The sad café. We all have one, don’t we? Some place that we may remember with bitter-sweet memories, of what might have been but then never quite was.
Mine is a place in Wellington, New Zealand, called Lido – a place I had frequented on many an occasion after I had finished University and started working. It’s the kind of place that you arrange to meet friends before going on somewhere – such as the movies, or perhaps afterwards to reflect on it, get a bite to eat and work out whether you want to “kick on” somewhere else.
It’s also a great first date and last date place too…
The Lido has always had great cake and coffee, and something of a movie star quality about it – as it’s a place to come and see people, as well as be seen. Oh, and the music is (or was) always contemporary and cool too – especially late at night.
It took on a whole new connotation for me back at the end of 1991, as that was when I decided to return home from the UK because my oldest sister had told me how my mother was terminally ill and only had a few months to live.
The fact that the Lido was still the same as it was on my return, as it was when I had left home at the start of 1990, was somehow reassuring. Most of my friends still had all those University ideals too, much as is sung about in that song by The Eagles about the sad café.
It was perhaps poignant that at that same time I heard from my friend, Souad, the petite and somewhat crazy, hippy French Algerian girl I had met earlier in the year, back in England. She was on a tour of New Zealand and had somehow heard that I was back there (and given this was before the days of email and social media, that in itself showed how Kiwi-net worked back then). The irony was that I had no idea how she had also come to be there, in New Zealand, at the same time as me.
I guess I kind of had this boyish fantasy that she had come all that way to see me, although I should have realised that that would not have been a good idea – even if it was true – given the circumstances of me being back there for my mother.
So, although I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to meet anyone, curiousity got the better of me to meet up with her and find out the story.
The Lido, as always, seemed the easiest place to describe where to meet – being just across the road from Wellington’s Town Hall and Library complex, and off Victoria Street.
In another time, and place, it would have been a great place for two travellers to come and exchange stories of how they came to be in the same place, on the other side of the world from where they met, in less than a year later. However talking about my Mum – and everything that she and my family were going through at that time – was not a travel story and something I relished talking about. It was meant to be a journey of compassion after all.
Yet I somehow hoped that Souad’s cheery disposition would help me feel a little better about life going on, despite me feeling guilty about meeting up with anyone under those circumstances.
So the ironic reality of her story was that, unbeknownest to me, she had had a Kiwi boyfriend back in England, who had also helped with selling paintings door-to-door (and please see previous post to get the picture – lol). The sad fact of the matter was that they had broken up shortly after she arrived in Auckland – scuppering their plans to travel around the country together. So suddenly Souad found herself in an unusual position, for her, of being all alone in a foreign country and needing someone to talk to….
As it also happened, on the very day we chose to meet, some of my old friends had chosen to meet up at the Lido too. So just after we had sat down outside the café, and Souad was telling me her sad news, first – as I insisted she go first – I briefly looked away, trying not to show her that her sad news was not what I really wanted to hear (given how hard it was dealing with my own), and saw them sitting inside the café.
As fate would have it, it also began to pour with rain (as is so often typical of Wellington at the end of November – and despite it being the start of summer), and so we were forced to go inside. I had yet to share my news, and so once inside – as we sat down, not far from where these friends of mine were sitting, laughing and clearly continuing on with life as usual – the music began to play.
Yep, it was The Eagles “Sad Café” – and how often does life conspire to do that? The rain and the music coming together, at the same time as two friends – unable to help one another – share sad news.
There was something about the combination, of trying to tell sad news to this new friend at that point – with the lyrics of the song right on cue – while the old friends of my childhood, and pre-travel life, sat oblivious (or so it seemed) just a table away, that I felt the tears welling up.
It was like being in two places at once, both inside and outside the sad café, realising that a chapter of my own life was ending as much as it being the final chapter for my mother. Yet no one was there to witness it, apart from this woman who I thought I had known in England – yet who had had this complete other life going on that I never knew or saw, and so who I suddenly realised was a total stranger.
So how weird it was to be in a café full of people, even with ones you know (or think you know), and to realise you are totally alone. This feeling at that moment in this café somehow manages to sum up “the sad café” experience for me.
I realise looking back on it now that Souad must have felt pretty much the same way as I did – yet there was nothing that either of us could really do to help one another, like we would have done if one or other had perhaps been more “together”.
Still, I remember the carrot cake with the rich cream cheese icing on it, the aroma of freshly roasted and ground coffee of that day, and how the song that came on next somehow managed to break the spell – leaving us both in tears, yet able to leave the café that day. The song was Cher’s “Heart of Stone” – again, how amazing is music. Without that song, and with that new-found friend gained that day from it, and at that café, I don’t know how I would have managed to continue on over the next few months.
So, even though it was a sad café for me (and perhaps the saddest of my life, with dreams/delusions about Souad shattered as much as grief on top of that), it was also one for the quest to fight back – a place for beginnings as much as endings.