THINKING BACK, I WAS probably first drawn to Coffee Flanel because of its ridiculous sign. It read: “Flanel than ever before.” By then I was accustomed to the butchered, overwrought English phrasing that was plastered all over Seoul, but that line had a quirky ring to it that made me stop and grin.
It was August. I had just trekked all over the campus that was to be my home for the next year and was disgustingly sweaty; the idea of AC and an iced drink sounded fantastic. I climbed a stairway up to the second story to find the cafe’s glass door. Inside it was brightly-lit and cleanly decorated with dark wood and white tile.
The barista greeted me, and after I paid for my drink she pointed to the pastry case and asked me to choose something. I paused for a second before politely explaining that I just wanted the coffee. She smiled. “It’s service,” she said, meaning that it was on the house. I decided on a cookie (a gingersnap, if I recall), and she gave me two. This was surely my new favorite place.
As the months passed, Flanel’s four walls witnessed my life’s changes. When I first came there I brought only the company of my journal, in which I chronicled awkward episodes of culture shock and loneliness. But as time went by I became less like a foreigner and more like a regular. Months later, a girl from school (now my fiancee) and I would go there every afternoon — supposedly to do homework, but mostly just to talk, procrastinate, and eat cookies.
The coffee at Flanel, like most places in Korea, wasn’t great. But the cafe offered something more subtle and ultimately more important: atmosphere. At coffeehouses around the world, intimately personal narratives intersect with burbling public life. We go to these places for introspection, for inspiration, for study, for meetings with old friends or new business contacts. If the atmosphere is right, as we sit and sip our drinks, we become part of something larger — pieces of our conversation seep into the walls and shiver out into the chatter of the city.
Four years later, Flanel is still a fixture in my memory. When I head back to Seoul it will be one of the first places I go after throwing down my bags — if it’s still there, that is. But either way it will not be the same place that it was. Even if I sat in the same seat with the same journal, different words would come to my pen.