I’m at the Raffles City Starbucks, doing some work. The cleaning ladies basically threw me out of the room– it was obviously very suspicious that I was still in there in the mid-afternoon, and I needed to get out and get a life. I was starting to run a caffeine deficit anyway, so I trooped down here.



via flickr

The scene is pretty crazy: there are tons of people here, and I had to wait a few minutes for a table.

I’m at that strange and not very pleasant part of the trip where I’ve met a LOT of interesting people, but am feeling the absence of that casually intimate contact that you have with friends and family, and which go a long way to reminding you of the fact that you’re a human being. I think this is one of the toughest parts of traveling extensively: there’s a huge gap between how much contact you have with people, and how much you can connect with them. It’s probably the closest I ever come to being one of Karl Mannheim’s “free-floating intellectuals,” those minds whom Mannheim believed would, through their rootlessness lack of attachment to nation or social class, be able to see the world more clearly than others.

Given enough time, of course, you can close that gap; but on a short trip like this, where I’m spending a few hours at most with people under pretty structured circumstances, there’s no way to do that. At the same time, I think that dislocation or psychological distance has a certain utilitarian value: it can heighten your capacity for observation, and for me, at least, force me to think more about things.

I’m impressed at how many Europeans there are here: not just tourists, but people who move with the knowing casualness– or hurried single-mindedness– that I associate with people who live in a place. It makes Singapore sort of a mirror-image San Francisco: on the other side of the world, repressed rather than radical, and mainly Asian with a substantial European minority.

All Starbucks really are the same. It’s really astounding how much they’ve managed to create a unified corporate image, a set of spaces that, whether one is in the cafe in Dupont Circle or Raffles City or Harvard Square, are always identical in the essentials. There’s actually an interesting, Freakonomics-like study to be done of the standardization of cultural spaces, but I think my room should be clean by now, so I’m going to leave that for later.

[To the tune of Gladys Knight & The Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” from the album “‘The Motown Years”.]

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