An ode to the coffee shop
Manila— Ernest Hemingway was said to have spent time in coffee shops writing. I read up somewhere his story about how he went to a pleasant and warm coffee shop, ordered a cafe au lait and started writing after he took out a notebook and pen from his coat.
My favorite Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms,” was probably written in parts and pieces during his stay in his favorite haunts -- which are bars and cafes. I can picture him better in a cafe. It must have been cold because it was raining, and the smoke wafting from his hot coffee was visible in the dimly-lit cafe where he wrote the final moments of his novel.
“But after I turned and got them out and shut the door and turned off the light, it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
This ending to his masterpiece about Frederic saying goodbye to Catherine who just died giving birth to a stillborn is unforgettable, one of the best story endings I know. Accounts say that he has written 47 endings to his work, but he might have chosen this one because it is powerful.
I am no Hemingway with a masterpiece. And the cafes today are much different from the author’s time. While I like sitting in coffee shops, preferably by a window or a quiet corner, I am both distracted and fascinated by the scenes I experience in cafes.
There are still people like Hemingway who just want to be still, do some writing, read a book, or simply watch other people, quietly, while sipping coffee.
There are those who come in groups and talk like they are in a beach party, upsetting those who might have expected a peaceful stay working on something or just fiddling on their mobile phones and laptops.
I have coffee occasionally with friends, and like most people, our chatter rises up to a few decibels when we get excited, but we consciously keep it down. But when I go there alone, I’m more of the Hemingway type. I have been there a few times with my laptop so I can finish what I’m writing, the same as the others who are also there for the free wifi probably. But on rare occasions when I’m there reading a book, there’s just one or two more of me.
Part of my work training is to be able to write in the midst of gunfire. Being able to tune out a bustling environment in today’s coffee shops while having to finish a writing piece still works for me. But I try to avoid this situation because the older I get, the more I want not to experience it anymore.
Somehow, the ascendance of global coffee companies that have set up their cafes in cities around the world, with their baristas and long lists of coffee flavors, explain the cafe setting that we have today. As we participate in this obvious consumerism, we also take part in the cafe culture that consumes coffee to increase status and confidence while enjoying a cappuccino.
While I live in that kind of environment, I still try to find the romance of being in a coffee shop, and I want one that is quaint and quiet but with a thick, rich black coffee, or a mocha if they have it. Hemingway must be laughing at how the world has changed, but like him, I will go where the aroma would take me. Otherwise, I will just walk in the rain.
Diana Mendoza is a journalist based in Manila.