I read an interview with Alain de Botton in which he revealed that the mirror features in his morning routine only as something he can glance into and ‘check that nothing too terrible [is] happening’. I like that a lot. This is a level of personal grooming I can relate to.
But even that isn’t necessary, of course, if you don’t go out of the house. If all you’re going to do is have a cup of tea, why put yourself through grooming, or indeed dressing, at all? Why take off your jamas/house clothes and brush your hair? (Or at least redeploy it; those among you who also have curly hair may, like me, know the folly of brushing it.) You can usually get a decent cup of tea at home—in your favourite mug, and for a lot less than £2.50. You can work there, or talk on the phone or meet people on Skype (if the gods of the interweb and technology so decree, that is). You have all the web at your disposal; you’ve probably got books and music and blue petering stuff and all the delights of your life marshalled comfortingly around you, right there in your own personal space. So why put yourself through encountering the mirror, or carrying the laptop and/or notebooks into town? Why go to a café at all?
Well, there‘s the reason which is about escaping whatever is at home that you don’t want to encounter—for instance, the washing up. My dad and his brothers, left to their own devices, didn’t wash up until the bath was full of dirty crockery and they had drunk out of that last gravyboat. I’m not quite that bad, but sometimes it’s close. Or there’s the reason which is sort of an opposite to that—that is to say, doing something in a café which you’re really struggling to get yourself to do elsewhere. Sometimes I take my client notes to a café, offsetting the pleasure of someone else bringing me a bowl of soup against the sheer tiresomeness of getting the damn things written.
Another great reason, of course, is the rendyvoo with a friend. Granted, there’s nothing quite the same as the kitchen-table, entire-slab-of-70%-sea-salted-chocolate occasion with one of the truly precious people with whom you can unadornedly be yourself. You have the freedom to weep copiously if you need to, or swear extravagantly, in a way that you might not want to in public. But quite apart from the practical benefits of, say, equidistance, or squeezing it into a busy day, meeting a friend in a café makes such an occasion of it. It demarcates the time as special, as important, as just about you and them. Cake can be eaten, life can be caught up on, triumphs and horrors shared, plans evolve. A table at the best sort of café becomes a sort of magic bubble of space in which the joys of friendship can warm and enfold you.*
A café is a communal space, of course, and meetings of groups can be a great reason to go there. I facilitate a poetry group for the Wordsworth Trust, and Finkle’s café in Kendal is kind enough to host that group, free of charge, and with grace and kindness. Once a month a heterogeneous group of people meets to read poems together. I celebrate the generosity with which the owners hand over the entire top floor of their space, rearranging tables and tiptoeing upstairs and down with coffees and hot chocolates and peppermint teas, all the while not trying to intrude upon Wordsworth or Roger McGough or Wendy Cope or whoever is currently forming the focus of our attention. It is such a gift to be granted this space in which to share the trials and treasures of what it is to be human. (At some point the sharing of poetry will be a Thing in its own right, so, more of that anon.)
And food! Food you haven’t had to think of, hunter-gather, prepare or wash up! Food you wouldn’t bother to make for yourself—like this delicious breakfast roll at Yard 46 in Kendal: artisan-baked ciabatta roll from a Kendal bakery, home-made hashbrown, crisp-fried duck-egg with just-runny-enough yolk, avo, home-made tomato relish… oh yes. It’s not that I can’t cook, cos I can, and well. But sometimes it’s so lovely to have someone else do it for you.
I imagine that those who live in busy families or shared houses might find in a café a precious experience of solitude and quiet. Conversely, those of us who live alone can find an easy and undemanding change from aloneness. Thus, although the café product is important, so too is the process—by which I mean the simple experience of being there. I have often been accused of “over-thinking” (SO annoying), so I offer this thought cautiously… but… I think there’s something really fundamental and important about having ways to know yourself to be, to exist in the world, when you want to. Ways which don’t necessarily require too much of you when you haven’t got it to give, or require the availability of friends or family, but which still constitute a way to remember that yes, the world still exists, and yes, you are a person who perceives that world, and yes, the world will, if you give it the chance, perceive you right back. Not that this is necessarily a conscious process; it’s just reassuring and important, sometimes, to have another way to have an I-It or I-Thou encounter—to remember that you are alive and part of this wide and various world. Sitting with a cup of tea, in a café, is a way of doing this. I give thanks for that.
When you become a regular, of course, as I am at Brew Brothers down the road from me, the entry-level I-Thou/I-It experience—seeing buildings, passers-by, fellow tea-drinkers, potted plants, cakes—is further augmented by the fact that there’ll be at least one lovely staff member who will greet me by name; someone who will know what I’m going to order without me having to say it; someone who’ll ask how my dodgy back is doing or tell me about a poetry gig I might be interested in. Relationship, however local and brief, is precious.
All of this, then adds up to why I’m really happy to shell out £2.50 for a cup of tea in a café (though don’t mention it to Tony or he’ll put the prices up again). How about you? Do you have a favourite café? Where do you get your infusion of café joy?
*For more in celebration of small-but-large moments of connection, see ‘A Time to Talk’.