This post is part of an occasional series I’m going to call Retail Ramblings, where I chronicle my encounters, good, bad and ugly, with retail and service personnel.
I sat in the window of a small city-centre café with a friend, having coffee. While we chatted, I kept an eye out for my husband, who planned to join us. A few moments later, I spotted him through the window, his back to me.
I expected him to turn around and come through the door, but he stayed still. Why wasn’t he coming in, I thought, puzzled.
I had failed to spot the phone in his hand, and thinking he mustn’t have seen us, I rapped on the window three times. The loudness of the raps startled me. I felt vibrations travel along my arm. ‘I thought the Apocalypse was coming,’ my husband said, when he came through the door.
I turned to the owner of the café, who was at the counter, just a few inches away from our table. ‘Sorry I banged on your window like that,’ I said. ‘You must have thought it was going to break into a million pieces.’ My tone was light and banterful, and I expected an equally banterful response: oh, I thought I was going to have to call the glaziers. Or a verbal shrug: don’t worry about it. It’s made of strong stuff.
What she said, without a trace of humour in her voice, was:
‘If you had broken that window, I would have bust you.’
This week, I ticked an item on my bucket list and went to Iceland. I could tell you about the cascading waterfalls, the black sand beaches, hot springs bubbling from the earth. It’s what we think of when we think of Iceland. And all of these things are indeed awesome, in the truest sense of the word.
But I can’t say anything about these wonders that hasn’t already been said. When you’re a tourist, you’re funnelled towards the big game: the natural wonders, the ancient buildings, the epic landscapes. So instead, I look for the little moments that make a trip sparkle. The quirky objects you stumble upon at street corners. The random conversations. The strange but delicious food. The characters on the bus.
Here’s a word collage of my top ten small but perfectly formed Icelandic moments.
Two polar bears standing guard outside a shop
Carp flashing golden in a pond
A tour guide with flaming red hair who did a scarily accurate impression of a Viking having his guts ripped out
Drinking water that smelt of eggs, but tasted pure as air
An exhausting, but enjoyable search for puffins
A group of farmers entranced by fields full of fodder, but empty of sheep
A museum that blasted punk music from a cellar
Splashes of wall art filled with swirling patterns, fantastical creatures and electric colour schemes
Slices of morning herring, picked to enhance the delicate flavour
A band with no musical instruments
I’m not the most adventurous of travellers. You won’t find me dangling off a cliff or Airbnbing in a yurt. But I don’t think I need you need to go on mad adventures to make your trip unique. I just look out for small details that turn into lasting memories.
Some days have a special, shining quality. Colours are sharper, food explodes with flavour, and conversation flows. There is an ease to the day; everything you do feels just right. It’s a day when you feel fully alive. When a day like this comes along, I call it a Day of Days.
I was lucky enough to have a Day of Days just last week, when I jaunted up to Dublin, Ireland’s capital city, on a literary road trip with a friend of mine. On a Day of Days, it’s a bonus to have good weather to set the scene. After weeks of cold, rain and even snow, spring put in a brief appearance. There was proper warmth from the sun, and the sky was the sort of blue you’d find in an artist’s palette.
For me, travel plans that go like clockwork are an essential ingredient in a Day of Days. Thanks to the speed and efficiency of my friend, the jour was smooth. The motorway was free of traffic, and we arrived at our destination with time to spare. Enough time to tuck into various sweet and savoury treats, washed down with frothycinos.
Conversations and Connections
We were booked in for two events at the literary festival. The first gave us a chance to hear Gail Honeyman in conversation. Gail is the author of the runaway bestseller novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (link). It’s a novel that makes an art form of everyday life. Gail spoke to a packed theatre, but managed to make us feel we were all enjoying one big coffee morning together.
Gail’s laugh could be heart frequently as she talked, a warm, rich laugh that belly-rippled through her. When it came to question time, she was determined to make a personal connection with every questioner. After I asked my question, I was started when she asked if I could raise my hand to show her where I was. She wanted to make sure she answered me directly. She was, to use a popular Irish saying, ‘a real dote.’
After the event finished, we had a generous window of time to enjoy our surroundings and linger over lunch. We were in a picturesque part of Dublin by the sea, and we strolled along the pier, watching the sun sparkle on the sea and posing for pictures at the bandstand.
