Coffee shop chains were a rare sight when I moved back to the UK in the late 1990s, at least outside of major cities. When I did see a branch, it brought familiarity from around the world, and from an important part of my life as a teenager, learning to like coffee with friends and studying for my exams. The sweet, ice-blended drinks to which I had become accustomed, however, did not suit the faux fireplace and cushioned armchairs of my new local branch in the UK. They were too cold in a temperate climate, without the enveloping humidity, stale smell and tired air from fans battling with the heat. In Singapore, I had always sat outside, condensation dripping off my plastic cup. Being inside and wanting to be warmer rather than cooler did not seem quite right to me.
From a teenage social activity in Singapore, visiting coffee shops in the UK also changed to become a family tradition. After all, it was a long way to the nearest one, a car was the best way to get there and my new school friends were definitely not used to hanging out in coffee shops. More than that, though, it had become a family culture, a product of globalisation imported from Singapore to the UK that helped me to adjust to life back ‘home’ (even with the hot and cold inverted). For my family, it was a habit that continued to move with us, beyond Singapore and England to Australia and back to Singapore and then the UK once again. It became more, rather than less, important, such that whenever I go for coffee now, I am transported to a different time and place.
One of my favourite bits of writing about family traditions such as this is by the late Norma McCaig, attributed with coining the phrase ‘global nomads’. In Strangers at Home (edited by Carolyn Smith) she wrote, ‘In our family, we could always count on having waffles on Sunday night, wherever we were. Three decades later, each time I use a little syrup pitcher I am taken back to a different “there”.’