how an (open) black umbrella finally convinced me to become coffee shop loyal

I have a slight problem with coffee shops. Well, to be precise, the problem lies with the coffee shop staff, not the actual physical shops (although a good coffee shop, with a modern interior which exudes a cool vibe does assist in distracting me from the fact that I daily hand over money for something that I probably should make myself (a guilt made worse by the fact that husband does not drink the stuff and has no understanding of my need to purchase one (on a good day) cup a day)). My problem is this: should my chosen coffee maker step over the invisible line that separates polite friendliness from an presumption of familiarity I find myself needing to leave. Immediately.

Before moving to Seoul, my issues with “over-familiarity” by coffee makers resulted in me abandoning three coffee shops in less than a year. Unlike Seoul, the place where I was living did not (then) have anywhere near as many coffee options to choose from which meant that, as the year progressed and my self-imposed bans on places grew, I was required to walk to other side of the city in order to anonymously get my daily cappuccino (slightly ridiculous when I only worked two days a week).

The first coffee shop that I was forced to desert was a hole in the wall take-away only place, which served the biggest coffee at the cheapest prices and in bright yellow cups. The trouble started when one of the two regular baristas, also the owner, started extending his greetings to me not just when I was ordering coffee. Very nicely, and super enthusiastically, he would yell out to me as I walked past (which I did every day because my office was at the end of the street (in a building that is)). “How are the kids?” he would ask. “How about the weather today?” and “Busy day planned?” were also often thrown in. Innocent enough questions to begin with but it soon started to feel a little too intense. “Early meeting?” he would inquire as I sneakily shuffled past, not stopping for coffee. This question would be followed with a “Too busy for coffee?” comment/plea, which would wreak havoc with my consciousness for hours after. His welcoming banter had the effect of making me feel so guilty that I started spending my children’s inheritance at his cafe just to obtain his gratification (and maybe some quiet). It couldn’t continue like this forever though. For starters, husband started asking questions about where our salary was going and why I was making us live off instant noodles. And then there was the issue of privacy from the barista. I didn’t need him to know my every move (or my every purchase). When I had the misfortune of embarrassingly passing him carrying a coffee from another shop (I swear it was bought for me by a friend), the look of complete indignation, coupled with betrayal and hurt, on his face was too much for both of us to bear. I walked past him and his shop with my eyes lowered and he spoke not a word. We both knew that, from then on, I would not be coming back to him or his coffee.

I didn’t feel anywhere near so bad about leaving the second coffee shop. Friendly witty repertoire accompanying an order is acceptable but that is where it ends. There is absolutely no requirement for deeper, more intimate conversations and especially not before 12pm and most certainly never before being provided with one’s morning caffeine hit. So, when I “accidentally” (not so much an accident as it happened in the middle of the cafe and right of front of me in the cafe as I was trying to order) witnessed the conclusion to a vicious verbal fight between the barista/cafe owner and one of his staff, followed by said staff member (female) running out of the store and the barista/owner (male) turning to me for comfort (can I just say that I did not even know this guy’s name), things got a little too weird. Break-ups happen. It is sad. And I know coffee makers are people too. But that doesn’t mean I want my coffee “to go” to come with baggage. So no, I can’t deal with the following:

“Cappuccino order 24? We were a couple but then I met someone else. Large or medium? She left me with our child but is still working for me every day. Here is your change. Apparently she needs some time off for personal issues. Have I stamped your loyalty card? I’m too busy designing a new coffee shop to care about her issues (or either, as it turned out, those of his clientele at his current coffee shop). Do you want sugar this morning?”

Really, he gave me no choice but to move on to another coffee shop. Handy, as one had just opened around the corner with people willingly waiting for ridiculous amounts of time for their fix. So I joined them. And here lay my biggest challenge: the way too-cute barista.

I am convinced that coffee training places run lessons for coffee makers on not just on how to sport the wackiest hairstyle or grow the weirdest facial hair designs but also on how to properly attend to all the Mummy’s of the world who have children at home/in day care/at school, wear un-ironed shirts with vomit on their shoulders, accompanied by a toothpaste stain or two down the front, and have hair that is totally not brushed or styled in anyway (i.e., me). The take-away message from this training has to be: make a Mummy’s order your number one priority. Given that this is probably the only thing that anyone has done for Mummy since last Mother’s Day it is really no wonder that she is going to feel eternally grateful to the coffee maker for providing her with the illusion that the day is her’s alone and it is therefore totally not her fault if, during this interaction, she does get a little flushed in the cheeks and goes a little weak at the knees.

