Singing in The Garden of My Secret Tearoom

Well, it’s been some time since I caught up with “Sometimes She Dances”, aka Sarka, and since then there has been a development amongst the little community of cafes in my local neighbourhood.

A traditional, Victorian-style tearoom has opened – complete with cute tea garden too – all tucked away in the corner of my street. It even calls itself “My Secret Tea Room”

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Tea rooms have an interesting history too, as this blog post on the tea room’s site testifies too , however they have become a bit of an endangered species in recent times as Elizabeth from Rosalilium mentions in a post on her lifestyle blog-site as the chains further encroach on the territory which was once bastion to the independent cafe or tea room.

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Indeed, perhaps even echoing what is written on Rosalilium, a Costa cafe is due to open here shortly – and so it will be interesting to see whether this ends up being a cuckoo’s nest for cafes here, with the entrance of a chain to kill off the competition from the die-hard locals.  Certainly I saw it happen in Queen’s Park, just across the way, with all the chains entering – except the independents there diversified away from purely serving coffee, tea, sandwiches and cake to being delicatessens or pizza places and even a mix of cafe and clothes shop (!)

I don’t see that happening across the park in Kensal Rise however, as I feel the plethora of unique local cafes each have something unique to offer – from what they serve, to where and how they serve it – providing a unique vibe and personal space to enjoy.

As such, I think my friend, Nadia, from My Secret Tea Room has something to gain from what Elizabeth has said in her post – and simply serve great tea, the way it’s meant to be, along with a nice array of sandwiches and cakes. Can Costa compete?  We’ll see – but it certainly won’t be with their tea.

In any case, as a footnote – and explanation of the title of this blog post – I never managed to get around to catching up with Sarka, the subject of my previous post, at that cafe in Brick Lane a few weeks later.  However I did bump into her again at Queen’s Park Market – a few weeks later – where she was actually able to play inside, thanks to Gay (one of my favourite stall-holders from the market there) wrangling with the Market Officers to get her a corner to play in amongst the stalls, thereby creating a much more pleasant atmosphere.

It was in seeing Sarka play there, amongst the fruit and vege stalls, that I suddenly had an idea – why not have her do a gig in the hidden garden at The Secret Tea Room?

So, a few discussions by text and an email or two after that, I arranged for her to meet up with Nadia in the garden of her tea room – and then left the two of them to chat and sort things out.  I am very pleased to say that they did, and so there is going to be some singing happening in My Secret Tea Room some time in the next few weeks.  I am also going to use it as a first occasion to test out producing a video I can put in a vlog to you of the gig.  Go try competing with that, Costa!

UPDATE:   The gig is on!  From 3pm to 4.30pm on this coming Sunday 2 October.  More details can be found here:  https://www.facebook.com/events/1622798504680067/

Also, The Secret Tea Room and Tea Garden are now only open for private parties – so this is an opportunity to see inside.

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Sometimes She Dances

It was only last Sunday, at the Queen’s Park Farmer’s Market, I was reminded about one of the principles of this blog-site – about “way leading to way“, as taken from the Robert Frost poem – and how I thought it’d be possible to find one’s way from one good cafe to another through talking to people at one cafe and learning of their experiences of another one, as well as discovering something about their story too.

The girl in question had come for coffee at Chad’s stall.  I recognised her as the busker singing folk songs at the gate as I came into the market.  She had a distinctive look, largely contributed by the feather woven into her hair, and it reminded me of American Indians.  I remarked as much, as she stood in line for her coffee, and how it fitted with the type of music she was playing.

Indeed, before even getting her name, Chad chipped in with “Sometimes she dances” – and I laughed and said “that could be your American Indian name!”

It was at that point she said she had had an interest in travelling to South America to learn more about the Indians there in places like Bolivia and Peru – and I then told her about my own unique experiences with the local music there, while walking the Inca trail to Macchu Pichu, and how I had come to discover some of the secrets of the people there from the Andean Music Museum in Cusco.

She said she would be very interested to know more, as she and her boyfriend had lived in Brazil and were thinking of travelling there again in the near future.  It seemed to me to be an ideal thing to discuss over a coffee at a unique cafe somewhere, and so I told her about this site and interest in discovering interesting – and ideally unique – cafes through it, along with a good story.

