Regular or Decaf: How a cup of coffee changed my perspective on travel

Travel is broadening. This is a trope that is discussed over and over when people talk about travel. “Expand your horizons”, “meet new people”, “learn new things”, they say.

Nothing truly highlighted for me how broadening travel can be than when Jen and I were recently working on some blog posts together. Reading through Jen’s recent post on New Hampshire, I came across two phrases that struck me as awkward; the first was “mountain passes” and the second “14,000 foot mountains, known as 14ers”. On their own these phrases don’t seem extraordinarily odd, but they stand out in the parlance of Coloradans as things tourists and outsiders might say. I mean here (in Colorado) everyone knows that “14ers” is the moniker assigned to the 53 or 58 peaks, above 14,000 feet in elevation (why 53 or 58, apparently, it depends on how you count).  As for mountain passes, are there any other kind?  Well of course there are; but as a Colorado native I know that “pass” means a pass over a mountain and truthfully would find it awkward if I overheard someone say, “mountain pass”.  On a side note, Colorado is a welcoming place and we aren’t all judging you, I promise.

Take coffee as another example. How complex can this be, right? Coffee is served in about six ways when you break it down. First, there is regular or decaf (the unholy abomination that it is the opposite of regular coffee). Go to a roadside diner and a waitress shows up with the mug and says, “regular or decaf?”. How many movies have played this scene? Dozens? Hundreds? Maybe not that many, but it is certainly more than one. The next choice you get is some variation of milk or cream. It can be the simple question, “room”, or the more complex, “soy, almond, cashew, lactose free, 2%, Skim, Whole, cream, Half and Half, or black?”, option set. Then comes the sugar, and much like the last choice there are a dizzying amount of options, ranging from agave to artificial sweeteners-a-plenty to plain old white sugar. So, if you went in and ordered a “regular” coffee what would you assume you get?  Well with this set of choices I think that the average person would think what I thought, you’d just get plain old black coffee with caffeine and nothing else.

Now try to imagine my confusion when this turned out to be THE EXACT OPPOSITE in New England. I was living and going to school in New Hampshire and on the weekends my roommate, Tom, and I would head to Quincy, across the border in Massachusetts. The first time we visited the local Irish breakfast place, Banions (which sadly is no longer around), we both ordered a “regular” coffee. At that moment, I learned that everything the world had taught me about coffee was wrong. What I was served was a sweet white beverage that was clearly not what I expected when ordering a regular coffee. I thought this must be some mistake, but it wasn’t. I actually had to ask Tom if his coffee was right because he ordered the same thing; and of course, being a native, he thought it was perfect. Was this the last time this happened? Of course not. The next time it was worse. A few weeks later grabbing coffee at an Irish bakery in the North End, I got a little flustered as the place was busy and I really wanted to get a good coffee; so, what did I do, I ordered a regular black coffee. The poor Irish lady behind the counter was so confused:

“What would you like?”

Looking at the HUGE line behind me and really wanting to be sure that I got this right, remembering my last failure, the pressure got the best of me and I said, “A regular black coffee please.”

“You’d like two coffees then?”

Getting more flustered: “No, just a regular black coffee please.”

“Two coffees, got it”

“No, just one regular black coffee”

Getting a little impatient as the line just keeps getting longer she asks impatiently: “So just a regular then?”

Now I am a confused mess, not having this whole “regular” thing sorted out yet, coupled with a thicker and thicker Boston brogue of impatience, the amazing rush-and-hurry New England attitude oozing from the mob behind me, I reverted to old norms: “Yes please, black regular please”. See what I did there? The waitress, taking my yes as a victory, scurried off to fetch my regular coffee: Boston: 2 – Jay: 0.

I failed again. Now before you start judging my intelligence or ability to actually order coffee, it is worth mentioning that I have ordered coffee in no less than four other languages across 12 different countries, and gotten EXACTLY what I want every time. Does that make me the next Einstein, probably not so much; but able to get my coffee order right, you bet. The worst part is that I thought I had won, that I had successfully navigated this ultra-complex new set of coffee ordering schemas. Imagine my surprise when out came coffee loaded with cream and two sugars.

Travel is illuminating, it helps you look at things that you assume are so normal that they feel like unshakable truths. Do you need to go to Namibia to realize that living in Seattle gives you a disproportionate sense of what normal rainfall is? No, you can just head to Death Valley, a day or two drive away to realize that an umbrella is not the most important accessory you own. It is this illumination that was one of the foundational principles of the Tin Sheets mission. You don’t have to travel very far to learn about how what you might assume is normal, isn’t. The United States really feels like a small collection of countries and you can use that diversity to explore your understanding of the world at large. We are by no means saying that you shouldn’t travel the world, or that traveling the U.S. is somehow better, but sometimes taking a close look at what is out of your back door can be just as fascinating, different, and inspirational. “Black” coffee being “regular” coffee certainly was an unshakable foundation of my existence, and that tiny little poke that New England gave to what I knew, was unsettling.

Being unsettled by something means that you thought that you knew what was going on or had a good picture of how something worked, but then discovered you were wrong. Being wrong is perhaps one of the most teachable moments and an important step to knowing more or being better. This is a stellar TED talk about learning by being wrong, and how fundamental it is to have a sense of wonder by saying “I don’t know”. That is why we travel. Being unsettled or working out of your comfort zone, in my mind, is the just the travel vocabulary of being wrong. On the first Tin Sheets trip, both of us operated a bit out of our comfort zone. For me, the main comfort zone challenge was towing a 30′ trailer with a 22.5′ truck. Hard, not really; but talk about changing the way you approach driving.  Add to that the crumbling American infrastructure, and you have an adventure on your hands just trying to find lunch in Oshkosh without sideswiping cars or getting bucked off the wavy interstate. The moral of the story here is that travel is about changing your norms and finding wonder, no matter where you go. Even if you order the wrong coffee.