On a Saturday morning, I was making my usual journey up the main street of the town where I live, to run some errands. As it’s a tourist town, the streets were a little busier than usual, and I found myself trapped behind a family of four who were streeling along the footpath, at tourist pace.
I thought I’d shake them off when we reached a road crossing, as there is a shop on that crossing that’s crammed with delights for children. But they carried on up the path. I passed out the father, but the mother and her two little girls formed a chain on the footpath. I resigned myself to tucking in behind them. After all, I wasn’t in that much of a hurry.
Out of the Mouths of Babes
The middle girl in the chain turned to her mother and said, ‘Mum, when we’re bigger, this will be the olden days, won’t it?’ She was a shrimp of a child, around five or six, a small seven at most. How did her mother greet this wonderful display of abstract thought, of creativity, of imagination? With a muttered yes.
Maybe this child was a relentless talker, and the mother was simply weary from a morning of listening to constant chatter. Also, at that moment, the father turned abruptly and opened the door of a chip shop. ‘I’m getting something to eat,’ he announced. I imagined this behaviour also fed into the mother’s weariness. Either way, I wondered how many of these in different responses it would take before that child’s light was quenched.
I really wanted to like this café. It had a beautiful riverside location and the décor was very pleasing, with lots of wood and stone. The menu ticked all the hipster boxes, with signature sandwiches and a selection of ales. And it had featured on a television programme, which in our fickle age matters far more than it should.
We placed our order with a dewy-cheeked waitress who tapped the order onto a tablet, and settled down with some of the café’s many newspapers. As we read, we could see the owner wandering around, full of bonhomie as he chatted to customers. He had quite a lengthy conversation with a lady at the table next to ours, who was clearly known to him.
A moment later, the lady’s food arrived. I looked down at our empty table and realised fifteen minutes had passed since we placed our order of two drinks and two slices of cake. I better do something about this, I thought. But just as I was forming this thought, the food arrived. It was served my another dewy-cheeked youngster. His tentative movements and timid voice gave the impression of someone new to the job.
We ate our slices of cake. The lemon drizzle cake tasted of lemon, which is rarer than you might think. The problems didn’t really start until we went to pay. The till was situated at the entrance to the cafe, a narrow walkway. It was behind a high counter, and there were people clustered at the counter. This meant we had to press ourselves against the wall opposite the counter, to keep out of people’s way.
Wrestling with the Till
And we had to wait a while. The till was being manned by a teenager with the same kind of fade haircut (long on top, shaved underneath) as my nephew. And he looked to be little older than my nephew. He was wrestling with the till, which was refusing to process a card payment from a woman in the queue ahead of us. Eventually, the owner was summoned. He pressed a few buttons, then said, ‘Happy?’ to the boy and disappeared.
Meanwhile, we were still trying to keep out of the way of the stream of people passing in and out. We thought that the girl standing next to the woman at the counter was accompanying the woman, but in fact she had been sent to pay for her table’s food. And there was a problem with that as well – a soup that had never arrived. Which again required decision-making powers that were a little beyond the boy’s scope, as to whether to strike off the missing soup or offer to serve it after all. All this meant meant further waiting. Our own payment was straightforward, but by then the damage was done.
We didn’t complain. When you see the face of your nephew in the people serving you, it’s hard to be mad. But I felt the owner needed to spend less time wandering blithely around the café, coasting on its reputation, and more time on those small details that separate the good cafes from the great ones. The most important of these details is care: care of your customers and care of your staff. And because of this lack of care, I was leaving an otherwise pleasant café with a sour taste in my mouth.
A group of women pours into a café. They make for their usual table and sit at their usual seats, a whirl of bags and coats, marking their territory. Within seconds, there is a fierce hum of conversation.
A waiter bustles up to them, young, hair slicked back. He has to clear his throat several times to break through the wall of words. The women look startled. The waiter begins to hand them menus, but Teresa held up a hand. ‘No need to worry yourself about that,’ she says, ‘We know what we want.’
