In a New Zealand-inspired coffeeshop in central Toronto, the young, hip Canadian barista is making me a dirty chai – that’s a chai latte with an all-important shot of espresso: possibly the greatest crossover of all time – while we discuss The State of Things. “The world feels so crazy right now,” says the barista, with the familiar world-weary bafflement we all seem to reserve specially for this topic. “It’s like…” He searches for the words. “No… It’s just that: crazy. When I was a kid in school, reading about World War Two and Hitler, I remember thinking, ‘C’mon, how could that even happen?’ And now we have an American President refusing to condemn actual Nazis.” I remark that Canada feels like one of the politically saner places to be right now. He purses his lips, leans his head to the side and ‘hmmmms’ as he froths the jug of milk. “I’m not so sure about that. The whole world feels so unstable lately. America used to be one of the brighter countries, but it’s fallen so far from it.” There is, we agreed, optimism in what comes next. History might threaten to repeat itself, but maybe we’ll find we’ve learned just enough from what has gone before to change the arc of the story. “Look at all the marches, protests, especially about gun laws, I mean, that’s so great,” he says, handing me my cup of elixir. “It gives me hope.”
It’s not the first time I’ve talked politics with a barista since I moved to Canada three weeks ago. (It’s also my gazillionth dirty chai.) But then, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops – they have become little havens. Not only do they provide good, affordable coffee and free wifi, but there I can be amongst other people. The benefits of this being that I feel less alone, and that I get to tune into the world around me, listening to conversations and having chats with baristas – some of whom now greet me by name. (Y’know, I frequented the same coffee places in London for weeks on end and I almost never got so much as a nod of familiar recognition. I say almost never because once I got a hesitant squint, which I decided to take as a sign they remembered me from the previous day.) This is one of the things I love about Canada – people here are so friendly, and more than happy to chat. For the most part, talking to strangers elicits an opportunity to share, rather than the horrified suspicion I’ve grown so used to in London. Strangers on the bus will get into an enthusiastic yarn about traffic. Locals walking their dogs will stop on the street, their pooches engaged in a snuffling rotation of nose to butt while the owners enjoy an unhurried exchange of doggy anecdotes, laughing and talking more like old friends than people who literally just met on the street. The dude who sorted my local phone contract spent half an hour showing me around his home town on Google street view so I’ll have more context if I visit it on my travels. Canadians, I have come to realise, are remarkably open to the people around them.
This is in spite of the fact most coffee shops I go to are, when I look around, a vast sea of laptops, every one with a coffee drinker attached, plugged into the digital world. And I’ve become one of them. Around Toronto you can find the odd cafe that frowns upon laptops, refusing to provide wifi as a deterrent to the digi renegades who threaten to turn them into a hot-desking office. Which I totally understand. ‘No wifi here: make a real connection and TALK’, reads the sign in one such coffeeshop. But Canadians talk plenty. And I, too, will find more opportunities to talk when working away in these coffee shops. Conversations will be struck up with people at the next table, or beside me at the counter; with the baristas or their friends who pop in to chat; or to someone who comes in with a toddler or with a dog, either of which might totter over to my table and beg for some of my biscuit.
I know I have to get out from behind my laptop, and I will – there is a helluva lot of Canada to explore. (Honestly, it’s pretty fecking big you guys.) But the fact remains – you’ll always find me in a coffee shop somewhere or another, listening to people, soaking up the atmosphere, being a part of something – in a funny way, feeling a connection. And the way the world’s going lately, I’m all for taking them where I can find them.
Five of my favourite Toronto coffee spots:
Safehouse (Dundas W)
Run & Gun (Dundas W)
Jimmy’s Coffee (Kensington)
Field Trip (Bloor W)