What I love about coffee shops in other places

This post was started on August 9, 2020, and completed on January 4, 2023.

As I think back on some of my favorite memories, a hipster coffee shop in Hong Kong, a charming café in Oslo, eating at the bar at the Charleston Grill in Charleston, SC – all of these places gave me the ability to be around people but allow me to not interact with them (unless I wanted to).

This is a concept I refer to as group solitude. The ability to be around other people who have no desire to interrupt your experience while having as much ability to be with yourself and by yourself as you want. Think about it: in what other place can you be literally surrounded by other people who will make it their business to leave you alone?

I think the reason why solitude was on my mind that one day back in 2020 is the fact that I was sitting in my in-laws kitchen. It was one of the very rare times I got to have uninterrupted solitude to do whatever I want. I spent two hours writing a post a long overdue blog post on a trip to Maine that we had taken nearly a year prior. Then I had some lunch. Then I spent about an hour reading about RVs, drawing up some trip maps, and beginning to write this post. These are all things that are incredibly difficult when the demands of life – work, family, my son, preparing dinner, working out, and all of the other daily activities that we force into our lives – make their presence known.

By contrast, sitting in a café allows you to focus on whatever you desire. For example, today (here in 2023), I am sitting in a café in Evanston surrounded by a bunch of college-aged kids chatting about life over lattes, a number of senior citizens reading their newspapers and books quietly or catching up on life quite animatedly, and then there’s me. Writing away, reading my own newspaper, and reading books that have been sitting idle on my bookshelf. It’s the last day of my winter vacation and I am so grateful to be calmly listening to instrumental classical music and learning on my own time.

Despite how different cultural and culinary standards are across the world, a cup of coffee and a pastry are seemingly accessible anywhere in the world. And the ubiquitous croissant seems to be consistently on the shelf of any of these cafes. From Marrakech to Amsterdam, from Oslo to Evanston.

I am at my most productive when I am in a café. The stimulation of the caffeine, the warmth of the coffee, the sugar/fat from the pastries, the voices of the customers and the sounds of steam and grinders and the clinking of plates all coalesce into a wonderful white noise. I usually wear headphones and listen to instrumental music anyway, and that white noise surrounding me (and usually not overwhelming the music) puts me into my flow state.

Maybe this is what happens to you. If it does, I would encourage you to add a café to every one of your trips. You won’t regret it.

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