The women place coffee orders. Visions of scones oozing cream and jam dance through Mary’s mind. ‘Can I tempt you into some cake?’ says the waiter, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Go on, be good to yourselves.’ ‘Ah, no, you’re grand,’ says Teresa. ‘I think I’m good enough to myself already.’ Laughs from the other women.
The drinks arrive. Herbal tea, regular tea, black coffee. Mary has managed to resist the urge to order a cappuccino. Perched on the edge of each cup is a coffee biscuit. The biscuits remain in their packaging while the women talk. Mary sees them winking at her The conversational current carries Mary along, but in a corner of her brain, a food channel flickers, showing images of cakes, of a dirty, lardy fry. And the coffee biscuits keep calling to her, glowing brighter and brighter.
After the Coffee
At last, the women’s watches jolt them back to reality, and they begin the slow gathering of bags, of coats, of thoughts. ‘Oh, look, we never ate the coffee biscuits,’ says Teresa. ‘I’ll take those,’ says Mary. The women stare at her. ‘For the grandchildren,’ she says. ‘They’re coming home later.’ The women smile and hand the biscuits to Mary, who puts them in the front compartment of her handbag.
In the car, Mary opens the compartment, takes out the biscuits and lays them on her lap. Four of them. She rips off the packaging and puts them into her mouth all at once, layering them on the tip of her tongue like communion wafers. She lets them melt on her tongue, in an ecstasy of sugar and butter. When she is finished, she brushes the crumbs off her lap. Then she drives away, a smile on her face.
Two years ago, a disused railway line in Waterford, South-East Ireland, came to life. With much fanfare, it was launched as the Waterford Greenway, a walking and cycling route that followed the route of the old railway line. The Greenway would take people through lush green countryside, under tunnels and bridges and small, pretty towns.
A Source of Passion
People took to the Greenway straight away. Since it was launched, hordes of people have walked and cycled along its paths. Much praise has been heaped upon it, for its undulating pathways, the soothing views, the ease of access. The Greenway gives people a chance to do many of the things that make us happy as humans: being in nature, exercise, a chance to do a an enjoyable activity with family and friends.
But what I’ve also noticed when the topic of the Greenway comes up is how passionate people are about the correct way to use it. People fulminate about the cyclists who whiz along the route as if it were a stage in the Tour de France. They rage against the people who drop litter on the paths, or let their dogs roam free. One woman i know talks incessantly about cyclists who don’t ring their bells when they’re approaching pedestrians.
Walking on the Wrong Side
What’s more, people are not shy about letting these transgressors know that they are flouting the conventions of the Greenway, which are printed on signs dotted along the route. I know, because I was one of those transgressors. Yes, I confess that am a sinner.
I have been on the Greenway twice, once with my husband, once with family. On both occasions, we walked on the right-hand side of the path. The signs recommend walking on the left, but we felt that this would prevent us from spotting cyclists coming up noisily from behind. On a normal road, it is correct to walk on the right-hand side. And some would say it is correct to walk on the right-hand side of God.
On both occasions, passersby told us we should be walking on the left. One group was polite; the other was more forceful. And on both occasions, my hackles rose. Why were they taking it upon themselves to tell us which way to walk. After all, we weren’t blocking their route.
Why People Are Fierce About the Greenway
There are many other amenities in Co. Waterford which offer just as much richness of experience, but none of these inspire such strong devotion as the Greenway. Why do people have such a fiercely protective attitude to the Greenway? One reason that springs to mind is space. The Greenway has been successful beyond people’s wildest dreams and that means more people are sharing that space than anyone ever imagined. And people can be very territorial about the space they occupy.
A book I’ve been reading lately has revealed another possible reason for this fervour. In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis talks about a universal moral code that humans instinctively understand and know they must follow. The use of the Greenway feeds into people’s sense of right and wrong. There are no rangers on the route to enforce the conventions, as there would be in other countries. But people are regulating the Greenway themselves, because they believe it is vital to follow rules that will help preserve a resource they see as unique.