Food is a cornerstone of a Day of Days. We found an Asian restaurant and were served colourful bowls of Thai food, a feast of reds, blues and greens. Mine was washed down with a crisp glass of white wine.
Then it was on to the second event. This event was a little more cerebral in town, with a panel of authors engaged in an earnest discussion about depictions of love in their novels. There were fewer questions. One of the authors was a little bolshy. He slouched in his chair and made a stream of dry comments. And he pulled up the moderator when she stumbled over the title of his book. I felt it added a certain frisson to the occasion. After all, blandness is the enemy of creativity.
It took me a little time to immerse myself in this event, so I was pleasantly surprised when the moderator said it was time for the last question, and to discover that an hour had passed. It was time to head for home, and the homeward journey was just as smooth as the first. It flashed by in a torrent of talk.
Normally, time with this friend only happens when I can snatch her away from the treadmill of childcare. Now we had space to talk, to share the special moments of each other’s lives, to share humorous observations about the onset of middle age. We were able to learn more about each other’s quirks, likes and dislikes. We discovered that neither of have a taste for 99 cones, those mountains of whipped ice cream that have formed part of so many Irish childhoods.
This Day of Days was rounded off by the sight of my husband waiting at the gate, hot buttered toast and the rather excellent children’s movie Inside Out, which I referenced in a previous blog post.
On a Day of Days, I am released from the steel trap that holds my brain down. I feel reunited with myself, and with this colourful, scarred, yet beautiful world we live in. I would love to hear about what a Day of Days is for you, what releases you from your steel trap. Feel free to share yours.
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.
This week, snow blotted out the familiar landscape of the town where I live. It’s a seaside town, and it seldom sees snow. On the radio, voices of authority urged us to stay indoors. Red alerts blared from TV screens. But beneath the worries about skidding cars, frozen pipes and power-outs, we felt a childlike glee. And this propelled us out of doors. We wanted to taste the snow on our lips, to feel our cheeks glow in the cold air.
Having an eye condition which makes my steps wobbly, I was a little wary about venturing outside. But armed with a strong husband and a strong stick, modern feminist principles cheerfully abandoned, I felt I was up to the challenge. The snow was firm; the satin squelch underfoot was thrilling.
To get to our gate, we had to manoeuvre around snowdrifts. Outside our gate, the street was silent. It was hard to tell where road ended and footpath began. The speedbumps were now tiny hillocks. The roundabout at the end of the road was submerged. Snow formed crosses on the poles.
We made our way along the strand. Snow had crept all the way to the top of the strand, touching the stones that nestled under the wall. As we reached the main street, the ground became firmer, as the footpaths had been gritted.
At the top of the street, our favourite coffee shop was lit like a beacon. Warm air caressed our faces as we opened the door, and we wrapped ourselves in coffee, cake and conversation. When I got up, I discovered a mudslide of grit under my feet. The owner swept it up without fuss and smiled when I left a tip.
Now we were fortified for the downhill journey, which was a slightly different proposition. The town is full of vertiginous hills, and now they were mini-ski slopes. As we picked our way down, a reporter from the local radio station approached us, to find out why we had braved the elements in spite of the warnings.
As a former journalist, I knew what it was to be a slave to the almighty deadline, so I was happy to oblige. And in his best broadcasting voice, my husband told of trudging through the snow with crates of glass milk bottles in his former life as a milkman.
When we finished talking to her, we slid onwards, our feet touching patches of black ice. As we passed a pub, we heard a creak, and the double doors began to peel back. A smiling bar woman stood behind the doors.
‘Have you extra cider brought in,’ we quipped.
When we reached the promenade, we saw brave, foolhardy souls inching their way along in cars. People were walking their dogs, who leapt around in the snow.
‘Are we mad?’ we asked each other, secretly congratulating ourselves at our daring.
As I took a picture of the action, two dogs bounded forward, dragging their owners with them.
‘’Sorry,’ they called, when they saw me with my phone.
‘You added colour to my picture,’ I replied.
When we arrived at the front gate, we stood back and looked around. Our garden was a frosted paradise. The branches of the willow tree were spider legs. We marvelled at how snow had turned our town into a place of mystery and wonder, a routine walk into an epic journey full of challenge, beauty, and ultimately triumph.