One of my favourite things to do is sit in a cafe and watch the world go by.
There’s the food – usually of the coffee and cake variety. Steaming ponds of boiling hot latte and mochaccino. I love cupping my hands around a beker, feeling the weight of the cup, taking small sips, waiting for it to cool. In Amsterdam, my coffee is usually paired with a wedge of apple pie, thick chunks of apple encased in a pastry crust, and a waterfall of cream cascading over the side. In England scones are my treat of choice – plain, savoury, sweet – it doesn’t matter as long as they’re served with oodles of butter. (But coffee and walnut sponge, lemon drizzle, and cheesecake are not far behind). I love the tradition of old tried and tested recipes, floral mis-matched china, and the feeling of guilty pleasure; the decadence of afternoon tea. But more than all of this it’s a slow-motion ritual; a moment for myself, a moment to be in, and yet detached from the rest.
I always try to find a table near a window to see out. While watching, I catch snippets of conversation. Not really eavesdropping – sometimes it’s impossible not to hear. I make lists in my journal of ‘the things people say’ – intending one day to use them as a spur to write short stories. Disembodied sentences can be quite mind-blowing. ‘She doesn’t have children, but she does have a caravan’ (!) – is one that’s always stayed with me. Occasionally I hear reams of words, whole stories that require no imagination at all. I am more often than not writing – maybe people think I can’t hear, maybe they don’t care, maybe they think I don’t care – but some of these converstations seem to me, to be things that should only be said in private, behind locked, darkened doors. I once sat and listened as a young man explained to his companion in full technicolour detail, how he funded his studies by working as a male prostitute. When he skirted around something he’d done that he felt uncomfortable with, I had the urge to lean over, and say ‘go on, tell me more’. I didn’t of course, but that’s the great thing about cafes – you can go in and sit alone, nursing your nourishing cup, but you never have to feel alone. Sometimes I’ll even strike up a conversation myself. I am not always the eavesdropper in the corner.
When abroad, cafes are a great way to dip into another culture. There’s always something to notice whether it’s the almost exclusively male hang-outs in India, the youngsters smoking hookahs in Egypt, or sipping ca phe sua da (iced coffee) in Vietnam.
I’m the sort of person that’ll travel from one side of a city to the other to try out a new cafe; for the food, for an historical or literary association, for nothing more than it’s quirkiness. All of this gave me the idea to write a book – ‘Around the World in Eighty Cafes’ – but eventually I realised that although I’d never be short of material, it would be like painting the Forth Bridge – never finished and always out of date. So, instead I’ve decided to write occasioanal blogs about the wonderful world of cafes. I just hope my waistline can take it!