I arrived in Tainan on a Wednesday. Dropped off by bus in the city centre, I meandered through exotic local streets on the way to my hotel, absorbing the hustle and bustle of this very Chinese city. Taiwan has its own unique culture, but the vast majority of its inhabitants migrated from the Chinese mainland, and the primary language is Mandarin and the culture a wonderful evolution of Chinese life before communism set in.
Tainan is not like Taipei. Taipei is modern, high-rise and foreigner-friendly, with English signs everywhere and English speakers relatively easy to find. Tainan is pure Taiwan. The streets I walked down were chaotic, with Chinese characters everywhere, mopeds tearing down the streets and pavement life spilling over into the road, so that I gave up using the sidewalks and wound my way around the cars and street-front stalls on the edge of the road itself.
So it was somewhat of a shock when, opposite my hotel, I found a coffee shop. Taiwan is famous for its traditional teashops, but this was no traditional establishment. Shiny and modern, with coffee displayed in minimalistic coloured bottles on white recessed shelves, it grabbed my attention immediately… and that was before I saw the menu.
Now, I love my coffee. My first introduction to “real” coffee was in France as an 18-year-old, so my education started with strong black brews and I have never been able to work back to the freeze-dried stuff that comes in a jar. No, for me, the stronger and darker the better. So there was no way I was leaving Tainan without tasting what this shiny modern paradise had to offer.
The following morning, bright and early, I made my way across the street to the coffee shop. Now, this is not an easy task in Tainan. The city is full of scooters, taxis and private cars charging hell for leather down the streets, and the pedestrian crossings which were the bane of my life in Taipei were nowhere to be seen. No, in Tainan you have to hang around and wait for the traffic to stop, and even then you are taking your life in your hands as you dodge the cars and mopeds coming round the corner from another direction.
Safely across the street, however, I finally made it to the Holy Grail of coffee. Of course, when I got there a bigger obstacle than the Tainan traffic suddenly presented itself: communication. I don’t speak Mandarin, bar a polite “ni hao” or xiè-xie” when the occasion arises – and believe me, both are very much appreciated and will often get you a happy smile from Taiwanese, who love that you made the effort. But these two expressions weren’t exactly going to get me through the intricacies of ordering the best brew the country has to offer.
Thankfully, the owner of the coffee shop was one of the sweetest people I met in Taiwan. Happy that I had landed, pink and sweaty, on his doorstep, he stumbled through his best English as we discussed the relative merits of the global coffee industry. (In case you’re wondering, Taiwanese coffee is the best, and English coffee is terrible. Don’t blame me, it was his assessment, not mine, and whether I agree with it is completely immaterial…). Desperate to save face, I then tried to explain about my French coffee education, which just confused the situation until I turned to my trusty translation app. “Oh, you’re French?” No……… But in the end it didn’t matter; by the time I’d explained what I meant, we’d clearly established that Taiwanese coffee is better than French coffee, too.
Our somewhat laboured conversation had an accompaniment. Having understood my enthusiasm for good coffee, it was clearly important that I sample his best products, so I was plied with tiny paper cup after tiny paper cup of different coffees to try. Bear in mind that they were strong. There was a serious risk of caffeine overload before I’d even bought anything. But oh my word, they were wonderful, and like nothing I’d tried before.
In the end, I made a lovely man very happy by ordering a cup of his own recommendation, and then asking for it not iced, but cold brew. (For the uninitiated, cold brew is MUCH better, and yes there is a difference…?). And so my cold brew coffee and I set back off into the Tainan traffic with a spring in our step, and only a slight caffeine headache to mar a genuinely memorable encounter.
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