. Anyway, I loved it (because I was 17 and my taste buds were about as sensitive as Donald Trump’s sense of humour) and what began was a relationship with Starbucks which (at this point) has lasted almost a decade.
Before smartphones were as integrated with modern culture as they are now, I used to go to Starbucks to read books. Seriously. I’d take the 73 from Filton all the way to the centre of Bristol just to read the books that I was studying at Sixth Form. I used to think there was something pretty awesome about the relationship between caffeine and reading. I still do, in fact.
It was a simpler time, a time when all I asked of Starbucks was a comfy seat and a drink filled with sugar, milk, chocolate sauce, more sugar, ice, and just a dash of actual coffee.
Skip forward eight years and Helen and I have been travelling for the best part of two and half years now. In fact, if you take Helen out of the picture, I’ve pretty much been travelling since I graduated university. I worked in India for three months for VSO-ICS in September 2012 and that was it. I haven’t really stopped.
So what does Starbucks have to do with this? Everything. Existing in pretty much every country I’ve ever lived in and or travelled through, Starbucks has been a near constant companion. Like Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler to David Tennant’s Doctor… Only if Rose served coffee… And used unethically sourced palm oil… And didn’t pay her tax. Okay, it’s nothing like that.
Starbucks has always been there, and this has been both a blessing and a curse. Let’s start with the good. I like their coffee. Though, I’m not exactly too fussed when it comes to coffee, mind you. These days, I like it black with no sugar (a far cry from my 17-year-old self). To be honest, I’ll drink black instant coffee. I’ll drink luke-warm, black, instant coffee. A coffee connoisseur, I ain’t. Starbucks coffee isn’t cheap, but it’s consistently decent.
As well as coffee, Starbucks always has wifi. Always. I have yet to have seen a green mermaid who didn’t offer it. It’s also got consistently clean toilets, plug sockets, and those comfy, comfy seats.
So why is all of this so important? Well, as Helen’s possibly alluded to in a blog before, we both work for the same company. It’s a digital marketing company which offers publicity, advertising, and technical support for websites. Helen and I spend our working days writing emails, writing articles, and writing blogs for our clients.
In short, this means that we can work and travel. The company is based in the UK and pays its taxes there (unlike Starbucks) but all of the work is online. So long as we have wifi, we have jobs.
“Remote working” really just means three things: you work from home, you work from rented accommodation, or you work from a cafe. When travelling, Helen and I tend to do the bulk of our work in the hostel, hotel, AirBnB, or friend’s place that we’re staying at. Still, from time to time, it’s nice to work from a cafe. It’s a good way to break up the day, you get to go outside, and a good cafe can have some pretty nice atmosphere.
And this is why Starbucks is terrible. Because, more often than not, the atmosphere in Starbucks is crap. I say “more often than not” because a major exception to this would be the Starbucks we went to in Seattle. No, not the original one. The one near the top of the Columbia Centre.
That was a major exception, though. Usually, the vibe in Starbucks is about as interesting as listening to Donald Trump brag about how wealthy he is. That might sound like a really pathetic reason to dislike somewhere (#firstworldproblems) but hear me out. One of the reasons you travel (or, at least, one of the reasons I like to travel) is to get under the skin of a place and see what the local joints look and feel like.
Truth be told, it’s hard to have this experience in any cafe. Most laptop friendly, wifi friendly, plug socket friendly cafes all have a similar quasi-hipster to full-blown hipster vibe to them all over the world. Even still, it’s hard to argue that visiting a cafe in Hanoi, Mexico City, and Washington DC is the same thing. Each cafe is a unique experience.
Unless, of course, that cafe is a Starbucks. In that case, you get the exact same experience. To be fair, this is precisely why people go to Starbucks. Andy Warhol once filmed himself eating a Burger King burger because he wanted to show people that Burger King is actually something of a modern miracle. No matter where you go, it’s the same. He felt that art should aim for that level of consistency. Hence why he printed, like, a million cans of Campbell Soup.
Though just because Andy Warhol would have liked Starbucks’ consistency, that doesn’t mean I have to. Besides that, there are other reasons to dislike Seattle’s house of hipsters and frappes. For a start, there’s the aforementioned tax evasion. Then there’s the fact that, by supporting Starbucks, you’re not supporting the local, independent cafes. Yes, it’s true that Starbucks would have once started out as an independent itself. But, try making that argument to the forty-four-year-old mother of three who’s been running the same cafe in the suburbs of Seoul for fifteen years and was just about making ends meet until that bastard Starbucks opened up down the road…
…I’m not sure if this exact woman exists, but you get my point.
Why don’t Helen and I just go to the independents then? Do our researching beforehand and make sure we go somewhere with good wifi? Because we don’t know if they’ll have good wifi, that’s why. We want to believe they will, we really do, but sometimes they don’t. Starbucks, on the other hand, never fails.
Except when it does fail. As I say, I’ve never been to Starbucks without wifi, but I’ve been to a couple with bad wifi. For Helen and I, this is often devastating. Not only have we sold the independent cafe down the river, but we didn’t even get good wifi in return for our betrayal.
Still, worse than all of this, worse than the privileged guilt of screwing over the small independent cafes, is the waste. I don’t want to generalise, but I’m going to generalise. Most Starbucks use paper cups with plastic lids; most independent cafes don’t. It’s cheaper for Starbucks to be wasteful. It’s easier and it means that they don’t have to ask people if they want a coffee to have-in or to-go. One size fits all, so everyone gets paper cups.
It’s unnecessary (even more unnecessary than the blended-cookie iced-coffee monstrosities that I used to drink as a 17-year-old) to waste cups like that. In a Starbucks in San Antonio, I was once given two paper cups for my coffee because, you know, coffee is hot. I didn’t need two. Heck, I don’t even need one. A mug is just fine. I tried giving one cup back, putting it on top of the pile of cups, but the woman looked at me like I’d just spat in it. She couldn’t use that one, she told me, because of hygiene. So she threw it away. So I might as well have just kept it. For a souvenir or something.
Oh! And their tea is shit. Have you ever seen a Starbucks tea bag? It’s far too thick (like it’s been made out of tights or something) so your tea is either weak or extremely bloody weak.
Whenever I find myself in a Starbucks, I feel like I’ve failed as a traveller. Of all the nice local cafes and bars that I could have worked from, I went to the Starbucks because I didn’t want to risk the bad wifi, the lack of plug sockets, or the lack of toilets. But risk it I should. Because taking risks is what travelling’s all about (that, and taking photos of yourself grinning like an idiot in front of some historic monument or another).
And when you do take risks, you can find yourself somewhere pretty great. Somewhere like where I am right now. It’s a bar (a cheap local joint) which plays old-school rock music and has Mexican football on the big screen. The beer’s cold and the cool Mexican spring breeze on the rooftop keeps it from going warm. People are drinking Victoria beers with limes and salt. The barman speaks to me in Spanish, rather than assuming I only speak English. The streets are cobbled. The buildings are colourful. And the view is beautiful.
Best of all, it’s a great place to take photos of yourself grinning like an idiot.