Jaci Stephen: 'When I said I'd never been in a Starbucks, my friend nearly went under a car'

Way Out West

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Everyone has at least one thing they have never done that seems to put them at odds with the entire world.

When I once said that I had never listened to an episode of The Archers, for instance, people pulled away suspiciously, as if I had approached a group of small children with a bag of sweets.

The same happens in LA when I say that I don't have a car. This week, a friend visiting from Sydney told me that he lived here for five years without one. We huddled together in a Century City café, proudly giggling over this act of aberrant defiance. I have lived six months without one now, and still walk or take the bus everywhere.

Now for the real confession: until Sunday, I had never been in a Starbucks. My friend nearly went under a car when I made my announcement, as the dreaded green logo loomed closer.

I've passed them thousands of times, of course, in cities across the world, but have never been tempted to enter. I'm not a big fan of chains, and I don't drink coffee, so it was always going to be hard to see the attraction.

I won't be going to one again, either. The one on Melrose Avenue was filthy, with dregs on the tables, bits of food on the floor – it was less like feeding time at the zoo than post-prandial regurgitation.

It took ten minutes to establish that I wanted plain black tea, not Earl Grey (I have more trouble with English here than I did in eight years in Paris with my not-very-good French); another two minutes to get the cup filled more than halfway; another five minutes to carry it, overflowing, to the milk trolley; 40 minutes to drink the worst hot drink I have ever had in my life. Star****s to that.

I think perhaps one of the main reasons I never tried one out was that it took me so long when they first arrived to know exactly what I would get, once inside.

I like places that deliver what they say on the tin, and Starbucks sounds more like a "Saddle up yer horse and grab a Bourbon" kind of place (as well as not drinking coffee, I don't have a horse and don't drink Bourbon).

You don't get the same ambiguity with, say, Pizza Express. And this week, having inadvertently stumbled upon a Japanese quarter of LA, I was sure that Hurry Curry would deliver what it promised. I quickly discovered that the trouble with Hurry Curry is that there are so many people in a hurry for their curry, you have to queue for a table. In fact, you have to queue so long, you could have gone to a restaurant, tucked into a three-course lunch, and returned to Hurry Curry to find that you were still five people from the front of the queue.

It was rather impressive, though. I was immediately asked what I would like to drink (the five-star SLS hotel took 20 minutes to ask me last week), and a waiter helpfully pointed me towards the "light" meal of half portions – clearly I looked way too slender at my new weight to be able to handle the bucket-sized portions of Vindaloo I used to consume in Cardiff at four in the morning. My days of stumbling around the city's Chip Alley, as it is affectionately known, nursing a polystyrene carton of "'alf 'n' alf" (half rice, half chips) have long gone.

The food was impressive; the clientele, less so. People in a hurry wolf their food down so quickly, they belch a lot – at least, they do when that food is curry.

I sat among people who were hurrying their curry at such a pace, it was as if it had decided to bypass the throat on its route to the stomach. The evidence of its arrival repeated in the atmosphere like a space shuttle returning to earth and breaking the sound barrier.

Barely had I finished the last grain of rice than my bill arrived. I said that I wasn't in that much of a hurry, an explanation that was greeted with much mirth, incredulity, and even gratitude, when I asked for the menu back.

But I couldn't be persuaded to stay for the lychee sake martini, as I had to get to the gym, which I had been putting off in favour of my curry lunch (I've always thought there is something faintly pornographic about having a lychee in your mouth – maybe the Martini is to detract from that). I managed a few miles on the treadmill, plus 30 lengths in the pool and a three-mile walk back to my apartment. Hurrying a curry is easy; it's the exercising it away from your hips afterwards that takes the time.



To read Jaci Stephen's blog LA-Not-So-Confidential, go to LAnotsoconfidential.blogspot.com

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