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Back Buzz - October 25, 1999

[pumping heart] Costa Cuore D'Italia, The Village, Gatwick Airport, West Sussex

[pumping heart] Broomies Coffee Shop, William Harvey Hospital, Ashford, Kent

My coffee-loving friends and readers -- especially those in Seattle and the South Bay area -- must think I've completely lost my mind because I decided to visit the United Tea Kingdom in search of good coffee. But this is 1999, the world has become smaller and more globally connected, and there is no reason a caffeine addict with high standards cannot find at least an acceptable cup of coffee anywhere on this planet, especially in the Western World. I can't guarantee you'll ever find a double macchiato in Outer Mongolia; but one can definitely come across excellent coffee in France, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Spain, the Pacific Coast of the US, and even Sweden. So why not England? Sure, there are a lot of tea drinkers here -- but there are also a lot of coffee drinkers as well, the same sort of cosmopolitan Brits who happen to like fine ethnic cuisine, excellent beer (which is never served warm, by the way), and vegetables which haven't been boiled into an oblivious mash of pap. And sure, a lot of these same people have developed the sad habit of settling for instant coffee -- but they're willing to enjoy a good espresso whenever it's available.

Yes, there is good coffee in England, and at some point I intend to find it.

One can start off with a good impression of English coffee if one flies into Gatwick Airport. There -- on the upper level of the main terminal in a cluster of shops and cafes called The Village -- is Costa Cuore D'Italia. Here I had a halfway decent macchiato, a surprising experience in an airport. First of all, it was actually made properly, i.e. with a good dollop of smooth foam resting on a strong shot of espresso and served in a proper white china espresso cup. And the coffee itself isn't bad, either. Costa Cuore D'Italia also offers croissants, cookies, and other pastries, and the cafe decor is typical airport with plastic chairs and brown walls. My single macchiato was £1.35 including VAT.

Not long after I arrived in England on my last visit my second "espresso" -- or should I say "espresso-like"? -- experience occurred at the William Harvey Hospital, located in Ashford and noted for its lousy cuisine. (To those personal friends of mine, don't worry -- I didn't dive down another flight of stairs. I was simply visiting, accompanying a friend to her doctor's appointment.) In the hospital lobby close to the entrance is Broomies Coffee Shop where you can have breakfast, lunch, or tea as you while away the minutes, hours, or days -- depending on the current whims of the National Health Service -- waiting for a doctor's appointment. Regular coffee is available for 80p; but since a cappuccino was only 90p I decided on that, even though both items were unfortunately dispensed from a vending machine. The woman at the counter made several attempts with the vending machine, adding more liquids and powders and consulting with the rest of the staff for instructions; eventually a cup of what resembled vending machine cocoa was finally dispensed into a deceptively comforting white ceramic cup. This "cappuccino" was actually a little better than your average Servomation£ cocoa: not quite as sweet and with a thicker, more opaque feel on the tongue. And the flavour was more like coffee than cocoa. Pretty poor, surely; but if I pretended I was voluntarily reduced to drinking a cup of vending machine cocoa I could actually enjoy the stuff.

Ah, but by this time I'd already forgotten: what does a real cappuccino taste like, anyway? Or a real espresso? I'd been out of the US only a week; but it was that out-of-Seattle-for-a-month part that mattered the most. What could I hope to find on future visits? More vending machines? More varieties of instant coffee? Is there a decent cappuccino in Southeast England? Sure there is; the question is how many decent coffeehouses and coffeeshops are there, and where are they?

This is my quest...

Speaking of quests, following is an e-mail exchange with my Bay Area friend from earlier this year about the quest for sleep:

I heard a radio report on some British sleep researchers who discovered people temporarily lose one I.Q. point per hour of lost sleep. Perhaps that's why I feel more and more like a moron compared to these 20-something nerds at work who were weaned on video games and Windows API calls. There's some weeks that I must get down near zero.

Are they sure the loss is only temporary? How long do I have to sleep until I get it back?

It's not going to be easy, because my upstairs neighbor seems to do walking exercises in stiletto heels after 11 PM and before 6 AM nearly every day. Friday night I retired early, only to hear a large group enter her apartment around 11:00, all of them with rock-hard soles. RAP! RAP! RAP! RAP! Maybe they were practicing clog dancing, but it wasn't in any perceptible rhythm. Is there a new style -- chaos clogging? Sounds like a bunch of goddam woodpeckers.

Between 11 PM and 6 AM, you say? Perhaps your upstairs neighbor is a member of a witchlike women's coven, sort of a Women-Who-Run-With-The-Wolves type of thing, only it's more like Women-Who-Peck-With-The-Woodpeckers. Perhaps they all gather nightly, light candles, and don feathered costumes, heavy beaklike shoes, and crested headdresses with long woodboring beaks. Then they chant birdcalls, drink birdsnest tea, and dance slowly about the room for hours, pecking at the floor with their beaks and shoes.

Next time you leave for work in the morning, check for any excess feathers floating around the area.

...and another brief one with my Chicago friend:

Where have I been?

Why have I been?

These are almost essential questions for the inquisitive yet pernicious Seattle mind.

Perhaps I can answer a few of them.

Tonight I went to a club to hear Siouxsie and Budgy (from Siouxsie and the Banshees) and John Cale, together and alone (I was alone, they were together and alone). One of the wildest shows I've seen since the Real McKenzies....

Other than that, after the concert I had to go to the grocery store to buy some cereal and juice. I'm so sick of needing food.

So you're still doing that food stuff, huh? Still buying those boxes of cereal? You know, if you spent the time to find yourself a really decent, quality box of cereal, you wouldn't have to go buying new ones all the time. Of course, I guess to keep up with cereal technology you have to buy a new box of cereal every week. But what's the matter with the old cereals? Isn't Shredded Wheat good enough for ya? Hell, I grew up on one box of Sugar Frosted Flakes, back when they dared to use the word "Sugar". I think I still have that box somewhere, too. It's probably worth a fortune now.