The Lost Art Of Coffee House Etiquette

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As a writer, I spend a lot of time in coffee houses. Tall Café Mochas serve as my muse juice, free internet keeps me connected, and the cozy atmosphere is free of irritating distractions. Although, I’m starting to question the integrity of that last part. My usual writing spot has increasingly become more a like a zoo than a civilized place for people to read, drink coffee, or engage in conversation.

Of late, I’m starting to think there is a shortage of people who truly know how to behave in a coffee house. I’ve been an avid coffee house dweller for many years and I’ve covered a lot of ground both in the States and abroad. Either I’m getting old and less tolerant or there has been a steady degradation in acceptable behavior for what used to be a relaxing public space.

Ranting usually isn’t my style, but sometimes I hit my limit and can no longer remain silent. At the same time, I’m an organized and civilized ranter that decided to create a list of rules that I believe are essential to coffee house etiquette.

Five Simple Rules of Coffee House Etiquette

The Globe (bookshop and coffee house), Prague Czech Republic
Photo by: c.b.w. 2008

1) Wait in line patiently.

A coffee house is not the place to go if you are in a hurry. Hit the Starbucks drive-thru or a fast food joint if you want your coffee in one minute flat. Standing a millimeter away from the person in front of you and guffawing about how long it’s taking for the lone barista to make a latte does not create a comfortable atmosphere, nor does it make your coffee appear any faster. Good coffee is worth the wait, anyway.

2) Keep conversations personal.

A quiet coffee shop is always nice, but the energy of socializing is acceptable as well. However, there is a difference between intimate conversations that stay within the confines of personal space and those that spread out to everyone within earshot and beyond. Obnoxious drabble and attention-seeking hollers have no place in a coffee house. It’s about showing a little respect for yourself and those around you who did not ask for a shot of your personal life with their espresso.

3) Keep electronic devices silent.

In the age of technology, we are increasingly dependent on cell phones, laptops, tablets, and music players. I fully admit that I am a gadget junkie, but I’m also aware of the fact that it’s polite to make sure they don’t disrupt others. In a coffee house, there is no reason to listen to music or watch a movie with the speakers blaring for everyone to hear. Earbuds were created so you and only you can listen to whatever you want anywhere you want without disrupting other people. Use them.

The same goes for cell phones. Take the time to put your phone on silent or vibrate. Most coffee house goers are not amused that your ringtone sounds like the latest dance club mix. Furthermore, if you have to answer the call, do so following Rule #2 or take the call outside. For some reason, people talk on the phone with a voice that is considerably louder than when speaking face to face to another person.  Nobody wants to hear half of a conversation that breaks the sound barrier while trying to enjoy a cup of coffee.

4) Don’t leave children unattended.

I tread lightly with this rule because I know kids have a right to be out in public. All I’m saying is a little on-site training in proper behavior wouldn’t hurt. Perhaps I’m a prude who is way out of line, but I personally don’t go to a coffee house to listen to children scream or teenagers test how many times they can use the F-word before their Venti Chai Tea is gone. Too many times I’ve watched a gaggle of twelve-year-olds commandeer a table with their “grown up” drinks without having the slightest idea on how to conduct themselves.  So, instead of a coffee house they decide they’re on the playground. Maybe it would help to have someone show them some etiquette instead of dumping them off at a café like it’s a sort of babysitting service.

(Sorry, I might be ranting a little too much here. Parents can’t totally be blamed for this as children are going to do things beyond Mom and Dad’s control. However, Society as a whole can help by refusing to accept inappropriate behavior.)

 5) Clean up after yourself.

Coffee houses are not the same as restaurants. They don’t have waiters assigned to certain tables to come and take your order and clean up your dirty dishes. Granted in some coffee houses, there is someone who swoops by to clear the table, but more often than not the dishes sit there until the barista has a second to step away from the coffee bar. Is it part of their job? Yes. But consider the fact that someone who has just walked in needs a place to sit. Would you ask them to sit with your dirty dishes? I hope not. It only takes a few seconds to throw away your paper cup or set a plate on the counter.

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I may be perched on a soapbox at the moment, but I’m not above apologizing for having broken at least three of these rules at one time or another in my early years.  After more than a few cups of coffee, I’ve learned how important it is to respect the space of others and be mindful of the reality that I am not the center of the universe and neither is anyone else. Especially, in a coffee house.

