Coffee A La Carte

For the last few months I have survived the rigours of the basin – Paddington Basin, that is.

One of the little guilty pleasures which has helped me start and survive the day has been this little coffee cart that catches a unique mix of care and office workers as they walk over the bridge from St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, to the corporate head offices housed at The Point, Waterside and Merchant Square.

Carting the cafe

The little table and chairs add something – for those who have a little time to stop and chat

The cart is run by one Edmundo Aldo Guevara De La Cruz – or Eddie for short.  It is one of my favourite mobile coffee places – the other one being the VW Combi van with its couches which sets up under The Westway in Notting Hill – but it is the character of the barista, who markets himself as Mr Coffee, which makes me care for this cart in a way that no other coffee cart can.

Contemplating another coffee

Contemplating another coffee

Eddie brings some of the charm and great coffee to London which I experienced when I travelled to Peru back in 1998.  In short, while contemplating a coffee here at the start of the day, your troubles seem to slip away, as he cheerily chats to you about football, ladies and life – assuming you have a few spare moments to listen – or otherwise simply serves you “your usual” with a rye and cheery smile. 

Eddie's Coffee Cart - down at Paddington Basin

Eddie’s Coffee Cart – down at Paddington Basin

Indeed, on Thursdays in summer when the market is on and the sun is shining there at Merchant Square, your can almost forget all your office worries and woes as you watch the canalboats go down the canal while you lie back in a deck chair with a coffee at lunch-time. Well, almost…..

In summer, some of the corporate head offices at The Basin offer the cheer of a deck chair - but, perhaps sadly, there's often no one there!!  However solely on Thursdays, when there's market and music on at lunch-time, it is an entirely different story

In summer, some of the corporate head offices at The Basin offer the cheer of a deck chair – but, perhaps sadly, there’s often no one there!! However solely on Thursdays, when there’s market and music on at lunch-time, it is an entirely different story

In truth, while it is great that some of the office shoguns have shown some sensitivity to the sensibility of relieving stress of their workers through providing a pleasant canal-side setting, one gets the impression that few care to be out of the office enjoying such a scene.

Posted in London, Paddington | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Dock of The Bay

For my friend, Antonio, who is “new in” to Sydney

So I am back here again at Quest Base Camp, after my little sojourn in the Southern Hemisphere – and in reflecting back on this quest so far on this (sadly) rather gloomy May day in old London town, am realising that  probably everyone has their Sad Café, their Home Town Café and their little café in the middle of nowhere.

It would be great to receive a few comments from my fellow bloggers – and other visitors to this site – on whether they have their own ones for each type I’ve noted to date, as well as hear about different types – as maybe that is the key to the “unusual element” that makes this quest interesting: recognising quirky elements of a good café.

Maybe I am just a frustrated café marketeer – or perhaps a café-a-holic – but it is not just a great coffee that makes for a good café (although that clearly helps). It’s about something more.

My first thoughts are that some of the keys are “good people , positioning and great atmosphere” – so that you see it and feel you want to sit down and “take the load off….”.  Otherwise you might as well just get a takeaway (although I do know some good and quirky places for that too – such as Peruvian Eddie’s coffee cart down in Merchant Square, Paddington Basin every week day morning in London, which does something mean with a Caffe Molinari coffee bean).

In stopping over in my second home of Sydney, on the way back through to London from Wellington, I had just enough time to grab a coffee at another café that has stood the test of time – and also fits another type too.  I think I’d call this one “the dock of the bay café”.

It’s called Rossini’s and is right down on the parade at Circular Quay, Sydney.  When I first lived in Sydney, way back in 1990, I used to either grab breakfast there on my way to work – and having travelled the 7 miles by ferry across Sydney harbour from Manly – or stop off there at the end of the day for a wine with friends or workmates before we each went on our ferry way.

Hot buttered raisin toast, and a cappucino, were de rigueur for me as a quick breakfast snack back then – before taking the train two or three stops down (depending on how much time I had) to where I worked down town on contract putting in a new car registration and licensing system for the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority.

Rossini’s is all about the setting. You can sit down, outside, and have your Otis Redding moment:

“sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the ships roll in – and watch them roll away again”

The staff make you feel like royalty there, as they lead you to your table.  There is also something of a movie-like feel to it all as you sit there and watch the Sydney ferries dock and all the people roll off on their way somewhere.

