To the American abroad, Starbucks is a sort of haven, an oasis of familiar civilization amidst the wilderness of foreign cultures. You can order the very same drink you order back home, and it will be served exactly the same. You can use the wireless to check your Facebook, while enjoying the classic American tunes softly emanating from the speakers.
To the native, Starbucks can be perceived in two different ways. Sometimes, it is seen as a promising sign of globalization and development. For example, the Starbucks that stands at the entrance to Hong Kong’s Stanley Market, a chaotic bazaar replete with chickens squawking and Chinese proprietors hawking their wares, counteracts the environment with a comforting twist of sophistication and worldliness. On the other hand, if a Greek were to hear of this “comforting twist,” he would most likely raise his eyebrows in that often misleading way of saying “no,” characterizing such an outlook as one of arrogance and egotism. In Athens, Starbucks is generally seen as an invasion, a reflection of hubris. It is one culture’s presumptuous attempt to stifle another.
To the American in Athens, a Starbucks awning is a reminder of home, but not quite as interchangeable with an American flag as the Greek might think. While you will still find signature drinks like the Caramel Macchiato and the White Mocha, you will be confused by other options, like the Greek frappés and freddo espressos. You will find solace with the carrot cake in the glass display case, but there is no need to feel narrow-minded and guilty: you can still sample the local cuisine via the spanakopites and tiropites exhibited behind the glass.
But to the Athenian, a Starbucks spanakopita is not a spanakopita. The thick, crude crust is not the light phyllo leaves to which you are accustomed, while the unidentifiable cheese has no resemblance to the specialty’s usual feta. Similarly, you are likely to be horrified at the prospect of ordering an “iced, grandé frappé,” rather than the customary “metrio, choris gala,” variation.
Moreover, the Athenian knows that the Wi-Fi at Starbucks will be frustratingly slow, as the network is under complete and utter overload at any given point in time. Not only would a quiet kafenion be an exponentially more authentic experience, but you would be much more productive and much less exasperated with your technological devices by the time that you leave.
The American does not mind if the wireless is a little sluggish, for it is far more simpler, and far less embarrassing, to read the network’s username and password off your receipt, rather than ask for the codes via myriad forms of sign language and pig Latin.
Despite this difference in opinion, the Athenian is well aware that the international coffee place is a tourist trap. While the American feels that he is in a “safe zone,” a reassuring home base within unfamiliar lands, the Athenian knows that he must cling to his wallet. To the scam artists that roam the metros and crowded side streets of European cities, Starbucks is the jack pot, the treasure trove.
Starbucks is unique in its irresistible ability to coax customers into letting down their guard. Whether touring a new city or taking a short break from the office, customers feel sheltered and secure in their home-away-from-home. As their iPods render them oblivious to their surroundings, the purses that have inadvertently been left swinging from the backs of chairs make their casual way out of the store. Belatedly realizing that your belongings have disappeared, you will soon recognize that you have just purchased the most expensive coffee of your life.
Although you will vacillate between phases of outrage and despair, your return to Starbucks is inevitable. The coffee is so addicting, the snacks so sumptuous, and the atmosphere so inviting, that you cannot resist for long. Within a matter of days, you will find yourself poking your head between tables in search of an outlet for your laptop. Within a matter of days, you will find yourself savoring one of the finger-licking butter croissants and asking for extra napkins. But this time, you will keep your bag close, periodically reassuring yourself with the touch of your wallet.