*Originally published on Culture Counter, which is now shut down*
Coffee has always been around me. My earliest childhood memories are tinged with the scent of roasted beans. Images of the adults sipping their coffee, as I tore open my Christmas presents. The sound of a coffee maker on a Sunday morning when I would wake up to the smell of cinnamon rolls. Noticing aunts and uncles pouring milk into their dark cups, while I ran around with bed-head, chasing my cousins. I remember tasting a lukewarm cup of my dad’s coffee and spitting it out, horrified that he could drink something so bitter every morning. It was the same feeling I’d had towards beer. Why did adults drink this stuff and why did it make them so happy?
In high school, I started drinking Starbucks Frappuccinos because it felt cool and tasted like a milkshake. In college, I only drank coffee if it looked fancy or if I had a hangover because that made me look super adult and world-weary. Then, I went to Europe and everything changed. I realized that coffee was an art, coffee was sex, coffee was good conversation and dusty books, and that kind of coffee was never cheap. In Spain, I’d put my sticky, sugary pointer finger and thumb together, through the handle of the tiny, ceramic cup and sip my café con leche, every morning. It would usually come with a cookie or a donut to sweeten the deal. Sometimes, my co-workers and I would be late to school because coffee was more important than our actual jobs. That year in Spain cemented my idea that to do work and to handle children, coffee was necessary.
Asia wasn’t as serious about coffee, but thanks to hipsters, the trendy café began showing up all over. Bespectacled lovers of art and espresso hung about, being seen, and ordering iced lattes, while I enjoyed reading my books in cafes all over South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and even, Thailand. I had one of the best cups of coffee in recent memory in Chiang Mai. I find this cruelly amusing now, as here in Phuket, I have yet to find an espresso that makes me want to take a picture of it.
When I moved to Phuket, my hotel room had packets of powder coffee. Absolute blasphemy, but I was desperate, so I drank it. I headed to 7/11, hoping they would have an espresso machine, like in Taiwan. They did and I ordered a latte. I was served a cup that may have been tailored for a baby. I was offended and I drank it down miserably. Those few drops didn’t even taste good. At my school, I noticed we had a café. This was great news! I was all ready to get a tube running from the espresso machine, straight into my classroom, and ultimately, into my veins. I went in, heady with my teacher discount, and ordered an iced latte (I always start with a latte. If a place can do that, then I start bringing out the big guns, like flat whites and straight espresso). The non-smiling woman behind the counter handed it to me. It was large, but it tasted like melted sugar. I went back again, armed with the words “mai waan” (not sweet) and “mai nom kom” (not sweetened condensed milk). She nodded with understanding and then handed me the same, damn thing. I was desperate and filled with woe. I searched all the grocery stores for coffee packets or drinks that didn’t contain 50% sugar, but it was not to be. Some of them didn’t even have coffee in them! Just coffee “flavor”. The last straw was going to the Phi Phi islands and ordering a cappuccino that tasted like watery mud. I almost threw it at the wall. Then, I went on a tirade that my friends mostly ignored because none of them drink coffee, so not only can I not find any decently made caffeine, but no one around me understands the good things in life.
Today, I went to another branch of my school for a meeting and I grabbed an iced latte from the old, Thai woman who works there. I took a sip and almost cried. It was beautiful. Not sweet and a strong punch of espresso to the mouth, softened by a blanket of fresh milk. Throughout the day, I felt myself buzzing around, light-headed, talking a mile a minute, and overly excited about things like small dogs, tuna spring rolls, and how good that coffee was. The drug was working. Now, hours later, I feel the come down. The grumpiness is threatening to overcome and I dream about my next coffee. But alas, there is only tea.
I think back to childhood memories of my parents sipping tea with honey when they were sick and giving me the same when I felt under the weather. I remember adults drinking chamomile tea under the last light bulb of the night, trying to soothe their minds. Were they also trying to forget the siren call of coffee? Most importantly, did that tea ever really make them happy?