Starbucks was packed. I almost turned around, but walking up windy Carling Road without a cup of hot brown water to hold in my gloved hand was such a depressing prospect that I joined the queue.
It was moving fast, thanks to hyper-caffeinated, rush-hour trained baristas and caffeine-deprived customers also trained to order, pay and move along smoothly.
It didn’t take long for me to be second in line. Behind me were the usual Starbucks customers—office workers pretending to have a meeting and talking about anything but work, students pretending to study, and writers pretending to write. In front of me was a couple in their late forties with a kid who must have been around ten.
There was a long pause.
“Coffee. I would like a coffee,” the man eventually replied thoughtfully.
People gasped at his words and a hush fell over the coffee shop—you could have heard a splash stick drop.
Walking into Starbucks asking for “coffee” is like ordering “stir-fried rice, meat and veggies” in a Chinese restaurant—like, I’m sorry, could you be more vague? Starbucks customers are supposed to know the lingo, require complicated customized drinks, and act as if a venti-iced-skinny-hazelnut-macchiato-sugar-free-syrup-extra-shot-light-ice-no-whip is a basic human need like water.
Someone sighed audibly, summing up the mood. Three newbies, that’s going to take for hours! I only have a fifteen-minute break, I’m expected somewhere, hurry up! Solved your internal coffee ordering dilemma before you get to the counter! For fuck’s sake, Google it!
“Coffee,” the barista echoed, equally confused and clearly more skilled at helping customers decide between whole, nonfat, two percent, soy, coconut and almond milk. “Okay… what kind?”
The customer, a tall, neatly dressed Richard Gere doppelganger, looked like the kind of guy used to conducting business, thus exactly the kind of person you’d expect to master Starbucks.
Except that he was blushing. Except that he apparently had no idea how to get “coffee” in a coffee shop.
Leaning forward to decipher the drinks menu above the barista, he put the stack of books he was holding on the counter.
I glanced at the titles.
And suddenly, everything made sense.
He wasn’t carrying books but textbooks, and the one on top of the pile was an “English for beginners” exercise and activities textbook from the Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) program.
“Richard Gere” wasn’t just new to Starbucks—he was probably new to Canada. There’s an adult high school close a couple of blocks away. Classes were over for the day and the family was grabbing a “typical” North America treat.
It’s easy to forget that many immigrants don’t necessarily master one of the two official languages when they arrive. Contrary to popular belief, even though English is the de facto global language, people around the world don’t have an “English language pack” they can conveniently download upon landing in Canada.
But even without first-hand experience, it’s not difficult to empathize with a productive and efficient adult who have to relearn how to handle simple daily life interactions.
It takes time to master English beyond the basics.
Fortunately, this is Canada. Everyone has a relative who speaks with a foreign accent, neighbours who celebrate exotic holidays, and coworkers with funny-sounding names. No biggie, really. French like to point out you may have been using the wrong tense or challenge your use of a particular idiom, Canadians focus on getting the message across regardless of the flavour of English you’re using.
I probably wasn’t the only one who noticed the textbook and the situation—the entire queue had a big “aha!” moment and the mood changed from exasperated to helpful.
“First, what size? Big, medium or small?” offered the barista, temporarily dropping Starbucks fake Italian lingo and showing the cups.
“I think a small.”
“Just coffee? We have different kinds. Pike, Blond…”
“Blond is a good pick,” a short blond girl at the back of the queue suggested.
“But do you like coffee? It can be bitter. Maybe you want something with sugar,” another customer encouraged.
‘They have cold drinks too!” a teen pointed out.
Eventually, a hot chocolate with whipped cream was ordered for the kid and the couple got two of the typical complicated Starbucks beverages.
They seemed happy and relieved when they took the first sip.
There are plenty of attitudes I can’t stand in North America, but this is the Canada I’m proud of—kind, welcoming, helpful and understanding.