So I’m sitting here at Coffee Smith, in the Itaewon district of Seoul Korea, and I’m noticing the connection I have to the rest of the world of people. The place is big for a coffee shop, contoured concrete walls, exposed concrete ceiling with open ductwork. Tables are rough hewn dark wood, solidly constructed, some upholsdtered with dark faux leather, some padded on the seat only with wood backs, some just solid wood. Floor is dark hardwood, scratched and scuffled by the thousands of feet that have passed over it. Lighting is low but sufficient at night (now), the front is floor to ceiling picture windows looking out on Itaewon street, with a southern exposure. The A/C, this hot humid August day is pumped up, and comfortable.
It’s about 8pm on a Monday night, and I’m surrounded by young South Koreans, not understanding a word they say, but getting the clear feeling of their beautiful optimism. The 3 guys in front of me talking earnestly, breaking up in laughter occasionally. Dressed, this Monday night, in t shirts and ball caps. An orange cap on straight, a camo cap with a black bill on backwards, and the navy cap on the table next to their coffee drinks. The guys are just talking, nodding, smiling. At the table next to them sits a couple, chairs shoved up close side by side. Leaning into each other as they she shows him pictures on her phone, he commenting on each one with a flirty smile, she laughing and moving her body away… and then back against him to show the next shot. The next table with a young woman dressed in a black shirt and dark pants, earbuds plugged in as she holds a book open with her left hand while she writes in her notebook or journal with her right. An empty bottle of mango juice in front of her. From time to time she taps on her phone, checks her messages, then stretches. Fidgets with her earbud cord, and reads some more from the book. All the while English language pop music pumps out here in Seoul Korea as it does in a San Francisco (Coffee Bar, Stable) or Lima Peru coffee shop (Café Zed).
There is a culture of coffee shops that, so far in my experience, is universal. The differences are superficial – slightly different products, prices. Décor is universally diverse (except for Starbucks, which I’m not visiting or talking about). Coffee shops around the world are a place where people under 35 meet, work alone or collaboratively, socialize, relax. Some stay hours, some 15 minutes or less. As I’m traveling around the world, intentionally immersing myself in cultures and languages I am largely clueless about, I’m finding that these coffee shops give me a place to relax, to let the flood of new stimuli flow over and through me. Coffee shops give me a home base of sorts, to reconnect to myself, to calm and self-soothe when I get anxious about the loneliness, the uncertainty and chaos, and density of the new place. While I can’t speak the local language and actually talk to people, I can look at those around me and pretty much know (or at least project!) what they’re doing, and from that feel an affinity with the world of people that I don’t get outside the coffee shop as readily. And the ubiquitous wifi lets me stay in touch with my friends and family.
I’m glad I know this about coffee shops as I begin this year.