You can clearly spot the travellers with their luggage in tow. The “new in” (as the locals refer to them) are those who have just come from the airport to there. It’s here that they get their first glimpse of the majestic Sydney harbour and its amazing icons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House all in one compact setting.

The best way to get a shot of these architectural icons is actually from Circular Quay station itself – but not many of the “new in” people may realise that though, as the train coming in stops on the other side of the station that does not look out across the bay.

So often it is only for the luxury of those leaving – heading out t’other way – that get the best view of this amazing spot as shown in the photo gallery below.

The Scene from Circular Quay Station

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For those that have the time though, I can thoroughly recommend a coffee and raisin toast at Rossini’s.  That way you can “sit and watch those ships roll in – and watch them roll away again….”

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The Old Home Town Café

Recently I had the opportunity to return to “the old home town” – Wellington, New Zealand.

It did indeed feel a little like the opening lyrics from that song made famous by Tom Jones – “The Green, Green Grass of Home” – as for me:

“The old home town looked the same 

as I stepped down from the plane…..”

Except there was no Momma and Poppa to greet me (as they had sadly passed away some years ago), nor anyone called Mary – however there was my best mate, Ross, whose 50th birthday I had come all the way from the UK to celebrate.

Many of the places we went to see together were very much in line with the sentiments of that song – from the old houses that I lived in when my parents were alive, to the student haunts we hung out at in our University daze. There even was our equivalent of “the old oak tree” – well, OK, it was a Narnia-style lamp post that was once the place that a cable hung from that was used to get the turntable to turn at the top of Woodward Street (and click on relevant link under The Gallery below to get the idea).

Yes, the latter was one of those – er – “iconic” places around Wellington that we made fun of at student graduation time. I trust you can get the idea from the captions and descriptions in my little “student gag-site gallery” below. 

Wellington student gag-site gallery

Some of the pub haunts’ names had changed, of course – such as infamous sports bar once known to us as “The Loaded Hog” being no more. Instead there’s a trendy pub in its place, which is a microbrewery making its own beers on site.  Microbreweries are a new trend now in New Zealand, given the horrendous prices on all other branded beers there – and they are springing up in all sorts of unusual places, from old garages to service stations.

The Civic Centre looked much the same though – apart from a silver ball that they have been suspended as a sculpture in mid-air over the centre of the square, perhaps as a complement to the pyramids placed next to the new town hall (known as the “Sir Michael Fowler Centre” – or “Fowl House” to the locals) 

The one trusty stalwart that has stood the test of time though – even from when I was there over 20 years ago, as mentioned in The Sad Café post – is The Lido café. 

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Something about this place has allowed it to survive.  Certainly it continues to sell great carrot cake and coffee, almost as I remember it (apart from the price now being staggeringly higher than I could recall it). 

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I could see how much some tinge of nostalgia had tainted my view – as really the café is quite nondescript when it comes to photographing it. Yet it still being there, after all this time – correction, those times – makes it my pick for “the home town café”.

It’s perhaps even unusual in that there is nothing unusual that makes it stand out aside from continuing to do what it does best:

serve great cake and good coffee in one of the most central locations in town.

Posted in New Zealand, Wellington | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Sheesha Surprise!!

Further to my Right Royal Sheesha posting in January. The very next day after posting that story I was involved in a minor car accident where a car ran into the back of mine when we had to stop, relatively quickly, at a crossing which some school-children had decided to run across at the last minute.

As misfortune would have it, the car behind us was too close – with the driver not paying as much attention to the road as one ought to in such wet and cold days as we have had in this past winter in England – and that is what led him to run into the back of us. Fortunately neither my wife nor I were injured in the incident, and insurance from the other driver’s company (which ironically just happened to be a CCTV camera company) paid out.

My car, as a happy car - before the incident

My car, as a happy car – before the incident

The surprise was that the panelbeaters were located over at Park Royal, and so supposedly near to the unique sheesha café – as mentioned previously  – that I had yet to try out.

So as luck would have it – but not necessarily good luck (and so perhaps even needing me to say “Insh’Allah” – which translates to “God Wills It” – in the hope it will be good luck) –  it seems I was destined to head over to Park Royal at least.

