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.


An Epic Walk

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.


Snow Crosses
The snow formed crosses on the poles. All pictures in this post taken by moi.

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.

Human Comforts

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.

Media Fame

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.

Onward Journey

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.

Snowy Promenade
A few souls braved the snow on the promenade.


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.

Willow Spider
Our garden became a frosted paradise.