Twilight has just settled over downtown Hamilton. Night life has started to revive Victoria Street, the main boulevard. I’m seated outside La Commune Cafe, the unofficial hippie establishment in town. Mismatched forest green and cream chairs, rusty red Formica table tops, and a couple of planters pack the tiny interior and spill onto the sidewalk. Next door at the relaxed Go Vino restaurant, an exuberant group of locals lounge on a few couches; no doubt their empty wine glasses have enhanced their social zest. The atmosphere inside the café is buzzing, the attire on the sidewalk varied. The seasons, still in limbo between spring and summer, allow strapless minidresses to walk past merino sweaters. Cars buzz by, blobs of color blurring from left to right, out of reach of my focused vision.

I’ve become a serial café frequenter, casually searching for the ideal atmosphere. My logic concludes that when patronizing cafés I’m not really paying for the coffee, but rather for the the space at the table where I sit and the ensuing ambience that floats by: the aroma of espresso, the music, and the conversations. My list of visited locales has grown to nearly fifteen different Hamilton cafés, all of them possessing their own quirks. Scott’s Epicurean, in my opinion, has the best-tasting espresso, but like most cafés, it closes at 4PM, despite its prime central location. The back door at The Rocket Espresso Bar is usually left open, allowing breezes and birdsong to imbue the mood. Esquire’s Coffee, even though a chain, offers an hour of free internet with any purchase, and has the most friendly young employees around.

Before arriving in New Zealand, I was the typical college student who’s favorite java joint was the corner Starbucks. I assumed that gourmet coffee just naturally came with caramel, vanilla, or hazelnut flavoring. The first time I visited a coffee shop in Hamilton, my flatmate Alice accompanied me. After placing our orders, she turned to me, her jaw hanging open. You ordered your coffee with a flavored syrup shot? I looked at her, feeling accused of murder. Yes? I answered, questioningly. Alice has been working in cafés making coffee since she was fourteen. She has a rather, refined palette for espresso. Ordinarily, she doesn’t trust any café that offers flavor shots because that means “they must have to mask the real taste of their coffee beans.” I have come to agree. Really good espresso is not supposed to be bitter, but actually laced with some sweetness. It takes excellent beans and an equally exceptional barista (coffee maker) to create a superior tasting coffee.

Kiwi café society is bustling and vibrant. Edgy, modern paintings from local artists add personality to bistro walls. Live music from amateur musicians fills the air on Friday nights, and people sit on each others laps to make the most of the minimal square-footage. On weekday afternoons, as conversation layers itself over coffee cups, friends reveal new facets of their personality to their companions. The atmosphere is positively toxic. I love sitting in cafés to study for class or write on my laptop. I’ve become almost addicted to this culture, needing my fix of café atmosphere every day.