Saturday night, and I’m doing a bit of blogging after clearing weeds in the garden. Shouldn’t I be getting ready to go out on the town and live it up a bit? Perhaps. I’ll see how I feel in an hour or so. Let me tell you a bit more about my Taiwan wanderings. I’m cheating a bit by borrowing (heavily edited and abridged!) extracts from one of the other blogs I keep…this one being a real diary that lives on my laptop, which I started while on Walkabout as a means of clearing my head (the point of the trip): essentially talking to myself (I recommend it).
At some point in my stay in Hsinchu on my Walkabout, I began to look for places that served good coffee, where I could sit and do a bit of thinking and some work, (sometimes both!). Both coffee and atmosphere are two important fuels for this type of work, at least for me. (This was before moving to Taipei and finding the various excellent tea and coffee places near National Taiwan University that I began to haunt regularly. I think I mentioned those in earlier posts about the trip. See e.g. here and several others.) Apparently coffee bars took hold rather recently in Taiwan and have become quite popular (often in combination with tea bars, but even as a thing unto themselves), although this was not so evident in the part of Hsinchu I was in.
It turned out that I spied this potentially nice coffee place right next (a few doors down from) to my hotel in Hsinchu, and one lunchtime I thought it would be nice to go and sit there and have some coffee. It was not clear whether the place really did sit-down coffee though, maybe only serving over the counter bulk coffee (no tables really set up… possible counter seat or two, but not really sure), and so I thought I would go in and do a bit of a mime to get across my question (as I’d grown accustomed to doing). So in I went, and the proprietor was chatting with someone over the counter. I thought I’d wait, but they broke off and I started to try to say something when the customer (a knock-you-over-the-head-with-a-bat-pretty young woman) spoke to me in English and so I asked her the question. So she asked the proprietor (a charming older lady with no English) and it was established that I could have a cup of coffee there for $100 NT and could sit. I tried to talk to the customer a bit more by asking her if she had a recommended coffee she liked, etc, but then we ran out of things to say before she had to run off, and that was it. She left. (I kicked myself for the rest of the day for not asking her if she wanted to join me for coffee, and wondered at the fact that I’d missed an opportunity to reach out and make a new friend. Getting slow in my old age, I guess.)
The proprietor took an awfully long time to make the cup of coffee, and I stood there on my own in the store, thinking that it would be really ironic if all of this resulted in a really lousy cup of coffee….
Eventually she brought it. It was excellent. It was in a rather special cup which she seemed rather proud of, and we had to fiddle a bit to set me up a table properly. (taking a large bag of beans off the only one that was close to flat on the floor and so usable). For the rest of the time I was there it was clearly a big deal that I was sitting and drinking coffee, for every time one of her regulars came in to get some beans, there was a long conversation, and then they would both turn and look at me for a moment, and then carry on talking. (Also, she came over and glanced over my shoulder at what I was writing, not knowing that I could see her doing this -I’ve eyes in back of my head, in case you are wondering-…..I was playing with a conjecture at the time and drawing lots of pictures and scribbling equations…wonder what she thought that all was?).
As you can see from the pictures, the place was very charming, as coffee places go. It turned out that this was typical of the dedicated coffee places (I went to others later, and in other cities). They’re just chock-a-block full of bags and bins of coffee, coffee paraphernalia, bizarre-looking coffee-extracting equipment (including lots of fancy round glass flasks straight from a science lab in a 1950s SF movie). It is an aspect of the atmosphere that I had not anticipated, and was rather welcome, since I’m quite a fan of ….paraphernalia.
Well here’s the more unexpected part of the story. I was coming back to the hotel several nights later via one of the places I would go for beef noodles…. and I was mulling over the above events, since I was approaching the coffee place and it had popped up in my mind. I got to wondering who the English-speaking woman was, how come she knew English so well, whether it meant she was connected to the university, and whether or not I should have asked the coffee quetion or not, even in principle. Anyway, I moved over in the narrow pathway allowed by all the parked scooters on the sidewalk since I could hear running footsteps coming up behind me and I wanted to let the pedestrian pass. But they did not pass. There was a tap on my back and a voice spoke in English, saying excuse me. I turned and it was her! She asked if we’d met at the coffee shop and I said yes (of course). Turned out that she was hoping we’d meet again so that she could find out if the coffee was ok and whether I knew about the other coffee place further down the road past the bridge. (I did in fact know about it and had been planning to try it later…) She’d wanted to tell me that in fact that other place was way better, with better coffee and actual sitting space, and even a food menu…. but she did not know how to at the time, given the circumstances.
Anyway, we exchanged cards and (later by email) she suggested that it would be good to meet and chat some more and try out this coffee place. (So much for me over-thinking things, ironically!) She turned out to be an engineer at one of the companies in the local technology park adjacent to the University (National Tsing Hua), designing chip layouts for Bluetooth devices. Very smart, and obviously keen to chat to a foreigner to practice her English.
When we did meet up there later (much later…. two weeks later and a lot of touring (some you’ve heard about) -Tainan, Taipei, etc – in between), the other place turned out to be really great. She was right. Here’s a nice shot of what you see as you come into the place at night…. I love the lighting:
So I never ended up going back to the first coffee place. I felt a bit guilty, because I rather liked the proprieter lady there, but not too guilty, since I created all that trouble for her by asking to take a real cup of coffee and sit in the place….. I might have gone back, though, were it not for the fact that I went wandering off to other parts of the country, and then when I returned to Hsinchu never found the time before leaving to return to LA.
In case you’re wondering: Yes, there is Starbucks there (and a huge number of clones of it’s look too)….everywhere, it seemed. I was avoiding it. There was one very near my hotel in Hsinchu, and later, near my hotel in Taipei. I was avoiding it, not because I have anything against Starbucks per se (people rant about it a lot, but I don’t, because I’m grateful to them for a number of things they’ve done here in the West, including the revolution that they kindled in Britain….if you knew just how hard it was to find cup of coffee to take away in a non-disintegrating cup, and how awful it tasted, even in a big city like London, not so long ago…) but because I wanted to avoid as many Western things as possible while I was there (at least during the bulk of the trip….see later) and also because I wanted to support the local “artisanal” and “mom-and-pop” coffee places. It turned out that one Sunday I violated my personal ban on Starbucks in Taiwan. Everything else was shut that day, and I got a phone call from a smart and beautiful Engineer to meet for coffee. What was I to do? Say that I could not meet, on principle?!
Hmmm. I seem to have written way way more new stuff than I intended, and a good chunk of my Saturday night has gone. Time to get moving, I think….