So, it’s Starbucks. Again. Call me David. (See, there was a character in Moby-Dick named Starbuck, which served as the inspiration for… oh, never mind.)
According to Google Maps, it’s 4,414 miles from where I sit in this Costa Rica Starbucks to the Mothership (Starbucks global headquarters) in Seattle. Somehow, I suppose it’s perfectly appropriate that I come more than 4,000 miles from my Seattle home to find that my favorite local hangout here in Costa Rica’s capital of San José is… Starbucks.
I, however, find a dark irony in this. You see, I’m not a Starbucks guy. When I’m in Seattle, there are a plenty of better options for my daily mocha, local espresso joints with much more character. More soul, if you will.
To me, Starbucks is the McDonald’s of coffee, a gigantic chain that has spread like a pandemic across the globe. I’ve walked into a Starbucks in Hanoi, Vietnam, just to see if it’s true that the prices are the same as those in the U.S. (they are). I walked out of that one without ordering anything, smugly refusing to buy into the brand hype.
There’s also some personal lingering bitterness from the 2006 decision by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to sell the Sonics, Seattle’s longtime NBA franchise, to a group of rich oilmen from Oklahoma. The new owners almost immediately moved my childhood team to Oklahoma City, breaking the hearts of thousands of Sonics fans.
So yes, I generally make a point of avoiding Starbucks unless I can help it. And yet here I sit.
In my defense, coffeehouses are not really a thing here in Costa Rica (a little odd, considering the country has historically been a major coffee producer). Maybe people are just too busy to sit and relax with an espresso and a friend (or a laptop). People hustle here. And espresso drinks aren’t cheap.
Another problem for me: iced coffee is hard to find here, for some reason. When the thermometer hits 70 degrees, I automatically switch from hot coffee to iced, which means that in sunny CR I’m looking for iced coffee just about every day. But when I would try to order it in a Costa Rican restaurant or coffee shop, I’d be served either a frappe-like ice cream drink or juice box-style mocha beverage. When I brought up this problem with people who live here, they’d invariably refer me to Starbucks.
And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a fancy Starbucks located right smack-dab in the middle of my walk to work. (Unlike most U.S. cities, there isn’t a Starbucks on every corner here. Yet.) When I discovered it, the first thing I saw was a splashy sign out front promoting their scrumptious holiday iced espresso drinks. Who can resist that mermaid’s siren call, luring me with the promise of a delicious cranberry white chocolate mocha? I order it with menos (light) chocolate and skim milk, since I’m a health-conscious guy.
There’s so many familiar little touches, from the logos and fonts to the drink names to the color scheme and store décor. Annoying, English-language Christmas music booms from the in-store audio system. Sights, sounds and tastes of home, an oasis of familiarity in a confusing, bustling foreign city.
I readily acknowledge that a large part of the appeal of foreign travel is to have experiences that are fundamentally different from those we have in our home country. Nearly all of us would acknowledge that it is a missed opportunity to visit a different culture and then stick to what we already know. And cuisine is one of the major ways we experience a culture, food being a distinct marker of a people and place. One doesn’t go to Japan to eat at KFC (sadly, I can attest, a very popular restaurant in Tokyo).
However, I am not just traveling in Costa Rica. I’m living and working here, teaching English at a San José language school. I’m shopping at grocery stores, riding local buses, paying rent. Hanging out at a local coffee shop and writing (as I sit here doing right now) is a regular part of my life. I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that I gravitate to what’s most familiar, especially if it’s also convenient. And pretty tasty to boot.
Or maybe I can just chalk it up to feeling homesick for Seattle. Like it or not, Starbucks will always evoke the Emerald City to me. I’ll just have to cut myself a little slack on this one, at least in the short term. If I start lunching at McDonald’s, however, feel free to shoot me.