Tag: Starbucks

The heavy price of freedom… and whisky

So just what is it that makes us feel “free” I think to myself as we race through the desert – I am leaving Damascus to renew my visa in Beirut, “It is the Paris of the Middle East, famous for all kinds of things” Roula says with a naughty smile.

As soon as we cross the border Roula removes her long-sleeved top to reveal her shoulders, a small freedom not allowed in Syria (secular but still a predominantly Muslim country), and now it is also Ramadan which makes some aspects of life even more restrictive, “It’s great to be free” Roula jokes as we cross the border.

Before long I am in Lebanon bathing in its beautiful blue sea and ogling the scantily clad women as they play on the beach. Is it the unrestricted conversations or the lack of veils that make me feel more free here? I love the cafe and restaurant filled streets – it feels so modern and alive after a month in Damascus.

I miss the sea a lot when I am in hot dusty Damascus, and I wonder if a part of me also misses the familiarity of the big American chains such as Starbucks, Pizza Hut, KFC, names that I am so used to seeing as part of the landscape of the West. In a way I hate them as much as I miss them, but love them or loathe them Beirut has them all.

In Beirut people are not always on-guard about what to say to each other about politics or the war, you can be and say as you like. But ‘freedom’ often comes with a price as Roula points out, “Watch your bag on the beach” she reminds me – In Syria I’ve got used to leaving my bag wide open, my phone and wallet there for all to see.

Suddenly I feel the need to be security conscious and it feels like a pressure I don’t want, but a pressure which we are forced into and which we get used to in the West – I cannot explain how liberating it is not to have to worry about such things when I am in Syria; quite possibly one of the safest places I have visited.

But of course is this ‘freedom’ is simply a result of dictatorship, or if there is more to it than that… and which is more important, the freedom not to be robbed or the freedom to say what you think?

As night falls we hit the glitzy Beirut streets to enjoy Western ‘freedoms’ such as cocktails in the endless noisy bars that are open until the early hours – though it is only when we get the bill that I realise all this freedom comes with such a heavy price, 12 dollars a drink, wow, I don’t even pay that for one nights’ hotel accommodation in Damascus!

Next morning I wake with a whiskey hangover in the humid heat dripping with sweat having spent more money than I care to think about.

“Quick” I say to Roula “Let’s get the hell out of this westernised Arabic democracy – freedom is too expensive! Let’s get back to that safe cheap dictatorship where we can drink and eat for a month in Damascus for what we spent last night”.

As we cross the border back into Syria Roula once again pulls on her long-sleeve shirt once more to conceal her shoulders, but at least we know we won’t be robbed or mugged while we are here, and that I can enjoy a meal at a top restaurant with a bottle of the best Lebanese wine for the price of one whisky in Beirut!

The Beauty Box in Starbucks

Tokyo was heaving with people. I was tired of all the pushing and shoving. I was late for a meeting with Ryota the producer at NHK television here in Japan. I finally made it to Starbucks where I was meeting him and I joined a long queue for coffee.

I hate the idea of supporting Starbucks but I love the coffee, especially here in Japan. Something about being in this bland place takes me out of Japan. I really need to leave sometimes, it gets so intense. Sometimes I find myself frustrated with the crowds, and worse still the noise from huge screens that invade my privacy with garbage adverts… and then young girls pushing free tissues wrapped in more advertisements… there is no escape. At these times I look up to the sky for the peace I know I can rely on in one of the many beautiful panoramic bars on the 50th floor of a hotel. I glide up, leaving it all behind and look down on it, like a god in the sky sipping on a gin and tonic. Pure bliss.

But today I’m standing in a Starbucks queue. I get myself a latte head up stairs looking for a seat. There is nothing on the first floor and before I know it I’m on the 5th floor, out of breath with half my coffee down my shirt. I find what looks like a vacant seat but there is a beauty box on it and a stroppy looking Japanese woman in her early 20`s guarding it. She is filing another girls nails. I move over indicating I need the seat, I am out of breath, with a heavy bag on one arm and coffee all over me.

The woman looks shocked by my intervention and indicates that the chair is not free. “What?” I scream. The woman looks away and carries on filing her friend’s nails. I look around for support but in this country of non-confrontation everyone else ignores the scene. I look over to a western gaijin (foreigner) guy sat at the next table. He has observed the scene, smiling he pulls off his walkman and shuffles up on his seat to invites me to sit with him. I’m still in shock. He is smiling; I sit with him, “what was that all about..? He smiles, “this is Japan mate, don’t even start to question why!”

Later Ryota arrives. He squeezes on our seat, there are now 3 of us crammed into this tight space as the woman continues filing her friends nails. We are all looking at the box on the chair but no one will confront the woman. I continue cursing her. Ryota tries making sense of the scene explaining that when the Japanese sit at a table they see all the chairs at it as their possession.

I’m exchanging angry stares with the woman. Finally she gets up and leaves…

Suddenly the manager is at our table demanding that we apologize to the woman who has complained about my cursing.

“Why… why…..why?” I ask, at which point the gaigin (foreigner) starts to laugh, gets up and leaves.