Kade kneels next to a stream formed by the San Francisco Glacier, about two hours outside Santiago, Chile.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Coffee in Milano

Several years ago I enrolled in a Thai language course near the office where Kade was working in Bangkok. One of my course mates was a guy named Michael. He's wearing the white shirt and standing next to me in the class photo.

Although Michael is from Switzerland, he was working across the border in Italy, in the city of Milan. When it was holiday time(vacation for us Americans), he loved to fly to Thailand.

One time I e-mailed some friends about Starbucks - how I loved Starbucks and how happy I was that Starbucks was in Bangkok. Michael, who was then back in Milan, sent back a REPLY TO ALL, giving us his take on Starbucks. I posted his e-mail below.


Here's an obvious success story. Starbucks is a company that's opening two or three stores every DAY, both in the US and overseas. Everything about Starbucks appears great. So, in some way it is the quintessential American company, wouldn't you agree?

But, what about their product? I grew up with good coffee. I am living in a country where good coffee is a "conditio sine qua non" - here in Italy an espresso kicks off the day, and it ends the day after a nice dinner. It has been part of this culture for centuries. Not that there would be much fuss about it. It simply is one of the reliable pleasures of everyday life. You know, when I go downtown here in Milan, I often stop by in a little bar where Verdi and Rossini used to have coffee.

Surprisingly, the coffee culture is the result of a negligence - the Turks left behind supplies of coffee beans in hasty retreat after the siege of Vienna in the 1770s, and that originated a secular trend. Not many years thereafter Carlo Goldoni wrote his masterly comedy "la bottega del caffe", and the coffee house in which its unforgettable scenes take place - the "Florian" in Venice - is open to this very day. Gentlemen, if you get the chance to sip an espresso there once or twice in your lifetime, please do so, and you will be able to look back on moments in an ambiance of unrivalled elegance.

Now Starbucks. Watery, artificially favoured coffee in oversized cardboard cups (how sad - compare to that the feel of a small Italian china espresso cup, heated to the exact right temperature before it was filled with coffee?). There is a sleeve of recycled cardboard that protects your fingers from being burnt. Of course, It all looks so awful. And it somehow accurately reflects the content.

Two details strike me as the height of extravagance:

1) the fancy names. Shall we speculate about the percentage of the American population would be able to locate Java or Eritrea on a globe, or could tell you what language the word "latte" is, and what it means? But that is not an issue here -it is all about flash, about image. The coffee is the cheapest there is on the market anyway, and that is good. Because: Who could tell after all the artificial flavours have been added?

2) The price: Ridiculous. There are humble coffee shops-- "fifty cents a cup, and no charge for refills", and their coffee tastes ways better. The price of $2.50 to $4.00 for flavored coffee with fancy names, once or twice a day is tantamount to burning money pointlessly, to squandering wealth. Very revealing indeed: A generation is throwing away what many generations of their forefathers have saved up.

Add to that the awkward design of their stores. It is that way that someone who has spent the best part of his or her life watching TV shows might guess that an elegant living room could look, or a place where you are supposed to meet the love of your life over a leisurely coffee conversation. Sure, it leaves emotions with me as well: Resignation. And then I feel a bit sorry for them, of course.

Am I too negative about it all? Am I missing the point altogether? Let me know.

Kind regards from Michael.

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