A Conflict of Codes
CS Lewis also helped me to understand my own strong reaction to the passersby who told us to walk on the left. The Greenway’s moral code is in conflict with my own moral code. I believe it is wrong to tell other people how to behave, or to judge how other people conduct themselves. And I believe people deserve the freedom to figure out for themselves what is right and wrong. The passersby felt I was flouting the Greenway moral code, and I felt their interference was unnecessary. I believe I would probably have come to my own conclusion about the right way to walk, just from watching how others used it.
But CS Lewis’s book has given me food for thought. Some things are bigger than we are, and I do want to continue enjoying the Greenway and its delights. So I’ve come up with a compromise. When I next go on the Greenway, I will walk on the left. But if I see anyone else walking on the right, I won’t tell them off.
Yesterday (14 July) was Bastille Day in France, a proud day for a people with a proud history. The French may not wield the same clout as they once did on the world stage, but for many of us, their culture is still the by-word for sophistication. If advertisers want to associate their products with elegance and culture, they’ll use French-sounding voices and music.
I myself am a Francophile. I love French wine, French cheese and French bread. We’ll glide gently past their pop music and their comedy. And I admire French people: their independence of spirit, their intellectual rigour, the fact that they mean what they say. The French are sometimes thought to be arrogant. I think they’re misunderstood, so to celebrate them this Bastille Day weekend, I’ve come up with some observations which I hope will make it easier to understand their funny little ways. They’re not exactly scientific, but they’re true to my experience of French people.
They Will Correct Your French
The French are proud of their language – and rightly so. It’s a sensual feast of a language, with those silky sounds, the elegant words, the rich meaning behind some of their everyday phrases. And they’re very particular about how it’s spoken. When you make a faux pas (sorry, couldn’t resist), they’ll rush in to correct you. They don’t consider it rude – after all, the purity of their language is at stake. Try not to bristle when they do it – they genuinely believe they’re helping you. In a way, it’s a compliment. They think you speak the language well enough to be worth correcting.
They Kiss, But It’s Not Affectionate
People tend to think of the French as an affectionate, touchy-feely people, because of all the kissing they do – between two and four kisses per person depending on the region. But the French just use the kiss as a form of greeting, much the same as a handshake for the rest of us. It’s an impersonal gesture, with the lips barely touching the cheek. The French kiss regardless of the level of relationship, whereas other nations save their kisses and hugs for those they’re closest to.
They Drink One Glass of Wine
This is aimed at Irish readers of this post. We may aspire to drink like the French, who appear to live long and prosper on a diet of red wine. But it’s never going to happen. We are all-or-nothing drinkers, while the French drink one glass of wine at a sitting, no more and no less. They immerse themselves fully in the pleasure of that glass and they drink it without guilt. If we want to drink like French people, we will need to learn to see it not as an enemy, nor as a route to oblivion, but as a source of sensual pleasure.
Are you a Francophile or a Francophobe? Do my observations about the French chime with you? What have you yourself noticed about them?
I was sitting in a local café, the natural habitat of a writer, enjoying a cappuccino. The tables were close together, a pretty common feature in cafes these days. This afforded me the opportunity to hear every word that the two young women at the table next to me were saying.
One of the women, a golden, glowing creature, was wearing a top with lines of blue polka dots on a white background. And her friend took it upon herself to give Polka-Dot, as I’ll call her for handy reference, some fashion advice.
‘Don’t take this the wrong way now,’ she said, lowering her voice and leaning forward, ‘but that top looks a bit childish on you.’
Why did she say that?
Did she really intend to steer Polka-Dot onto the path of fashion righteousness?
Was she feeling a certain smugness inside, at the thought that her fashion sense might be superior to Polka-Dot’s?
Or did she want to dim Polka-Dot’s lightbulb?
I believe there are certain people who prefer to keep their lightbulbs dim. In other words, they prefer to attract as little attention as possible. Which is fine, until they try to dim other people’s lightbulbs.
When they are in the company of a person who glows, as Polka-Dot did, they try to take away that lustre, so that they can then feel more comfortable. And they will often do it in kind, well-intentioned tones. It’s a force so deep inside them that they may not be aware of it, a dancing devil that wants to keep them and everyone else in the dark.
What Did Polka-Dot Think?
