I recently found myself at a Starbucks Café at Copley Place in Boston, waiting to meet my friend Charlotte for a coffee and chat after returning from three months in Havana, Cuba.
I bought my $4 coffee and scavenged for a table. College students with laptops crowded most of them, headphones in place to block out the rest of the world. A European couple stood up and I darted over to ask them if they were leaving.
Reuters photo of men fishing off the Malecon.
They looked bewildered, nodded, and left three empty coffee cups and trash from their lunch on the table. I put my coat down to save the table and took several trips to the garbage can. I learned long ago not to judge tourist faux pas in our country, as I can’t imagine how many I myself have committed while traveling.
I sat down to wait for Charlotte and immediately opened a magazine I had in brought in my bag. There was music blasting and one of the baristas was singing and dancing along. “Gals on the go,” as a friend of mine affectionately refers to American women, ran in and out ordering non-fat double shot lattes.
I was feeling equally as overwhelmed as the Europeans had looked, but trying to get back into my own gal-on-the-go mentality in order to feel normal in American society again.
I am an avid traveler and over the last four years have spent time in Spain, Ireland, South Africa and Cuba. In each country I traveled to I enjoyed long conversations with friends in cafés and spent copious amounts of time sipping coffee by myself and watching the city at work and play – something which seems self-indulgent when I am in America, but to me is a staple of learning about another culture.
Of the countries I have been to Cuba was the most sheltered from American culture, but oddly enough it was also the easiest to adjust to. I spent hours sitting on the Malecon, a sea wall that stretches the length of the city, watching old American cars drive by. The constant visual assault of advertising was gone. I had no cell phone constantly buzzing and beeping at me, demanding my attention and getting on my nerves.
If I arranged to meet a Cuban friend in Havana and they were running late because of the incredibly unreliable “wa-wa,” or bus, they would have no way to get in touch with me. So I would sit and wait, utterly relaxed, knowing that they would get there when they got there. As I sat in the café in Boston wondering where Charlotte was I felt anxious, catching myself checking the time every few minutes.
I began unabashedly people watching, but doing so with my magazine in front of me so as not to appear weird or lonely, a classic American fear. Or as if I had nowhere more important to be, perhaps an even greater fear.
Most people in the café couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take the time to sit down and enjoy their coffee. The ones who were sitting were primarily doing work, and the few tables occupied by friends chatting came and left quickly.
The man at the table next to me seemed to be the only person who wasn’t acting as if he had somewhere better to be. He was sitting by himself listening to music on an old CD player. On his table there was a stack of six CDs, including Madonna, Neil Diamond and the Beatles. There were also three cups of coffee, each half-full, and a battery charger for the CD player. This guy had set up shop for a while.
I respected that he was there by himself. He had no pretensions. There was nowhere else he wanted to be, and he didn’t try to pretend otherwise.
At this point I realized that he was having a conversation with the wall. He was also periodically blowing his nose and throwing the tissues into a rapidly growing pile behind his chair. He had indeed been there for a while. And the one other person in the café who was enjoying a coffee and people watching by himself was very likely crazy after all.
Shortly after this unfortunate epiphany Charlotte texted me and asked where I was. Turned out that she was at the Starbucks in City Place, not Copley Place, the price we pay for the ubiquitous café. I took my second cup of coffee to go, running out the door like a gal on the go that had never lost her stride.
Cuba is an amazing and unique place, and I experienced something there which is rare in our world, and especially our country: stillness. A utopia without advertising, without shops on every corner, and without the constant din of construction. But this peace has come at a devastating price.
Cubans live in a time capsule, forever haunted by the past. The country is filled with decaying mansions where single families hosted extravagant parties and lived like kings once upon a time, and where now 10 families live side by side, in solidarity and in poverty, as the walls crumble around them. I've never met people so friendly, open and happy. When I said this to my Cuban friend Alex he shrugged, and told me that when Cubans are not home they don't think of the problems waiting for them there. They have to be happy, and appreciate every good thing in their lives, to endure their everyday reality.
Everyday I think of the people I met there -- teachers, doctors and academics who could barely feed their families because of the trade embargo -- and everyday I hope that the embargo ends for their sake. But for their sake I also hope that Starbucks never makes its way to Cuba.
Posted by Courtney Brooks, Globe correspondent