The cute male baristas with their fluffed up hair and low cut pants at my new “local” had obviously excelled at their training on Mummy’s. After only a few weeks of my frequenting their abode, not only would be order be promptly and politely received but they sought to add in some extra attention (as they did to all the “regulars”). When calling out my name and order they would:

  • Apply a fake French accent to my name (because anything sounds better in French. Yes, it does.).
  • Make a remark on my bright pink cup with its green and orange lid and wait for me to come up with some witty remark back (which never happened).
  • Hold onto my hand just a little bit too long as they wantonly placed change into my (shaking) outstretched palm (I could be making this last bit up).

I am into American teen high school movies precisely because it matches my level of emotional maturity — I go red at the slightest touch and will explode into nervous giggles whenever confronted with a potentially embarrassing situation so exactly how am I expected to cope with the flirting familiarity of a barista? I was in pain every morning just at the thought of the impeding tete a tete with the coffee shop staff and I swear I was having heart palpitations — all before even taking a sip of caffeine. When it reached the stage where redness in my cheeks would appear almost instantaneously at the mere mention of this coffee shop my work colleagues staged a mini-intervention and dragged me to another coffee shop across the other side of town. Another day and another coffee shop added to the black list.

Exactly how does Seoul fit into all of this you ask? Well, lucky for me Seoul has an amazing array of coffee shops — big, small, chain, independent, in-house roasting, dutch coffee, drip coffee, free trade, green — the list goes on. You can visit coffee shops where you pick your own beans and have it made into coffee instantly, you can receive your daily words of inspiration via a disposable coffee cup and you can even go to coffee prison (for not drinking enough coffee, I assume).

Having coffee shops on every corner (literally — I have at least ten within five minutes of my house) means there is no shortage of new ones to try, there is no reason to be loyal and there is no need to form an affinity with one particular coffee shop or coffee worker. So you would think that I am a free agent. I can go wherever I please for my coffee. Until the other day that is.

It was a Wednesday. It was raining. Hard, monsoonal rain that practically punches through your skin and I was not prepared. I was picking up third child from childcare. She was screaming (mostly because she did not want me to pick her up but partly also because of the torrential rain whacking her head). I was half running/half walking, afraid of slipping in the rivers forming at my feet. I was not stopping to buy a coffee from Noah’s, the coffee shop on the corner — the halfway point between childcare and the car. But the coffee shop came to me. Enter heroic coffee shop maker man.

As a very bedraggled me, carrying an even more dishevelled child, staggered and stumbled through the deluge, out of Noah’s, in his trade mark all black ensemble, coffee maker man emerged, holding an open, oversized black umbrella. And, in a manner that seems synonymous with South Koreans, being incredibly generous and thoughtful, covered me and overly-excited child with umbrella and proceeded to escort us to our car. And there he stood, waiting patiently, holding umbrella over me for the entire time it takes me to battle with child to first get her into her seat and then to do up her seatbelt (a ten minute Herculean effort as those with three years olds would know — she thought being into rain would be so much more fun) and then continues to hold umbrella over me as I get into my seat (after around 20 years of doing this I can now manage to get into the car in under one minute). All up, coffee maker man stood over us for around 15 minutes as the rain continued to belt down unceasingly. End result? He was wet. I was dry. And my loyalty was won.

So what was it about the umbrella that has given me the confidence to return to Noah’s day after day without the fear of “over familiarity” rising up and taking over? While it could just be that the coffee shop serves really, really good espresso macchiatos that would not be such a good ending to the story now would it? Instead, let’s go with the black umbrella as a sign. I did some research and according to legend (Wikipedia legend), an open black umbrella signifies a need to take a closer look at our worries and fears: “When umbrellas appear, we must ask what we are afraid of because our fears are holding us back from progress.” I thought deeply about this (that would be 35 seconds worth of thought while making peanut butter sandwiches) and it turns out that precisely what I was running away from (or at least claimed not to need) in the last place is what I am searching for: a feeling of belonging. It seems that my daily routine of ordering coffee in a country where I am clearly different from most of the people around me — I don’t speak the language, I seem to be the only person who needs the size extra large (and even then it is usually too small), I can’t eat kim chi for breakfast and, as far as I can tell, I am the only person who buys cous-cous at the supermarket — is making me feel that I do belong, well to the coffee shop at least. And that is a really lovely feeling which warrants many, many return visits.

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