I sit in the window at the Starbucks on Gloucester Road, trying to be something like a writer (the real deal this time, you know?), afraid to stray from the promised comfort of American-born chains. This is essentially why I’m here, why I vowed to survive entirely on peanut butter and that Ramen in Styrofoam cups and wear my shoes until there were holes in the soles, treading through a few more too-damp or too-cold months wet feet – so I could write in coffee shop windows in a different hemisphere, on another continent, in another world, sipping the same coffee sold on every high street and low street, main street and side street of the entire universe. They call it world travel. And Starbucks’ in London have spiced lattes and blackcurrant juice.
Aside from the varying upholstery of the soft furniture, the wallpaper selections, the music playlists of the interior of the Starbucks’ that are scattered about the London area, I’ve barely skimmed the surface of this place. A month ago, I was spit directly from the sky to the Underground, with little in between. My first glimpse of this city was the stark dirty white of the baggage carousel, the scratching of metal on metal, the screech of cart wheels. It was a maze of metal railings and staircases and lifts that took me closer and closer to the center of the earth and further and further away from surface London – an alien creature, unfamiliar and provoking and completely impossible. A few hours in, and my experience is inside out. My exotic and far-away love denies all expectations; she’s dressed in tacky blue and white triangles unmethodically printed onto pseudo-velour seats, accessorized with crumpled newspaper pendants pinned carelessly to this dress, smells of dirt and stress and up-all-night-too-tired-to-feel-anything. I strained for just glimpses of the surface – of the sparkling skin I have always imagined. Backyards of cramped row-homes, sheets pinned to lines strung between fences, and flowerboxes blooming in January, then jarring blackness again. I’m in London, and all I want is effing Starbucks. Really?
The Starbucks on The Strand is crowded. The queue (British speak!) is so long, the door is forced to remain open, letting in the bitter cold. My fingers are too numb to hold the pen, let alone form letters. I hold my latte like something sacred, letting it transfer its deeply coveted heat from the cup to my hands. I resort to reading until the feeling returns. Careful, the beverage you’re about to enjoy is extremely hot. Clouds move to cling to the top of the tree. My cup and then wallpaper poetry, and finally my required Jean Rhys ornamentalism. It was as if a curtain had fallen hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the smells different, the feeling things gave you right down inside yourself was different. I had read on the Tube this morning, like a real Londoner, though I’m still a perfect amateur. I got the first part all right, totally consumed in the pages, avoiding human contact at all cause, but then I completely missed my stop in some kind of dusty oblivion and had to ride the Bakerloo back and forth again. Just like the other day when I got on the Victoria Line the wrong direction, or the day before, when I took the Circle Line to Edgware Road instead of Paddington.
By the time I walked to Covent Garden, around the glass-topped Market Building five or six times, trying to figure out how to get to the Cortauld Gallery to culture my eyes with the works of Monet, I couldn’t feel my nose or my ears, and this new Starbucks is a haven. Even with the door open. The window seats are occupied, so I am forcefully tugged down the stairs to the windowless basement, where I sit in a corner and draw out some sort of ambition from the cold, the cup, the wallpaper, and that required reading. At other times London was the real thing and out there was the dream, but I could never fit them together.
And then we take this bus to Wales, and the Starbucks in Cardiff is plain. In contrast to the Castle in the city centre, Starbucks would be inevitably plain. Obivously. I don’t know what I was expecting – the medieval mystique or something, to surround me and swallow me up in the Land of the Red Dragon. My feet would hurt if I could feel them, but they want to keep moving, down to the bay front, to the cliffs, through the arcades. And my latte tastes too familiar – flavored like home — like I’m letting the world slip away, confining my visual and emotional spectrum to what the Starbucks menu has to offer – which isn’t much in the way of exhilarating. I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. I’ve increased the latte-drinking, and I’m watching the Welsh urban landscape fly by from another window, in another Starbucks. I have time to read the entirety of the wallpaper poetry here. Sitting in the garden, watching the sun melt into the earth. My heart is still crossed.
Lindsey C. Singer