While planning my honeymoon, I suddenly realized something very, very important. Wildly exciting. Life-altering, even. And that is: multiple stops on our itinerary had cat cafes. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. CAT CAFES. Which is why I abandoned my husband of less than 48 hours and went looking for pussy.
For those new to the Internet: This strange phenomenon was born in Japan, the world's leading exporter of cute. But the idea has spread, thanks to the rise of Internet-fueled cat fandom. With Grumpy Cat as a household name, why shouldn't North America cash in? So now entrepreneurs in America and Canada are attempting to open their own establishments; San Francisco's KitTea raised more than $60,000 via crowdfunding. Purina opened a Manhattan pop-up to lines wrapped around the block.
I know all this, by the way, because I am fucking obsessed with cats. I love the little bastards and I just can't help it. Much of my first-grade year was spent coaxing our skittish first cat out from under the couch. I live with a large, spoiled tabby; only my lease prevents me from adopting another and fostering several more. My Instagram is an endless stream of cat photos. I've been known to follow strays down the street, chirping. I am, like, a heartbeat away from subscribing to Cat Fancy. I am bonkers for cats, and I do not care who knows it.
When I realized that visiting not one but MULTIPLE cat cafes was within my grasp, this was my internal monologue:
Meryl Streep was probably less excited about her third Oscar than I was about these cat cafes.
First up: Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium, which recently opened in London's Shoreditch neighborhood. Reservations are already booked through October; I could only get one spot, so I left my new husband to fend for himself. Cozy, full of overstuffed sofas and chairs straight out of some grandma's parlor, it looks the kind of coffee shop where college students cram for finals. Factor in the scones and old-fashioned teacups, and you get a vicarage-y vibe. You expect to see a bunch of 29-year-old women reading Jane Austen novels.
But getting inside was like entering a nightclub in a space station. First I walked into a storefront, where I waited in front of a closed door for a few minutes. Then I entered an antechamber, where I paid a cover charge, washed my hands and was given the rules: No feeding the cats. No waking the cats. No picking the cats up. Only then was I allowed to enter the cat-filled sanctum sanctorum.
The rigamarole was almost enough to dull my excitement—until a little black cat dashed out, short-circuiting my brain so all I could think was, "KITTY! HI KITTY!"
There were cat-friendly touches everywhere—hammocks and little boxes for napping, shelves for climbing. In heaven, I parked myself smack in front of a dozing feline. To my right was a pair of twenty-somethings apparently on a date, making small talk and occasionally rousing themselves to wave a feather wand. (They displayed SUSPICIOUSLY low levels of cat enthusiasm. Why were they even here? Didn't they appreciate what was happening???) To my left, a pair of young French women were having the time of their lives. First they took photos of the sleeping cat. Then they took photos of each other posing with the sleeping cat. When the cat woke up, they took pictures while cooing at the cat.
Everyone sat around trying to play it cool, but whenever a cat stirred or strolled into view, you'd feel a faint ripple through the room. Between the anticipation and the strict rules about touching, it reminded me of a strip club. There we sat, waiting to be entertained, hoping for a few moments one-on-one with the talent. I watched a young man wandering around the room, attempting to entice various cats with a feather toy. He kinda-sorta got the attention of one—then promptly switched his affections when fluffy, prissy Petra woke up. He proceeded to follow her around, cooing about how pretty she was.
I half expected a barrel-chested bouncer to materialize and drag him out of there.
At no point did any cat display the slightest inclination toward snuggles. One particularly determined feline was 100% focused on the door through which dinner appears; she sat, she yowled, she nudged it with her paw. It was time for her to clock out, grab her paycheck and pick up some takeout on the way home.
It was weird. Really, really weird. I chalked the weirdness up to jetlag, but when it came time to choose between another Munich beer hall and hunting down the city's cat cafe, I picked the booze. (Forgive me, German kitties!)
That left Vienna's Cafe Neko. It wasn't a destination and in fact it took forever to find, located down a winding side street. (Maybe the Austrian Internet is obsessed with strange little dogs, instead.) The middle of the cafe held the cat equivalent of the treehouse from the Swiss Family Robinson, jazzed up with a bunch of brightly colored origami cranes. The cats-to-humans ratio seemed promising.
So we sat there. One cat chased another into the highest reaches of a cat tower, then prowled around underneath. Another (named Momo, according to the menu) chilled on a woman's lap, and a Maine Coon snoozed on a chair amid a family. My husband doggedly attempted to interest one cat or another; none of them bit. After a moment, he whispered, "I think that woman is monopolizing Momo," clearly the least lap-averse of the lot. Gradually a skittish black cat began sniffing at our bags, but didn't get any bolder. Then, Momo drifted over. Maybe this time? NOPE. She parked herself outside the door to the kitchen, clearly anticipating snacks.
Our dreams of cat cuddles were dashed.
See, here's the thing about this whole setup: Cats don't give a shit about our feelings. They've got their own agenda, and it rarely involves humans. Meanwhile, humans are desperate for their attention and nuzzles. This creates a very tense environment in which to drink your coffee. It's not even a proper strip club. It's like one of those bikini barista places that exist only in the Pacific Northwest.
But: DUH. I should have known! Any true cat lover appreciates that this is, in fact, no small part of these persnickety creatures' appeal. Cats are born dominatrixes. We exist to serve them! No doubt this will disappoint many Grumpy Cat-loving bandwagon fans, but the truly dedicated understand that this is the whole point.
Still, it makes for a fucking weird coffee shop.
Image by Tara Jacoby.