Starbucks in Budapest

 I spent three of my 48 hours in Budapest sitting in a patio of a Starbucks cafe. If you do the numbers, that’s 6 percent of my time there. It may not seem like much, but when you factor in that I spent probably 40 percent of that time asleep, it changes things. 10 percent of my waking hours in a place I did not know existed until I was on the plane and will probably never go again, in a Starbucks, wild.

Budapest is a city of old and new; where the slow and wide Danube River splits Buda and Pest, and old riverboats cruise leisurely among the well-lit castles on both coasts. An old winding cobblestoned Jewish district thrives not with synagogues, but pubs. But I’m not writing about the city and it’s eclectic culture and character, I’m writing about Starbucks.

It was Friday night. We had aching feet from a day spent wandering the broad tree-lined Andrassy Avenue, admiring imposing facades adorned with wrought iron work and gingerbread molding. We went to an old famous Hungarian cafe, visited a museum chronicling the heart-wrenching crimes of the Hungarian branch of the Nazi party, and watched a soccer game among raucous fans in a green plaza. It was nearing evening when my friends spotted it. The familiar logo of Starbucks jumped out in contrast to the ancient buildings and humble dives that most Hungarian restaurants seemed to be.

When my friends began to factor it into the next day’s plans, I gagged. How could I spend time in Budapest in the exact same environment I could get at any other location in the world, the same place I start mornings at home? But my pleas went unheard. My companions went to bed genuinely excited about Starbucks in the morning and I went to bed rolling my eyes.

By the time morning came around, the dream still lingered. We began our subway adventure to the obviously newer business district, down by the water. As we walked purposefully, I lingered in front of A-fold menus in front of picaresque cafés listing kávé and kifli, Hungarian coffee and pastries. My friends soldiered on, oblivious to my pitiful glances.

We arrived where we had seen the Starbucks logo displayed boldly and brightly the night before, only to find a storefront closed and locked up. With completely crestfallen faces, they read the sign in plain English: “This Starbucks is not yet open. Follow the map below to another nearby location.”

Budapest housed not one, but two Starbucks. In close proximity, nonetheless. We set off once more. With the handful of wrong turns necessary to finding any specific location in a foreign city, we finally found a living breathing Starbucks, nestled in the shadow of St. Stephen’s Basilica.

The look and feel of the store was no different than any of the other millions I had been in before. The menu wasn’t in English or Hungarian, it was in Pure Starbucks. The confidence with which a young woman was able to enter the store and order a drink she had ordered a thousand times before was astounding. In a loud and confident tone, that could only be Pure Starbucks, the well-manicured blonde spoke commandingly, “A grande caramel macchiato, skinny, hold the whip,” sans please and thank you.

What was even more amazing was the response. The two young Hungarians who whipped around behind the counter looked, talked and acted no different than the baristas at home. Their English was dictated by Starbucks language. They may not have been able to hold a conversation about politics, but they could talk lattes and frappacinos all day long. Is a corporate powerhouse like Starbucks our new unofficial ambassador to the world?

It may not be surprising, but Starbucks has more than 5,500 coffee stores in more than 50 countries around the world. From Seattle to South Korea, Starbucks employs and reaches out to people globally.

“We have great respect for the longstanding and colorful Hungarian coffeehouse culture and are excited to become a part of the community,” said the Starbucks Brand President for Central and Eastern Europe when the company’s first store in Budapest opened in 2010. “Over the past few years, coffeehouses have regained their popularity in Hungary, and we look forward to introducing our customers to our high-quality coffees and the unique Starbucks experience.”

Entering into that Starbucks, I could have been anywhere in the world. I had no sense of anything unique to Hungary or its “colorful” coffeehouse culture. I could have been back in southwest Virginia on my way to work in the morning. Around the world, people from all cultural backgrounds were receiving the exact same experience. Hungarian baristas were delivering that experience to Hungarians and tourists from around the world. That experience was pure American.

As I stood there watching the woman order, let’s face it, I was judging. But, I quickly had a flashback that made me feel guilty for my full day of unkind thoughts. I remembered a time and place not too long ago when I couldn’t contain the exact same sentiments my friends had been feeling.

I was in Peru, in Cuzco, sitting on the edge of the Amazonian jungle. I had spent three weeks living in small hostels, sleeping in beds in rooms with strangers; where a shower was a rare commodity, and guinea pig routinely popped up on menus. And then I saw it, that Seattle goddess with her green hair and crown of stars. She was staring down at me from the white-walled ancient Spanish-style buildings surrounding the Plaza des Armes. I could not refuse. I stepped back into a world that left me comfortable, at ease, and showered me with a sense of sanity that I was in desperate need of.

In Hungary, I watched the blonde woman grab her order and stalk out of the room, sunglasses on, and it became so clear to me. Starbucks was home, so far far away from home. I could no sooner deny that sense of home to my traveling companions than I would have denied it to myself when I was in South America a month before.

We learn that good traveling is about pushing your personal boundaries and hurling yourself outside of your comfort zone. It is choosing to order the quinoa-crusted guinea pig instead of the chicken fingers and striking up a conversation with the guy at the table next to you despite the language barrier. These things are important, essential even, to getting the most out of a traveling experience. But let’s face it, they’re overly talked about.

No one will let you forget that these things are important. What isn’t talked about is that there’s no need to push yourself too far too fast. There’s nothing wrong with bringing a little bit of home with you. You must strike that perfect balance. To revel in what is familiar for a few hours is not to succumb to any particular evil, or to betray your inner travel goddess, it’s only a quick and necessary refreshment.

Yes. Out of all my experiences abroad, both in Europe and in my South American trip beforehand, this realization truly stood out to me. It was a lesson learned in traveling. The lesson was that there is no shame. If you’re uncomfortable or unhappy while traveling, then there’s no way you can push yourself to enjoy more–or even enjoy where you are at the moment.

At the end of the 48 hours that was a Hungarian blur, we sat in a daze on our small cramped flight and I turned to my companions.

“What was the best part of your weekend?” I asked my friends, channeling a mother at the end of a school day. There was slight a pause as they thought; with river cruises, pub crawls, museums, and fantastic meals paired with fantastic wines to choose from, I thought the answer would be difficult. But within no time Becca answered, beginning with a disclaimer.

“I’m sorry if this is awful to say but… our morning in Starbucks,” she admitted rather sheepishly. She went on to explain that she loved the calm of sitting out on the street, people watching, feeling unrushed and relaxed in what was otherwise a whirlwind of a weekend. And I smiled easily, happy to agree that such a moment of peace with my tall white mocha was well worth it.







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