One of the greatest benefits of being in a particular environment is simply to be able to soak aspects of culture up through osmosis.  The benefit of a sub-culture outside its typical environment is that the people who are into it tend to be really into it; that’s the only way for it to survive.  The advantage of seeing a culture within its environment is that people are still aware of it even if they’re not particularly interested in it.  If I could posit an anthropological theory of sorts, I’d say the collective effect of these low-level nodes or as much a part of the web of a culture as the masters and chief proponents.  Of course, you need the latter to do things right and keep it moving..but you need the former to create the overall magnetic-cultural field.  i.e. Starbucks is a coffee place, but you can still get three kinds of Oolong tea at Starbucks in Taiwan, which makes them far superior to any Starbucks I’ve encountered anywhere else in the world (although I do remember going to a Starbucks in Madrid once with giant, comfy chairs, a relaxed ambience, and richer hot chocolate than you could ever possibly hope to have outside a Spanish-speaking country–case in point).

On Saturday evening I found myself in a unusually atmospheric cafe in Jingmei, after walking through the trail from my house, and eating some delicious grilled fish at a beleaguered seafood place (which seemed to consist of a number of ends of fish sautered together,  followed by a strangely unsatisfying imitation of one of those healthy veggie wrap kind of things you see in places like Claremont, at a night market food stand, in imitation of healthy hippie-esque food, which I also find unsatisfying.  I just wanted somewhere to sit down that wasn’t a park with a sign that describes the “Park Layout,” despite the entire park layout being pretty obvious from any given point, seeing as how it was more of a roundabout with some benches and trees.  Teenagers listening to pseudo-hip hop with nothing else to do, a couple of Indonesian greeting each other happily (almost always the liveliest, smiliest, people in a crowd), and the familiar glare of fluorescence and drifting cigarette smoke from the glazed and discontented.

Then I spied a cafe across the street, which seemed very homey and decorated in a faux-French cafe style, and was obviously all about coffee.  Being a tea-man, normally I skip such places faster than a stone at Santa Cruz, but usually such places have at least one “real” tea, hidden away, and it looked nice, so I came inside.  Besides the heavyset, plaid-wearing, male Barista, the only other patrons were one couple, and a pair of women in the corner, who kept looking at me while I attempted to decipher the menu.  They all seemed unusually easygoing by Taipei-human standards.  The first woman came over and started asking the usual questions in Chinese, and as usual, I said I was just looking, as I dislike the excessive presence of wait-staff n Taiwan, who will often just stand next to you until you’ve decided.  The first feature I noticed was an autographed poster of What Time is it There? which I commented on as a “very good movie,” and then the green and black-hexagon-type wallpaper which was something from a French cafe in the 60s, or my grandparents’ house.

The other woman came over and started speaking to me in English.  She had a look of inquisition and intelligence about her and spoke non-stilted English.  Even a sense of worldliness, perhaps, which you don’t often find here.  It’s part of what gives Taiwan it’s charm (and undoubtedly, lends an air of naive beauty to its women which many foreign men find so alluring and to their advantage), although I usually need some greater sense of edge and perspective to be able to connect wit someone on a deeper level.  They gave me a small cup of coffee, although I admitted my sympathies lay with tea.  I drank a few sips and quickly felt my heart accelerating.

“But you’re American,” she said, after asking where I was from.  “I think Americans prefer coffee.”

“Yes, that’s true; but I like tea.”

Most of their teas were more flower/fruit teas (花果), which seems to be all the rage in Taipei among coffee-drinking, non tea-leaf drinking young people, but she did point at that they had a red/black tea from Sun Moon Lake, which I ordered and found quite fine.

“Indian black tea,” The Seattle-imported Taiwanese barista told me in Chinese, “is very strong.  But Taiwan black tea has a smooth taste.”

I added 柔和 to my lexicon (or perhaps reminded myself of something I’d previously learnt), and the next day saw a guy wearing a JuDo shirt: 柔道

Of course–“The Gentle Way.”

After sitting with my tea for awhile, I asked the more junior coffee-seller how long she had been working there.

“About four months, before that I worked near zhongxiao dunhua.”

I mentioned that coffee was too..I searched for the word..bitter for me..and it had too much caffeine.  Made my heart go fast, (I pantomimed).

“心悸” she offered, “me too.”  (Yet you work in a coffee shop, I inquired–yes, she said–she’s a little less sensitive now, compared to the past).

And that’s how I learned the word for palpitation.