“Yes, please. Decaf. No cream, no sugar.”
Back in my homeland, I preferred tea to coffee, and I preferred plain milk to tea. Coffee in India was sweeter and I hated sweet drinks. Tea was less sweet, usually. The hyacinth had a habit of drinking coffee after fish curry meals. Kisses tasted of fish and onions and strong filter coffee.
There was a phase when I liked the cold coffee made at the little cafe by my undergrad campus, but that could be attributed to the fact that it was the only palatable drink in the neighbourhood. Filter coffee, or Madras coffee as some call it, was too strong for me. Coming from my family household, I was only used to tea unsweetened and without milk. I could only stomach the darkest chocolate, more bitter than sweet. Cakes and ice-creams were difficult to get through.
Then I came to this land. Sweet assaulted me from every direction – beverages, meals, desserts. I had great difficulty accustoming myself to this. I got through the first few months with my shabby cooking skills applied to frozen vegetables. Someone bought me a cup of plain coffee at Starbucks and I was hooked: here there was something quite bitter (likely because they have the bad habit of over-roasting their beans). I got through days and nights unpleasant, in a strange land, among strange folks, armed with a cup of bitterness. God, that cup became my salvation quickly enough.
I was unable to develop a taste for any of their other beverages, though I tried. I used to move towards the plain iced coffee with milk during the summers, when it was too hot to even contemplate a hot cup of coffee.
There was no specific reason why I didn’t go decaf. I don’t like fussing over something as simple as a cup of coffee (a hangover of being brought up in a society where you just drank whatever you were given, quietly and without making your preferences known, which ended up causing a great deal of trouble for me due to my meat-abhorring, sweet-abhorring ways that so many well-wishers told my family to nip off in the bud since I needed to learn to adjust once I married the standard meat-appreciating, sweet-appreciating man who was destined for me).
There were advantages to coffee that I hadn’t been aware of.
It cut my appetite so drastically that I could usually get by with one or two meals a day. I was never that aware of proper mealtimes even before that, so it took a long time before I noticed it, or before someone else pointed it out with a bit of horror.
It kept me awake and that helped me get through grad-school. Our labs were best haunted during the night-time. I am one of those souls that need eight-nine hours of sleep to function. That couldn’t have worked in grad-school. As an unforeseen savior, coffee came to the rescue.
I had no peace at the living arrangements I had then (too noisy to work), and lab was a place I got tired of after about eight hours a day, so I picked up the habit of working at cafes. Headphones, laptop and a sheaf of papers was all that I needed. And a cup of coffee justified my haunting of Starbucks. To be fair, there were a great many fellow workers in that cafe off 5th street across Tech Square. Eventually, the cafe became a place where I did my most important tasks – writing long emails that required peace of mind and quiet to compose, writing research papers, reading research papers, juggling finances and bills.
When I took a job, I ended up at a startup. It was a highly stressful period of my life. Well, my life has been mostly all stress since graduating high-school, but that is neither here nor there, and there are different kinds of stress and I deal with some kinds better than I deal with other kinds. The start-up stress and the deep emotional turbulence due to personal circumstances at the time ensured that Starbucks was the only place I could go to unwind, gently easing back into myself, aided by coffee and people-watching. As someone who was then always too pressed for time, I also managed to drag work there, getting through reviewing pull-requests, writing emails that I had ignored through the week, dealing with finances etc.
“We have a coffee machine!”
That was a bait dangled before me at the next place I went to work at. I was more interested in their autonomous car and making it happen, but I nodded along politely. Despite all the various reasons I turned to coffee for, I hadn’t mixed it with work after grad-school. Chamomile tea is my preferred drink at workplaces, because I need every ounce of calm I can get to deal with the craziness in this industry.
In the last few months, I have had the hitherto unknown grace of space – I have been living alone and it has done my life wonders. I no longer need to run to the nearest cafe to get some quiet and peace. I can accomplish what I need to from the comfort of my flat. It is addictive. I enjoy easy access to a decent grocery store, and I have taken to making food and beverages that are not sweet (adding green onions helps make anything less sweet – a tip from a friend that I have taken to heart recently). I no longer need to turn to turn to a cup of coffee to give me my comforting quota of bitterness or the shelter of a cafe to focus on important paperwork.
I love the smell of fresh coffee. I like walking by cafes or by the coffee stall at work, and taking a whiff of that aroma improves my mood. There are pleasant memories of quietness and focus, of getting things done, in cafes, away from distractions and worries.
I stop by my favourite cafe on Saturdays, after a trip to the farmer’s market, to grab a cup of plain coffee (decaf on the days I remember to ask for it).