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c.b.w. 2013

Memory Stubs

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When I was a kid I saved ticket stubs from concerts, sporting events, fairs, festivals, and just about anything else that needed a ticket. I loved how one look at a date and time, seat number, or movie title instantly took me back to that moment in time. Memories that were normally invisible in the back of my mind came roaring to life as I thought back on who I was with, where I sat, and how much fun I had. Each ticket stub was my own personal time machine.

While searching for film negatives in box under the bed, I came across a stack of memories I thought were gone forever. When my home was burglarized eight years ago, all my so-called valuable possessions were taken, but what killed me the most was the loss of a lockbox that I used to protect keepsakes including tickets stubs.  In particular, I was sad to lose a set Star Wars 20th Anniversary stubs, (my step-dad and I saw those movies together and I’ve always treasured that time).  Imagine my surprise, when I flipped open a small box and found a stack of movie and concert ticket stubs I thought were in my stolen lockbox.

Movie Ticket Stubs circa 1993-2003

Unfortunately, the Star Wars tickets weren’t in the bunch, but I was still thrilled to find stubs for movies I saw almost twenty years ago when it only cost  $3.75 to see an afternoon movie and $6.50 for an evening show.  As I flipped through the stack, it was amazing to know all of my memories were still inside of me, waiting to be recalled.  I saw The Mirror Has Two Faces with my sister back in 1996. The film strip broke halfway through and we had to wait forever for them fix it so we could see the end.

Then, there are the ticket stubs from movies I saw with my first serious boyfriend, BraveheartBeevis and Butthead Do America, and Twister. My best friend from high school and I went and saw The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame together. We were the only “adults” without children in the entire theater, but we watched like we were kids.

These little memories are just a fraction of what these stubs hold for me.  They are priceless and I am so thankful to have found them again.

My weird habit of saving ticket stubs continues to this day. I keep all my movie stubs on a giant bulletin board in my classroom. It has over 250 stubs from movies between 1991 and 2012, including the ticket stubs from my first date with my husband and the most recent movie we saw together (last month). My friends and family are all over this board!

Movie Ticket Stubs circa 1991-2012

Some other tickets I’ve saved over the years come from sporting events and concerts.  My surprise under-the-bed stash yielded concerts I went to in high school with my sister and best friend. We were psycho country fans, which makes the Ryman Auditorium ticket stub one of my favorites.  My dad took my sister and I to that historic stage. I’ll never forget the fun we had or the patience and kindness of my dad for letting two obsessed teenagers go nuts over our favorite celebrities.

Concert and Museum Stubs

What history and art dork wouldn’t save her museum tickets? Van Gogh Alive and the Phoenix Art Museum are fairly recent, but I remember them as being absolutely beautiful days filled with beautiful things.

While in high school, I had a best friend that was kind enough to invite me to a few awesome basketball games.  I still have every stub and I love the memories they bring of us laughing and having a great time.

Basketball, Baseball, and Football . . . Oh my!

This collection also includes a ticket stub for a hockey game (Milwaukee Admirals) that was my first ever date. Sometimes, I wonder how that guy is doing.  He was nice and we had fun, but it didn’t work out!  My baseball stubs remind me of more time spent with my step dad and my husband. I love both major and minor league baseball even if it means getting a sunburn out on the lawn seats. If I can’t have my Star Wars tickets, I can at least have these. The San Francisco Giants ticket was in the stash I thought I’d lost.

Aside from my movie stubs, my favorite ticket stubs are from NASCAR races. I am a huge fan of fast cars and Jeff Gordon, but even more so of spending time with my Dad and stepmom. Every year for almost 10 years, I’ve gone out to Indiana to visit them and catch the Brickyard 400. Whenever I see those tickets I think of our race traditions, the noise of the cars, the smell of rubber, and the rivalry of Jeff Gordon fans (me) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, (my dad). NASCAR something we do together and it means a lot to me.  I keep these tickets on the wall behind my desk at work, so I can I have a little piece of my dad and stepmom with me every day.

