Part-Skim, No-Foam, Mocha-Java, Frappachino…

International | December 14, 2007

Do you ever get flashbacks to time and places while listening to a certain song?

I have that happen all the time.  Whenever I hear anything by Pearl Jam I think of my time in Japan; likewise with Offspring I recall my descent from base camp at Mount Everest.

But I also get flashbacks with respect to subject matter of books I read while travelling.

As I’m currently reading Starbucked and simultaneously visiting every coffee house in Belgrade, my mind is racing at the cultural differences…

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During the past ten days, I have completed three books, and cast aside one other.  My plane ride began with The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments by everybody’s favorite Fan-590 radio host, Bob McCown, and my first day in Belgrade helped me finish off The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz.

I read the first 200-or-so pages of Alan Greenspan’s book: The Age of Turbulence, but I find myself straining to read it.  This is the type of book that you put on hold for a while while you start, read, and finish two other books.

I just completed a book called Starbucked by first-time author Taylor Clark (who is almost as sarcastic as I am) chronicling the rise of the famous coffee empire, and analyzing the moral debates over whether the company epitomizes all that is wrong with capitalism and the free market.

In the meantime, I have been to at least a dozen coffee houses and cafe’s throughout Belgrade, and the irony between my reading about Starbucks while sipping a latte in Costa Coffee is quite apparent.

But if there is one single difference that I can put my finger on between coffee consumption in Toronto versus that here in Belgrade, it is that nobody in Belgrade gets coffee to go.  There are no paper cups; no roll-up-the-rim contests and no white cups with familiar green logos made from supposedly recycled paper.  Coffee houses in Belgrade are to employ the four “S’s” of the coffee experience:

Sitting, sipping, socializing….and smoking.

But I won’t get started on my smoking rants, as I think I pretty much covered that in yesterday’s post.

Since Starbucks has yet to enter the market in the former Yugoslavia, local coffee houses thrive.  There is so much choice, in fact, that a consumer may find him or herself “trying out” different places each day and night.  But this expression of choice has little to do with the coffee itself, and much to do with the experience.

Do you ever hear your friends say something like, “I hate going to bars and nightclubs.  It’s so hard to meet people, and it’s so hard to talk over the loud music.”  Then there is my favorite quote, usually uttered by a person who is not single: “You’re never going to meet your future boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse at a bar!”

This is where Belgrade coffee houses come into play.

When I first walked into Cafe Insomnia last week, my jaw dropped.  Unlike Starbucks in Toronto where a few high school girls gab on their cellphones and bored housewives in Lu-Lu-Lemons order $5 specialty coffees, or Tim Hortons where people from all walks of life line up for “double-double’s,” Cafe Insomnia was inhabited by the same demographic you’d expect to see at a thumping nighclub: good-looking, single, social, 20-30 year men and women.

Unlike Starbucks or Tim Horton’s, where probably 90% of the coffee purchased is to-go, there isn’t even an option to get coffee and leave at Cafe Insomnia, and people don’t approach the coffee bar, or speak directly with the baristas.

I took my seat on a plush leather cushion, and put my feet on the footstool adjacent to the small coffee table.  To my left, sat the most gorgeous girl I have ever seen in my life, and to my right sat the most gorgeous girl I had seen in the previous 1.8 seconds.

A group of young men decked out in Diesel and Kappa took a seat on the cushions across from my friend and I, and all of a sudden I felt like I was being invaded by the guys from GQ, and I would be soon be exposed for the unkempt tourist that I really was.

There was a serious lack of Kenny G and there was no Norah Jones or Sheryl Crow to be heard.  Instead, techno and house music prevailed, but it was playing at a very suitable decibel level.

My foot began to tap.

And soon, my head began to bob.  My shoulders may have even been swaying…

This was quite the unique experience! 

Take a Toronto nightclub, make it a little smaller, and fill it with comfortable cushions and an open seating arrangement so everybody can see everybody else.  Now speed up and turn down the music, make the lights a little brighter, and replace every single beer and rye-and-ginger with a latte or an espresso.  And there you have: a Serbian social hot-spot.

The only problem I experienced was trying to sip my hot latte while ferociously bobbing my head at 120 beats-per-minute to the Club Mix of “Tonight” by GebRiel Brothers.  Where the heck are my glow sticks when I need them?

Now I’m a creature of habit to say the least, and back home in Toronto, I have my Tim Horton’s double-double everday at 3:30PM to give me a little added pep before I go to the gym.  But here in Belgrade, I find myself sampling all kinds of coffee concoctions that I would never think to have back home.

In the book Starbucked, the author argues that the coffee giant has robbed the world of authentic tasting coffee by creating drinks that merely contain coffee, and aren’t coffee themselves.  The “Frappachino,” which single-handidly launched Starbucks into the mainstream in North America, is really just a glorified cup of milk with single shot of espresso!

I had never drank anything but a “large regular coffee” until I came to Belgrade, but now I find myself drinking espresso, which is a stark contrast to the watered-down (or milked-down) drinks we get in Toronto.  Espresso is the most popular coffee drink in the world, yet we North Americans don’t even bother to investigate what the rest of the world raves about!

Back at Cafe Insomnia, I politely sipped from my latte cup as a wine coniseur would gently sip a glass of fine Merlot.  I sat on edge as I glanced down at my white sweat socks and black running shoes.  Combine this look with my bright-red “Roots Canada” hoodie, and I didn’t exactly fit in with the local coffee-social crowd.

The girl next to me, who resembled a cross between a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jessica Alba, and Rhona Mitra, tilted her tiny espresso cup and downed the concentrated coffee beverage in a single gulp.  She then proceeded to take out a $65 tube of pink lip gloss, and gently apply it with brush strokes that would have put Picasso to shame.  I couldn’t help but calculate in my mind that she had just spend $3 for each stroke of that pink goop on her lips!

But this is the kind of crowd that a Belgrade coffee house brings out: young, single, gorgeous, and perhaps affluent as well.  Not to say that the city’s social elite all congregate over Colombian mocha-java, but this seemed to be the same crowd that might gather at Shmooze back in Toronto.

I couldn’t help rubbing the prickly stubble on my cheeks as I hadn’t shaved in about three days.  But looking around the room at all these gorgeous coffee-sippers, I became very self-conscious about my appearance.  I remember being 19 years old, and the very first time one of my friends was shooed away from the door of a Toronto nightclub because he was wearing a ballcap, a thick ski jacket, and carrying a backpack.  He simply didn’t belong, and as I sat in Cafe Insomnia, I couldn’t help but think neither did I.

Well, perhaps I did seem out of place, but I was also a tourist in a foreign nation, so that simply goes with the territory.

But if I had a choice between going back to that insane techno-rave from the other night (three days later my left ear is still ringing) or Cafe Insomnia for a night out on the town, I would choose the coffee bar.

And I can’t help but wonder how a “hot-spot” like this would fare within the social fabrics of Toronto night life.

Maybe somebody should take the first step and launch this Belgrade-inspired coffee bar in Toronto.

Or maybe we should all just wake up and smell the coffee…

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