The Café That Was Slightly Too Pleased With Itself

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.

Young Staff

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.

young waiter
A café populated by very young staff.

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.

 

The Coffee Biscuit

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.’

Temptation

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.

Coffee Biscuit

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.

 

Small Wonders of Bantry

This week, I was gallivanting again, to Bantry, in a corner of Ireland where fingers of rock point to the sea. I could wax lyrical about the beauties of Bantry and the West Cork countryside surrounding it, or about the brilliance of the authors who at the literary festival we were attending. But as I did with Sneem and with Iceland earlier in the year, I prefer to concentrate on the little random wonders that often remain unseen.

Here’s a selection of ten small, sparkling moments from my stay in Bantry.

Eloquent rants about montbretia, those flame flowers.

The ship’s sail that cried, ‘Enough.’

The mountain filled with light and rain.

Mountain of Light and Rain
A mountain of light and rain in West Cork.

The man who let his Viking-style boat rot on a beach for seven years because he went to South America and nearly got married.

A cup of tea at the edge of the world.

The author who bathed us in warmth, humour and perfectly crafted words.

The author who drove the men away.

The barman who had never heard of Pernod.

The cable car with a psalm tacked onto the wall.

And the family who flung open the doors of their eighteenth-century farmhouse and fed us with fresh leaves, morsels of culture and tales of the Levant.

 

 

Three Things You Need to Know About the French

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

Glass of Wine
The French derive pleasure from just 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?

 

Talking to Strangers in Cafes

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.

 

Sharing Table
The sharing table where we met the nurse at the Wooden Spoon Café. Photo taken from Wooden Spoon Facebook Page.

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.