As such, she told me about this great-sounding little cafe in Brick Lane, near to where they make the bagels – and so I intend to meet up with her in the next few weeks to talk about thoughts and ideas for discovering more about the culture of the Andean peoples, and following up on some of the discoveries and places I travelled when I was there.  Which even included a story somewhat worthy of an adventure akin to an Indiana Jones movie – simply through tracing differences in the sounds of the music in different places.  So, literally, stay tuned folks – as I catch up with Sarka (pronounced “Shark -a”) – and show you how way can lead to way, and a great cafe!

 

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Hooked on a chain

Once again I have been “caught by the chain”.  This time it’s Pret A Manger at Regent’s Square, near to the head offices of yet another large retailer who I have been contracting to as part of my day job.

And, again, it’s one of the staff there who has helped make the place interesting and unique with her character – and a welcome break from managing or working around the politics and jockeying for position in a new department which is striving to break out of the old model into a new one which goes against the 250 year old tradition of sourcing from the best from elsewhere and selling it here. Well, at least it will be able to exploit whatever happens as a result of the “Remain” or “Leave” campaign with the referendum – because it will be one of the few British businesses (that I am aware of, anyway) which is geared up to go in either direction, of either bringing it all in – if all’s good demand- and price-wise here – or making and shipping it elsewhere, if it isn’t.

Yes, it’s big international corporations like this which can’t lose either way with the EU referendum, folks.  It’s only those of us who are limited in their ability to migrate to where the going is good who stand to lose if suddenly the doorway to Europe is closed and have to jump through hoops to be allowed in (or out?)

Indeed it’s perhaps timely and topical to have a post about a lady like this who stands to be one of the ones impacted if Great Britain “Brexits”, as there is a risk that her and others like her will have less choice of where and how they can go to provide that “magic” I believe they offer to what otherwise can be a rather a dull and boring culture that tends to be limited to discussion about football, weather and traffic flows – and not particularly interested in thinking beyond the day-to-day drudgery, and contributing something different, interesting and thoughtful to brighten up Britain.

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The lady in question is called Edyta, and I believe she is reminiscent of the “new Britain” which has become fuller – and, in my mind, richer – due to the people like her who have come here since the country signed up to the European Union and opened its borders to economic migrants.

Edyta came here 3 years ago from Poland following her divorce – hoping to find herself here. She tells me her life is very different from that in Poland where she worked as a Sales Manager in a small chain of shops selling cigars. A humidory might be a good name for it, if there needed to be a name for it, as it is just as much about the boxes they come in as the cigars.

Like some of these elegant cigar boxes, Edyta is adorned with designs on her arms which each tell a story about parts of her life – from the name of her 16 year-old daughter, back in Poland, to the swallow symbolising freedom on one arm and the letters spelling K-A-R-M-A on the hand of her other arm telling of her belief in Fate. Then there is the warning of the muffin with a skull, representing the contradictions of sweet but bad or dangerous, which she says is like her.

Of course if I had not stopped to ask her about this, before I finished up my contract there, I would have known nothing about this – other than simply seeing her as being “the nice Eastern European lady who greets everyone with a ‘How are you today, darling'” and, if she recognises you, to quickly interject with an anticipation of your order so it can be made quickly.

So it’s hats off to Pret, despite being a chain, to employ people like this who provide something extra beyond a coffee and a cake to cater for us office jockeys bound by our own chains.  My worry is that if Britain breaks it ties with its European neighbours that we will lose these touches of diversity which make the place a brighter and more interesting place to be.

Then again, may be it’s only London likely to understand this – as Edyta told me that when she first came here she lived in a remote village in Cumbria.  She said she found it difficult there, because she was a stranger to them as there were no other Polish people and she tactfully tells me that people were “very different” to how they are in London.  Indeed, it was her friends who told her to come here to London.  I’m sure this, in itself, reflects the divide in the campaign – where those in London are likely to accept, and want, diversity provided by people like Edyta.  However those elsewhere perhaps see it as a threat and intrusion – and so not prepared to win “the magic” to their manors from making people like Edyta welcome.   Come 23rd June we will know who stays, and who goes, in the Big Brother Britain’s house

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Heart of The Chain

Outwardly the Pret A Manger at Turnmill Street in Farringdon looks much like any other  cafe that is part of a chain:  distinctive branding above the door, set in a bustling part of the city where there is a lot of people passing by, a standard selection of healthy food prepared and packaged the same day, and options for the busy office worker to have in or take away.