It was just a question of whether or not to go to the sheesha café as, to be truthful, I had found myself a little hesitant to head all the way over to this place – as while there was something about its remoteness that intrigued me, I was slightly worried about smoking sheesha too, as I know little about it and its effects. It made me feel as if I was going to be heading into a foreign country where dyed-in-the-wool Westerners like me might not be welcome.

That was why I had tried to enlist my friend, Ismail, to come with me – as he seemed to know more about it than me, and he is originally from the Middle-East where smoking sheesha is a custom.

Indeed, it was from Ismail that I learned that the whole sheesha smoking experience is apparently something that is a relaxed early-to-late evening thing to do –  and is something that one will do with their friends and colleagues after the day is done, where you can all sit down, relax and talk about the day (or anything for that matter).  So it seems to me that sheesha just helps provide something to do to help everyone with relaxing, and feel comfortable chatting, while sitting together – and perhaps even the sheesha itself provides a talking point.

Unfortunately Ismail’s wife was very close to having their first baby, and so any such  excursion in an evening at that time was out of the question for him.

Nevertheless – or maybe “Malesh” (“Never Mind“), as they say in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East (and as I had learned from travels in Syria and Jordan many years ago – which is a whole other story) – the complications with my car seemed somehow to be leading me over that way.  So perhaps God was willing me to confront my fears?!

So finally, in mid-February – several weeks after the incident, when my car was repaired and due to be collected in the early afternoon from the panelbeaters in Park Royal – I thought that it ought to be fairly safe to head over then and at least see what this café looked like for myself.  Especially as my journey took me over that way.

Thus convinced by myself, it was around 4pm in the afternoon that I picked up my newly repaired car and made my way over there.

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The name of the café is Basrah Lounge. It is tucked away down at the end of a road to nowhere, on a side road just off the A40 heading out of London. Every other edifice leading up to it is tied in with selling cars or involved with various forms of light industry.  

You would not expect anything other than a quick snack or lunch bar at most to be there.

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An entrance in between what looks like a warehouse and a fast food takeaway outlet, complete with delivery bikes, is the way into where the lounge is found. Some plants at the entrance help to take away the industrial feel and suggest some form of invite into a more inviting environment

IMAG0540Unfortunately, while taking these few photos of the outside, a manager came out from the entrance at the right-hand side and confronted me on why I was taking them.

After telling him the story of how I had come to hear about it, he directed me to the way in between the two buildings – but he gave me the impression that I should not take any more, just to be sure.

So, my friends, I cannot share any more photos of the actual lounge itself – aside from saying that it is more like a Middle Eastern oasis of comfy couches inside, as they are all arranged in squares around where the sheesha pipe and bottles can be placed conveniently for sharing. It provided a surprising sight to see – and quite a contrast from the industrial world outside.  Television was available on some walls, but not in an intrusive way. What’s more, I was told that the seats are heated – and so everything has been done to make sure that the customer’s comfort is a premium consideration (including when the weather is cold).

The one thing I noted though, when I walked in, was that there was no one on their own like me – just a couple and a few small groups of people chatting away in their areas sharing their sheesha. The other thing that struck me was the menu, which had a broad variety of sheesha tobacco flavours on it.  It also listed a few drinks too.

It was the latter that led me to think that I could at least take in the atmosphere, as I had no idea which sheesha would be good. Indeed, I did not even know how I ought to smoke it.  Clearly this was not a place for sheesha virgins, like me, to visit.

This observation struck me even more between the eyes when the waiter came over.

“So what sheesha would you like?”, he queried.

“Er, I don’t know”, I replied, “can I just get a coffee?”

“No”, he replied, “This is a sheesha café – and we only serve people who come in here to smoke sheesha”

“Oh!”, I replied – surprised, “well can you give me a few moments to have a think about it?”

“I’ll just go and check with the manager”, he replied.  So he went up to the front of the lounge and disappeared through a door.  At this point, I contemplated the menu to see if there was anything I might be able to handle on my own.  There were a wide variety of flavours – and “Apple and Cinnamon” stood out as one I’d probably be prepared to try.

I then looked at the price: was that £15?  Ouch, sheesha is not something to take lightly!!  A lot steeper than the price of a coffee, irrespective of whether you are a fan of the double macchiato with a twist (i.e. two shots of coffee with a spot of milk in a miniscule-sized cup – for much the same price as a big mug of latte). This indulgence was more like the price that a Westerner like me might expect to pay for a whiskey liqueur coffee – and then some….