NASCAR Ticket Stubs

Between the newer stacks of tickets and re-discovered treasures, I’ve taken on the project of organizing my stubs into a small scrapbook.  Clearly, I’m not the only one who saves these little mementos as I found a fantastic little binder made just for saving ticket stubs!

A scrapbook just for ticket stubs!

Silly as it may be, my ticket stubs are precious collectibles. Not only do they get me into movies, concerts, museums, and stadiums, but they are souvenirs to some of my favorite memories.

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c.b.w. 2012

An Adventure in Rural China

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There’s nothing quite like getting stuck in the mud . . . in rural China.  Just outside Changchun in northern China there are large stretches of cornfields and grazing livestock.  In some respects, it looks a lot like the Midwest in the United States, but there are definite reminders that this isn’t Kansas.

After spending a lot of time in large, crowded cities, I was delighted to head out to the countryside and explore a small village in the middle of nowhere.  The plan was to have a dinner with a local farming family and attend a traditional bonfire show put on by the locals.

The drive was long, but relatively easy until paved roads started to give way to dirt. The first challenge was a small herd of cows intent on taking over all lanes of traffic.  We had to stop and wait for the very slow moving cattle to clear the road.  While waiting for the cows to move, I took in my surroundings and was very surprised to see so much corn growing in vast fields.  And the further we went, the more cornfields I saw.  I never thought of China as a huge corn-growing mecca, but I was wrong!

As we traveled down the rutted road, simple homes made of mud brick and woven plant fibers dot the landscape.  Some served as a family home, while others were in disrepair.  It’s a hard life and not everyone can make ends meet.  The same is true most everywhere.

Cow blockage turned out to be far less of a worry when the dirt roads went from sand to mud. As we moved deeper into the heart of the rural community, the mud got increasingly deep and thick thanks to a recent rainstorm. The road got really bumpy and it felt more like an off-road adventure than leisurely drive in the country.  After one big bump, we came to a screeching halt.  The bus was stuck in a huge rut and we couldn’t go any further.  Everyone was told to get off and to start walking.  What a perfect day to wear sandals! Luckily, we aren’t too far off from our destination.  By some miracle, my practically bare foot did not land in mud pile.

Along the way, I got to meet some locals, who were incredibly nice and very curious about us.  One woman in particular was very excited to show us how she calls her chickens when its time to feed them.  When she grabbed a wooden spoon and beat a metal bowl the chickens came flying towards her from all directions.

The woman’s husband was a proud man who was intent on showing us his home and bragging about the success of his son who lived right next door.  It’s a big deal for a son to move away and establish his own homestead in this region.  Farming doesn’t exactly bring in the big money, so multi-generational homes are the norm, (three generations of one family often live under the same roof).  For his son to be successful enough to strike out on his own, is a huge source of pride for his parents.

While poverty is apparent throughout the village, there were indicators of progress peeking out from unexpected corners.  Technology is relatively low in this region as rural communities are not usually able afford modern conveniences, but there are always exceptions to the rule.  At one point, I spotted a brand new Volkswagen parked next to a well-built brick house.  The disparity of wealth and poverty is quite extreme everywhere in China, even in the boondocks.

I spent the evening enjoying a large dinner prepared by a local family.  All the food was grown in the fields of the surrounding farms and it was absolutely delicious.  It was here where I indulged in the delicacy of the “thousand year old” egg.  Essentially, an egg is buried in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months.  It looked disgusting on the plate as it had the unappetizing color of greenish gray, but the taste more than made up for the icky appearance.  I was the only one brave enough to try it and I ate the whole thing.  No one believed me when I said it tastes like a hard-boiled Easter egg with a lot of salt and a few extra spices.

After dinner we went outside and enjoyed a lesson in traditional folk dancing.  Once again, I confirmed I have no rhythm, but I enjoyed the experience of bonding with people despite a language barrier.  Music and dance really do bring people together in ways that can’t be explained.

It was dark by the time we started heading back to the bus.  Street lights are non-existent, so it was pitch black once we left the home of our host.  I had a small flashlight, but it barely cut through the darkness.  Mud was still everywhere and it threatened to swallow any misplaced foot.  My sandles eventually became caked in mud chunks, but thankfully my foot never sunk below ground level, (which is more than I can say for a few friends of mine).  Before boarding the bus, I remembered to look to up at the sky.  With no city lights, the Chinese sky lit up with millions of stars. I smiled at such a  fitting end to an adventure I’ll never forget.