Typically my experience with cafes in such chains is to get in, get my selection, and get out as fast as I can – and so I don’t really expect a lot of personability from the staff in getting served.

An independent cafe, on the other hand, is another experience again.  I expect to go in and feel free to stop and take my time, perhaps browsing a newspaper or phone messages over a coffee and watching the world go by past the cafe’s window (assuming I am lucky enough to get a window seat).

So it was with some surprise to find a happy mix of these two different “cafe worlds” at this little Pret A Manger, when finding myself having to come to work in Farringdon for a few months on contract.

It all started with the diminutive Suzy – shown in the picture below – who struck me with her seemingly boundless energy and friendliness with how she both organised my order as well as how she adeptly managed to find time to ask me how my day had gone, while my coffee was being prepared.  This surprised me somewhat, as I am typically not used to getting any interest asked about my wellbeing from people who serve me behind the counter at a chain.

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Admittedly this first time in encountering Suzy was following an interview for another contract in the area, and I was in there at a time when it wasn’t busy – but it did make me feel good about the area, and want to come back to work here if even the people in the chain businesses were going to be this friendly.  Certainly there is something about Suzy and her infectious smile and sing-song Brazilian accent which made my day that day, even though I didn’t get that particular job.

So I guess it was Fate that I should find myself back in the area 6 months later, and after a stint down in Portsmouth where there are so few cafes to go to – as it seems that European-style cafe culture has yet to arrive there – that I found the local truckstop cafe to be the best thing going (but that’s another story).

This time I got the job, and so resolved to return to “my Pret” (as I felt it to be) for my morning tea snack as well as lunch.

Certainly it was nice to see Suzy was still there, as transience of staff in chains is yet another thing which can make it hard to “attach” to them – and, where again, the local independent cafe tends to win through, if one is wanting to “stop a while”.  And it was also nice to eventually realise that it was not just Suzy, but all of the staff there who are not afraid to be who they are – while also providing great, personable service.

Indeed, after going there for 4 months I think I have come to know nearly all of them – from Maria, their manager who originally comes from Poland and is happy to indulge my interest to learn Polish (along with every other European language I can), to the rest of the cosmopolitan staff there such as Giulia, Alessia and Alessandro from Italy, Ana and Maria from Spain, Karelys from Venezuela, David from Colombia,  Elisavet from Cyprus, Pim from Thailand, Agnese from Latvia, and Bea from Poland.

I managed one day to have a brief chat with the very busy Maria, their manager.  She told me that the staff are “trained to do their best, for the person, but also to never wait – just go and do”.  She did add that:  “it is down to the individual [ though ] – and to treat [ customers ] as they want to be treated”.

In a separate chat I managed to have with Suzy one day, at the end of her shift, she also referred to the training – and how the team are trained to “make people feel special” and also “treat it as if it’s their own cafe”.

It has been really refreshing to discover a cafe which is like this, yet is part of a chain.  After becoming “a regular” here after 4 months,  it’s not like going to a cafe in a chain for me – it’s more like catching up with my family, over a coffee or a bite of lunch.  If you have to go to Farringdon for any reason, then please stop in to say “Hi”, and mention you heard about them all from reading this post – as I think they’d really appreciate it, and I certainly feel like they all deserve it.

Alessia and Alessandro, going the extra mile, in helping a lost visitor with directions to places in the area

Alessia and Alessandro, going the extra mile, in helping a lost visitor with directions to places in the area

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From The Park to Pakistan

I said I would come back to tell a story from the Queen Park Farmer’s Market.  It comes from one of the people I met at Chad’s stall called Pete Durnford.

Chad's chat connects coffee drinkers

Chad’s chat connects coffee drinkers

Now what are the chances of meeting someone who has been on a possibly even bigger adventure than oneself, just casually at your local farmer’s market cafe?  Is that itself part of the fable of the farmer’s market?

Pete’s story is about a guy called Abdullah, who he travelled with in a van through Afghanistan to Pakistan in the mid-seventies. This was a time when there was no Internet or mobile phones to connect them back with the people they had left behind in London, or to contact the people they needed to meet on the way.

