Tea, tea, tea – that was pretty much the choice back then in the England I knew in 1991. Coffee, if you ordered it, was typically filter stuff – often percolated to hell. You could cover the bitter taste of it by smothering it with cream, either the foamy type which you could add chocolate sprinkles to, or the stuff you can pour. Oh, and at least two spoonfuls of white sugar were required – or sugar cubes, if in an upmarket establishment.
They often weren’t even called cafés – tea room was the term. Some were quite twee, with the frilly doily that the teapot sat on and the china teacups. They weren’t the sort of place to hang out with your mates in watching the world go by – that was what you went to The Continent for (or even the Middle-East or parts of Northern Africa).
No, the tea room was the place that your Nan or maiden aunt took you to – and then it was largely for scones, jam and cream. Or tiffin. Tea and tiffin.
So it was my French Algerian friend, Souad Amrous, who introduced me to THE café of the day – en Paris.
Meeting her was as much the treat for me though. The coffee came a distant second. It began with seeking a job, which I found in a street magazine of the time, and involved Souad, myself and a disparate group of twenty somethings picking up a portfolio of paintings from this warehouse somewhere off Caledonian Road in Kings Cross. We were then all taken by car to different suburbs around London. Once there, this mottley bunch of expats – including people like myself from different parts of the Antipodes (which is what the Australians and New Zealanders are collectively known as in the UK), as well as “The Continentals” (as Souad and others from Europe were referred to) – would go door-to-door selling these chocolate box paintings.
It was a unique experience, and petite Souad was the best at it – with her dark curly hair, dark brown eyes, olive complexion and waistcoat with black suede trousers. She LOOKED like an artist – and, with her French accent, you could almost believe that she had sat high up in her garret somewhere off the Champs Elysée and painted these. Moreover, she could make up a good backstory about a painting that could bring either a laugh to the lips, or a tear to the eye – and, better still, the London suburbanites to buy.
Certainly she knew the cafés there in Paris, when I went to visit her a year later and a whole world away from those streets of suburban London where we’d trudged during the day. I had got a real job shortly after our painting sales escapade, working on contract for an insurance company and then for an investment bank – boring stuff but good money for someone on a working holiday visa (as I was back then). Enough to buy a decent coffee, but also a good wine or two, at the end of the day. Yet neither of those things existed in London back then.
So I was drawn to Paris, and beyond, by the likes of Souad who knew just what to do – and where to go – in a quest for a café. They came with not only good coffee – ordered as “un café au lait”, or “un café crème” (as Souad corrected me into choosing, and in line with what I had become used to, just before leaving New Zealand) – but also came with the characters to go with it, who would just start conversing once you sat down. Even without conversation, there was an abundant street life that you could watch alfresco.
I only wish I’d noted the names of those places back then – but whenever I was with Souad, caring for the taste of a good coffee was never a top priority. Once she looked me in the eye, when my attention drifted, and said: “Allo, Matt?!” with her beautiful French accent and amazing twinkly-eyed smile, all I had eyes and ears for – was her, her views on life and the world, and what dreams or people may come to pass us by.