Polka-Dot seemed willing to consider that her friend’s intentions were good.
‘Yeah, I suppose,’ she said, smiling ruefully. ‘Think I got dressed with my eyes closed this morning.’
The conversational current moved the two friends past the danger zone, words tumbling out of their mouths, interspersed with frequent ripples of laughter. But every now and then, Polka-Dot looked dubiously at her top. And I felt sure that whatever her friend’s intentions, Poka-Dot had not left the house that morning thinking her top looked childish. Her friend had succeeded in dimming Polka-Dot’s lightbulb
I stumbled upon the journal in a charity shop. Its green cover drew me in. I ran my fingers over it. Its surface was smooth and firm, and it fit neatly into the curve of my hand. In My Humble Opinion, it was called.
The pages on the left hand side featured gloriously scornful quotes about the idiocy of the human race, set against colourful backgrounds. Perfect for a crank like me. The pages on the right-hand side were lined with wide, well-defined lines, which gave an impression of space despite the journal’s small size.
A Loving Inscription
How did such a beautiful object come to be washed up in a charity shop? That was certainly not its intended destination, going by the inscription on the inside cover. It was made out to someone called Enright, and the giver said she couldn’t resist buying the journal for Enright, because it was made for her. Going by the appearance of the journal, I’m not sure that Enright agreed with her. The cover was pristine, and there were no cracks in the binding. Overall, the journal appeared untouched by human hand.
I wrote my own note underneath the inscription. ‘Why didn’t you write in this? Why didn’t you make the time to fill its pages?’ Reproachful, I know, but I couldn’t stand the thought of this beautiful object being doomed to a life of neglect.
I like to think though, that the love and in the inscription have passed on to me. I was not the intended recipient, but I have cracked it open. I chortle at the quotes and fill its pages with nonsense. And I am quite grateful to this Enright. Her trash became my treasure.
Recently, I had to go to a doctor’s surgery to collect something. Beside the desk, there was a sign asking people to stand back from the desk, so that people could have privacy while doing their business. As there was a woman at the desk, I obeyed the sign and stood in the doorway.
When she finished, I approached the desk, and an old woman came around me and reached the desk before I did, even though it was clear that I was next in line. She just had a quick question, she said, but the question required the receptionist to get up and look for a colleague who could answer it for her.
My item wasn’t ready, and while I waited for it to be printed, another older woman took the opportunity to ask her question, and the scrape and grind of the printer would have indicated that I was still being dealt with. Let’s just say that in both instances, it was lucky that I wasn’t discussing anything of a delicate nature.
Abusing the Privileges of Age
What is it about passing a certain age that causes some people to feel that signs and queues no longer apply to them? It’s as if a switch flips in their brain, and after a lifetime of caring, they decide they no longer care. In a way, this is commendable. It’s literating not to worry about what other people think. But you can take it too far.
By and large, these artful queue dodgers get away with it. People let them go ahead, possibly because they don’t want to be seen to bawl out an old person in public. But also out of respect and out of kindness. And these queue dodgers trample on that kindness. They abuse the privileges that age brings. That’s what burns me about it.
There is a possibility that, if left to my own devices, I might actually let an older person go ahead of me. But don’t guilt or manipulate me into it. Otherwise, my walls will go up. Other people, far nicer than I am, have a more mellow attitude to it. ‘Can’t wait till I can get away with that,’ they quip. They speak as if the queue dodgers are children who don’t quite know what they’re doing. But they know exactly what they are doing.
To Dodge or to Wait
When I left the doctor’s surgery, I had to go to the chemist. As I arrived at the entrance, an old woman appeared. My dander was up by now and I thought, no way is this person going to get round me. So, I took ruthless advantage of my faster leg speed to get round her and reach the counter first.
And there was nobody there.
By the time the old woman arrived at the counter, there were two people there. One was attending to me and the second one attended to her. And she was finished before I was.
I realised that a stark choice lies before me. I can become an artful queue dodger myself, or I can learn to wait. By temperament, I fear I have the makings of a queue dodger. But I also wonder what the point of being alive for such a long time is if you haven’t learnt some of life’s lessons. If you haven’t learnt to be a little wiser, a little more patient, a little more tolerant.