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c.b. 2012

The Story Behind “A Bridge Crossed”

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Every Sunday for the last few months, I’ve posted a photograph and lines of poetry (or musings) inspired by my  journey to London.  Sundays in London has been a cathartic experience as it has slowly lead me to a deeper understanding of why I was so driven to spend an extended period of time in a place so far from home.  My journal is filled with meandering thoughts fraught with both epiphanies and questions, while my pictures captured every nook and cranny of my surroundings, but nothing fit together for a definitive answer.  The experience as a whole was life-altering, though I could not decipher how and why.  All I knew was something deep inside of me had indelibly changed, (See Finding True North).

The lines I wrote for A Bridge Crossed began in London, but only in small fragments.  At the time, I didn’t have enough understanding to give my disjointed words a voice.  The finished poem is representative of the answer I’ve been seeking for the better part of a year.  After much contemplation and creative wandering, I know why I went to London.

Almost immediately after my return, I kept thinking, “I learned I was a lot stronger than I thought.” The only thing I couldn’t figure out what was why this mattered so much.  I already knew I was a strong person, so I let the idea sit and expand until it chose to tell me more.

Ultimately, the answer hit me in one big swoop, damn near knocking me out of my seat.  I still don’t know what triggered the thought, but I’m not one to question inspiration.  What matters is that I have my answer.  London showed me how strong I have to be to reach my dreams.  Despite being in a place  I loved, I was alone, overwhelmed, disoriented, and completely out of my element.  And there was no one to run to except myself.  I eventually found my groove and embraced every sensation, but this was a hard path to find.

Writing feels much the same way as isolating yourself in a foreign place.  Along with all of the above, there is rejection (and a lot of it), frustration, fear, and doubt.  A list like this puts a serious dent in strength and determination, sometimes to the point of giving up.  Courage doesn’t come free and strength comes at a price.  I have to be willing to endure everything that tries to knock me down.  I must remain standing no matter how difficult or demoralizing it gets.  As London showed me, being stronger than the impediment has an immense payoff for through the heavy fog there is the realization of a dream.

There is a difference between understanding what it means to be strong and knowing from experience what it is to be strong.  I can do anything and I can take a few punches, too.  Some may call me crazy for learning this lesson halfway around the world, but I honestly can think of no better place.  London got under skin from the very first moment I saw it and has never let go.  I hope it never does.

Houses of Parliament, London, June 2011, c.b.w.

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c.b. 2012

Treasure Stones

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More than 20 years have passed, but I can still hear the waves lapping on the shoreline, while a canopy of leaves rustles overhead.  It’s summer in Northern Wisconsin, and I am just a little girl basking in the oblivion of 85 degrees.  Cool lake water swirls around my feet and smooth sand curls around my toes.  Up and down the shore I go, searching the shallow waters for the perfect stone to add to my collection.  The blue and green ones are pretty, but just won’t do.  Red, black, and brown rocks are beautiful, too, but I’m looking for something else. White stones are different from the others and always sparkle when a speck of sun peeks through the trees.  I can’t resist the urge to pick them up and put them in my pocket.

White Stones from my favorite places. Top two: Big Portage Lake, Wisconsin. Bottom Left: Thames shoreline, London. Bottom Right: Vltava River, Prague. c.b.w. 2012

As a child I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to white stones, but after having some time to think, I believe the beauty of white stones wasn’t about how they sparkled, but rather the lessons they had to teach. For a kid who never fit in anywhere and always felt out of place, my treasure stones told me it was okay to be different.  If anything, I should dare to be myself and revel in my individuality.  I don’t match my surroundings and I never will, just like white stones lying in the sand.  Do they wallow in the dirt and wish they were something else?  No.  They always find the bright side and boldly stick out from the rest.

To this day, I keep my stones close and stay true to their wisdom.  As I travel around the world and through life, I still pick up little white rocks.  From London, Prague, Ireland, and wherever I land next, my eye will keep searching for the next treasure stone. I am older and wiser, but I am always listening for the next bit of truth.

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c.b. 2012