They began their journey here, in little old London, starting not far from Queen’s Park where Chad’s stall stands now on a Sunday.  It was at Cafe Quest Base Camp where Pete showed me photos he’d taken of the time, on a little 35mm camera.  Unlike now, these are photos taken on celluloid film, and so had to be taken to a chemist to be developed.

Equally, it is not so easy to convert such photos to digital – however there was one page in Pete’s album which stood out as capturing the romance of the journey, from the silhouette of minnarets at sunset and the magic of Biblical Mount Ararat at midday, to the dusty old van which they travelled in along this dramatic Middle Eastern highway.  So I felt a little like I was using the modern technology of the mobile phone like a time machine as I took a snapshot of this page from Pete’s album.

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It was a cafe-related connection that got us talking originally.  It was about a place called The Pudding Shop in Istanbul, a place where travellers are known to meet and share stories. Abdullah and Pete visited there on their way, but it was perhaps not one of the greatest highlights as it was quiet at the time and not as dynamic as the stories they had been told. Perhaps that in itself is a fact about fables:  the truth is not always as great as the story is cracked up to be….

It was at Taste of Chamberlayne, yet another great NorthWest London coffee establishment with Middle Eastern connections of its own, where Pete regaled me with many stories of the people they met, and places they visited, between here and Pakistan. This included travels in Afghanistan, a place since scoured by Russian invasion and American wars on terrorism against The Taliban.

The places sounded more innocent back then, than they do now – but is that really true?  It perhaps comes down to the perspective of the storyteller and what they see and hear at the time.

What’s perhaps more fabulous is Pete’s and my recognition of any cafe – be it Chad’s, Ishmail’s and Max’s or The Pudding Shop in Istanbul – as being the places where travellers can meet and share such stories, but there also needing to be someone to help make that happen – like Chad, at Queen’s Park Farmer’s Market, who is happy to encourage people to stand and chat at his stall and will connect people based on what he has learned about their common interests.  There needs to be more of this.

Now, the big question is, will Pete be happy to make for a Cafe Quest first in becoming the first guest blogger to share their own stories and photos from a time before t’Internet and mobile phones?  Stay tuned, folks…..

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The “Happy Days” Cafe

Growing up in New Zealand there was this TV programme which seemed to capture what life was like living in American suburbia, and between the poorer Italian immigrants and the richer white Americans.  It made things look rosey there, and showed the great American “diner” cafe with it’s booths and their red vinyl coverings. The booths in themselves became an iconic image which was then copied in cafes worldwide – and most typically by ones selling burgers and ice cream milkshakes – as well as one which has subsequently been copied as a set piece in American sitcoms ever since, such as Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, and others.

That programme was Happy Days, and the character made most famous by it was an Italian American by the name of Arthur Fonzarella, aka “Fonzie” to his friends or simply “The Fonz” to all others. Of course, there was the less charismatic kids too who helped in making it cool to meet and hang out at the diner – such as Ritchie and Potsy, the college kids seeking to be just as cool as The Fonz (but rarely, if ever, succeeding).

It was not just the look and the characters which made this sitcom work, it was the upbeat music from the fifties too – and with Bill Halley and The Comets’ song leading the way as the theme tune, and backed up by Ritchie’s and Potsy’s attempts to gain fame as a high school band.

So it was much to my surprise when I had to head up to Northampton in the UK last Wednesday to discover a little place with this kind of atmosphere, as Northampton was not the sort of place I expected to find anything with the kind of character I like in a cafe. That said, I did kinda like the impressiveness of Northampton’s Guildhall as well as found the fairground, which I suspect is permanently there just off the Main Square, to be kind of cute (or “quaint” as the American tourists would no doubt call it)

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The little place is Caffe Morandi, and is not quite “Al’s Diner” – as it has a more local feel to it, mixed in with a hint of Italian to it. The latter is largely thanks to its name and the fact it serves great Lavazza coffee.  Also the two ladies behind the counter, Stacey and Chami, helped make it that bit more special by making sure I had everything I needed in terms of the best place to sit and all-round friendliness.