I’m hoping that by the time I’m old enough to be a queue dodger, I’ll have learned that everything will happen in its own good time. And that I will have even gained enough grace to allow other people to go ahead of me.
In recent months, the media has been beaming its spotlight on men who do horrible things. The #MeToo and #IBelieveHer hashtags. Tales of Hollywood sleaze. High profile rape trials. The horrible deeds of men have been questioned like never before.
I’m not really into hashtags, bandwagons or campaigns. Instead, contrarian that I am, I’ve been turning my own spotlight on men who are careful.
Men who weigh up their words when they’re speaking to women
Men who hold open doors to let shoals of women through
Men who hoist children high on their shoulders so they can see a parade passing by
Men who leave room for women to speak
Men who make you laugh so much you can hardly breathe
Men who put an arm around a woman’s shoulder, and don’t let that arm stray any further
Men who tell you how beautiful you look, no matter what
Fathers who put their shoulders to the wheel
Men who cook succulent dinners
Men who see your lower lip trembling, then wipe away your tears.
These men are our fathers, our brothers, our other halves, our friends. The minefields they negotiate are just as difficult as ours. These are men whose deeds go beyond hashtags. These are men who choose to be careful with women. Let the actions of these men be a counterweight to the tales of sleaze. Let us raise these men up.
I am wary of cafes with sharing tables. I believe some café owners have an idealistic vision of strangers coming together around these large tables and finding new friends. What it often results in is enforced closeness. Conversations are circumscribed because you don’t want others to hear.
Or you can feel as if you’re drowning in other people’s noise, like the time when my friend and I were forced to share a table with a gang of clacking Spanish students. In trying to bring people together, these tables can take away your sense of personal space.
Last week, my mother and I found ourselves in a café called The Wooden Spoon in Co Clare, in the west of Ireland. The only space free was at a large sharing table, my heart sank. There was one woman at the table, and she waved us over with extravagant gestures when she saw us looking for a spot. ‘There were loads of people here a minute ago,’ she explained, ‘but they’re all gone now, so you might as well sit here.’
The table was actually a door, laid flat and propped on table legs. It was painted pale green, and a pane of glass protected it from food spillages. Wood shavings were artfully placed around the door panels. We sat on one bench and the woman sat opposite.
An Entertaining Monologue
Without preamble, she launched into the tale of the job interview she had just attended at a local nursing home. There were various twists to the tale, as many twists as there had been on the road to the interview. There was her reluctant return to nursing after a career break, the dance she had been to the night before, the fear that the makeup on her shirt collar might have interfered with her chances of landing the job.
Along the way, we heard about the food that she wasn’t allowed to eat and the tablets she was on. Every so often, she hurled questions at us, but she didn’t wait for the answers. It was quite restful – all we had to do was sit back and listen.
Beside her, there was a paper bag bulging with clothes. It had a floral design and the name of a local boutique printed on it. She nurse treated us to a fashion show, pulling out a handsome black dress coat and a white shirt.
While she spoke, the nurse ate a bowl of beef stew. She used wedges of brown bread to dig into the gravy. She dug into the brown depths with such vigour that I feared for her orange nail varnish. ‘I won’t eat for two days now after this,’ she declared.
In the Boutique
When the nurse finished her food, she left in a whirl of bags and coats. In the vacuum that she left, we decided to visit the boutique with the floral bags. As we tried on an array of colourful tops, the nurse reappeared, to put a deposit on another black coat. While she was speaking to the owner, her phone went off.
Her phone was on speaker, so I soon realised that the phone call was from the nursing home. I tried to eavesdrop to find out the outcome of the interview, but the clothes called, and I became immersed in trying them on. I wasn’t kept in suspense long though. Through the curtain of the changing room, I heard her say, ‘Ladies, I got the job.’
I’m not a Bible-basher, but a couple of days after we met the nurse, I came across this quote from Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Now I’m starting to see the wisdom of the sharing table. They remind you of how enlivening conversations with strangers can be.