Two coffees

18 June 2015

This is a story about two very different cups of coffee.

The first cup of coffee is black, instant, lukewarm and fortified with white sugar. It's made in my work canteen or in my kitchen. It tastes bad but it takes just a few minutes to prepare and drink.

The second cup of coffee is fluffy, warm and sweetened with granulated brown sugar. It's made by baristas and sipped slowly when I don't have anywhere to be in a hurry. It's a flat whites or a latte. This coffee is comfortable, rewarding and one of life's simple pleasures. It feels like a hug or a warm blanket.

There have been times in my life when I've consumed more black coffee than white coffee and times when the opposite has been true.

I like white coffee a lot more. It's the perfect accompaniment to chilled conversations with friends about each others' lives. And it's a good excuse to sit in a cafe for hours by myself and write or read.

Black coffee is gasoline. It slides down my throat and delivers a mild jolt to my senses - just enough to keep my eyelids open and my brain ticking over for an hour more.

Recently I've been drinking a lot more black coffee than white coffee. I knew that, but I didn't realise how lopsided the ratio had become until a few days ago.

I've been a Starbucks Gold cardholder for as long as I've been in London. It means I get free syrup, free extra shots and free whipped cream. I used to get free soy milk, back when they charged extra for it.

I know there are good reasons for not visiting Starbucks. It's ubiquitous. Unapologetically corporate. They aren't good at paying taxes. But it's comforting. The staff are always friendly. By all accounts they're treated well. The decor and atmosphere is relaxed. The wifi is reliable and the chairs are comfortable. The coffee is better than any other chain store in the UK and it's cheaper and more accessible than the cool ex-pat antipodean places that dot this city. I like those spots a lot, but I can't help but like Starbucks too.
To get Gold status you have to buy 50 coffees a year. Roughly one a week. It used to be easy for me to find time for at least an hour out of every week to sit in a cafe and relax, either by myself or with friends.. On good weeks, I would find two or three hours a week.

On Monday I checked my Starbucks account for the first time in months. I'm 8 coffees away from retaining Gold status. OK. But as I scrolled down I realised I only had ten days left to buy those coffees before I slipped back to 0 stars and become a basic member. I'd be stuck there for as long as it took me to buy 50 more coffees.

I've probably drank more coffee in the last 355 days than I have over any equivalent period of my life. On good (bad?) days I can sink a dozen cups. But these are black coffees, snatched when I have five minutes away from work or my other responsibilities. Enough to keep me going but not much more. By any definition, it's unhealthy.

This is very different than my first few years in London. I'd regularly have three or four days off in a stretch. My friends were at work so I had a lot of spare time. Then I got more opportunities at work, or about town, and that meant fewer time spent lounging, reading, or writing over a caramel latte.

For the next ten days, I have no choice but to try and recalibrate myself. The cost/benefit analysis of retaining Gold status is a no-brainer. I used to make my investment back in the free soy milk alone, but even without this I can still save over £100 a year in extra shots, syrup and free drinks.

So I've loaded £20 onto my Starbucks card and set up a series of calendar reminders before the cutoff date. A lot of things have changed for me in the last 365 days. I moved house, switched job, turned 30, been to far too many farewell parties and seen a lot of close friends go through some pretty tough times. I've been in London four years now. That's four years detached from NZ but still two years away from a British Passport. It's been a challenging time and I've put a lot of things I love doing on hold for reasons that made sense at the time, but don't really make sense in hindsight.

Which is why it's nice to sit in a Starbucks and write this blog over a flat white (well, two flat whites. I have a target to hit after all). If there were gold stars for blogging, I would have lost mine many months ago. Sitting hear at 11pm in Piccadilly Circus is a nice reminder of what makes me happy and how simple those things are. It's easy to lose sight of that in a city this size and it's nice to be reminded every so often...even if it is by a blip on my phone and a monolithic corporate chain. The irony!

I'll still be drinking black coffee over the next few weeks and months. Things aren't going to change overnight. But eventually I'm sure I'll find myself drinking a few more flat whites and a few less Americanos. More brown sugar and less white sugar. More lazy hours and fewer snatched minutes. That sounds good.

In the meantime, hit me up if you're in London and feel like a coffee in the next six days. I have five left to buy. My shout. I insist!