Tucked away down a side-street, just past the Main Square, is where you'll find it

Tucked away down a side-street, just past the Main Square, is where you’ll find it

However it was the music which really took me back to those “Happy Days” of my youth, and brought an atmosphere to the place which was as inviting as the smiles on the faces of the ladies themselves.  They helped make me feel I could keep coming back to this place any time – just assuming I could find my Fonzie, Richie and Potsy to enjoy it with me (as having a four person table to myself in the window seemed such a shame).

So to get a hint of the kind of atmosphere, here’s an indication of the type of music on their playlist:  http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC9E7D39F7EE6883E

Indeed, I could almost imagine a karaoke night there with the images from this playlist on display for customers to sing along to.

That said, the food was great too, as I trust the image below indicates with its massive Classic club sandwich with healthy salad on the side.

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If I had to head back to Northampton for any reason, I would head here – both for the happy memories it brings back as well as for the good, ample portions of food and large cup of great coffee combined with the smiles and cheery chat from Stacey and Chami.  Happy Days indeed! 🙂

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The Syrian “sin” of The Coffee House

Spare a thought for Syria next time you are in a coffee house reading a newspaper, or simply talking freely with a friend in one, because the origins of the coffee house – now more commonly known as a café – come from there and they were meant to be places where people could meet and talk freely.

Certainly this was the irony for me one day, sitting in a café reading a newspaper article about the war in Syria, and hearing about the suppression of freedom of association and expression there.  Worse, even down to small children being harshly punished for expressing themselves, as a recreation of a picture by Banksy emotively captures.

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Coffee houses themselves were banned from the start for much the same reasons.  It was the Sultan who first sought to ban them when two Syrians brought them to Istanbul, in Turkey, in the mid tenth century – and similarly when they came to England in the seventeenth century (more than 600 years later), Charles II sought to ban them too. Why? Because they were places where people from all walks of life could meet and talk freely, and so the monarchs feared people would talk about them.

So now the country which gave birth to these places, which in themselves probably led to that right to freedom of association and speech enjoyed by democracies nowadays, seems to have found itself tongue-tied through a ruling régime which supports the exact opposite.

I remember travelling in Syria myself back in the early nineties, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of Aleppo market, the Kerak crusader castle, the perfectly preserved amphitheatre of Basra and the quirkiness of the stuffed animals in the windows of the taxidermy shops. All this combined with the sequestered beauty of certain cafés tucked away in secret gardens hidden behind the walls of villas in Damascus.

But fear was expressed to me, by the few local people I met, about being watched by the secret police. I never saw anyone, but then maybe I didn’t know who or what to look for either.

Now, sadly, it is all too clear that they were there – probably blending in with the surroundings of those coffee houses, and in the midst and mist of a dictator’s fears of a populace talking about their concerns. And so was sadly created a country with a lack of freedom for the people to happily do and be who and what they really wanted to do and be.

I have recently asked Syrian friends in London about it. Apparently a strange world exists – perhaps much like George Orwell wrote about in “Animal Farm” – whereby you can only get by if you belong to a particular family or families.

In a way, this sounds to me like a hark back to the Middle and Dark Ages in England and other parts of Europe when monarchs of all sorts were dead set on ensuring their dynasties on similar lines – and the concept of “patronage” was key.  Except here we are in the twenty first century, and a dictator would prefer we would all go to sleep and ignore the coffee in order to keep himself and his family in power at any price.

Well, hard luck Assad, as Hell will hopefully not freeze over – as the rest of the world will find a way to help you wake up and smell more than just the coffee…

That smell will instead be the highly perfumed one of an Arabic Spring coming to allow coffee houses to open again in Syria and hopefully let the people in freely – regardless of the family they are from, their religion, race or any distinction – and along with the right to share their views freely, as long as it’s done fairly and respectfully without harming anyone.

Ironically it takes an artist who hides himself from view in Western world to say it so simply to all in one image about attempts to remove the rights to speak and associate freely with anyone and everyone – but now we too can say it all along with a simple hashtag: #WithSyria

Woman with Balloon imagePostscript:

I fear what may have happened to those great coffee houses I went to in the market of Aleppo, as well as tucked away in the streets of Damascus.  One of the few, relatively open coffee house I went to was in Basra. Certainly I understand the market in Aleppo, once a World Heritage site, has now been burned to the ground.

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