Two weeks ago I met my friend Bence for coffee. The last time we met, we watched the Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat in a replay of the NBA Finals. Since our prior meeting had us feeling “quite American,” we agreed to meet at a newly-built Starbucks for a cup of Joe.
Inside the Starbucks at Király Utca (“King Street”), Bence was eager with curiosity. “I’ve never had Starbucks before, so this will be a first,” he said in a barely-excited rhythm fit for 9:30am. Unbeknownst to Bence, his morning was about to get very interesting when Hungarian and American cultures would engage in an awkward head-on collision.
Bence reluctantly dished out the money for over-priced coffee and was then asked, “And what’s your name?” The question caught him off guard and in a double take he replied, “tessék (“excuse me”)? He had already given too much money for coffee that ranks about average in Budapest, but Bence wasn’t sure he wanted to give his name to Lady Starbucks as well. Asking for someone’s name is just as personal as asking, “How are you,” and it doesn’t happen here as a passing gesture. All the same, he relented and the strangely friendly barista scribbled his name on the cup.
“What was that about,” Bence turned to me and asked. Now I had some explaining to do. Because my wife was once a fully-indoctrinated Starbucks barista, I was able to draw from my well of Starbucks corporate and consumer culture.
I explained that most Americans don’t sit down for a three-hour cup of coffee (which is common in Hungary) and so asking someone’s name puts a personal touch on an otherwise impersonal transaction. Cue the blank stare. I went on to tell Bence about the “third place,” a setting that isn’t home or work but a place where “community happens.” “You see, Bence, Americans go from home, to car, to office and so they need a place where they can actually interact with one another,” I said as we made our way to an air-conditioned lounge area.
I could tell that Bence’s head was still spinning. In Hungary, community is one of the primary values of the culture. We often have people apologize to us for being able to “only” spend two hours over tea, coffee or a beer. Even when you are growing plants on your balcony, everyone in the building will have an opinion on how they should be watered and taken care of. As opposed to America, one must work hard to separate themselves from community in Budapest.
Eventually Bence settled into his comfortable chair and enjoyed his first Starbucks coffee. We had a great conversation, talked about sports, music and international politics. But the best part of our time that morning took place when we left the American coffeehouse. For the next two hours Bence led me on a walk through the city. Much like our meandering conversation, we wandered about and simply enjoyed the cool, morning air.
Bence taught me that I don’t need a building to have community. All I need is people, time and genuine interest. As a timesaving, on-the-go American, I have gained a lot from Hungarians. And if we leave Hungary next year, I hope I can take back with me Bence’s high appraisal of community. I hope I can still schedule coffee appointments with no agenda or impending meeting. I pray I can make space for people to interrupt my schedule, even if it means paying four bucks for over-roasted coffee—for community, it’s worth it.