Then the waiter came back.

“Everything is OK if you want to stay”, he said -and I saw the man who had indicated the way in to me standing at the entrance to the door that the waiter had gone through. Clearly he was the manager, and he smiled at me and gave a wave in the air where you turn your hand back to front – and I gave one back.  I had seen the same type of wave on my travels in the Middle East, and I knew it to be one used when a man recognises a friend that he wants to offer something to.

However I realised that I was not ready to take in this experience on my own.  So I thanked the waiter, telling him how great it had been to come in and see the place, and that I realised it is “really one to come and experience with your friends rather than be on your own.”

I also asked him to thank his manager for allowing me to come in, and in doing so I gave a open-handed wave to the manager again – in a gesture of farewell, and which I trusted to be one of gratitude too. The manager waved back in the same way, and at that point I stood up and walked resolutely out.

Epilogue

I will head over to revisit Basrah Lounge again however, and hope to make it my first place to try sheesha – but just do it with friends who I know and can appreciate the experience, as well as the uniqueness of Basrah Lounge, as it would seem a shame to waste what is clearly special and expensive tobacco on people who do not know the best way to take it. After all, it’s clearly much the same as for those who truly appreciate coffee both roasted and made well – or tea, for that matter.

Postscript

Certainly the lounge is named well – as Basra is the name of one of the more unique places I visited in Syria back in 1993.  That city was the only one where I have been able to wander around an almost perfectly preserved Roman amphitheatre. But that adventure, my friends, is a completely different story – and one I may tell one day, assuming you like to hear stories about retracing the steps taken in bringing silk to the Middle-East and Europe (and everything and everyone that came down along the roads with that) 

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Quest Base Camp

Before Ismail and I venture out to “our” sheesha café at the Park Royal, let me tell you about an idea I’ve had to allow you to participate in the quest too.

Allow me to introduce you to Quest Base Camp.  Otherwise known as The Taste of Chamberlayne, a great little café in NorthWest London serving Illy – IMHO the best Italian coffee – with the finest elements of Western Europe and the Middle-East, along with alfresco seating which has pretty flowers in planter boxes adorning its edges.  It’s not in France, Italy, Romania, Spain, Iran, Jordan or Syria however – but there are stories about all these places interwoven into its fabric with the people who work here, and the people who come here.

It has a big wide window at the front of the café which allows you to see out onto the street and enjoy watching the people passing by – like you might do on The Continent, or equally on the sidewalks of the places you might visit in the Middle East or North Africa.

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Oh, and it has great food too – with hints of the taste from all of the places mentioned above…

For me though, what makes it special is the feeling that this is on a road for people going somewhere, to lands far away and back. I think it has enough space and easygoing customer service – along with the food and coffee, of course – that people would be happy to come here and share their stories from far away, and equally receive one in return. 

Indeed, that’s what I want to help happen. The idea being that if you have a story about an unusual café that you want to talk about, and potentially have featured on this blog, then come to “Taste” (as it’s known for short by the locals here) and register your name in the Café Quest Visitors’ Book along with a way to contact you so we can receive and hear or read your a story. 

The ideal thing would be to hear what you consider to be an unusual café, and your story about the discovery of it – such as the stories you’ve heard from someone at the café, what food it serves (or perhaps HOW it serves it!), as well as what makes you feel or think that this café is unusual or different to the standard high street café in any small town or big city.  It could still be something that makes one of those small town or big city cafés stand out, however – even if they are part of a chain….

Posted in England, France, Italy, Kensal Rise, London, Middle East, Romania | 2 Comments

A Right Royal Sheesha

Continuing in the vein of cafes where you least expect them, a friend who runs one of my local cafes – in itself with a hint of alfresco Europe in the heart of London – tells me about a cafe in Park Royal that has been fashioned out of an old warehouse into a sheesha cafe with all the trimmings of old antique French and Arabic furniture.

What led us to discussing this was bemoaning some of the great places that have been lost to the traveller’s delight due to the troubles in Middle East, in places like Syria, Algeria and elsewhere.  I was particularly upset to hear about the old market, known in Arabic as a “souk“, in Aleppo.  It has been completely destroyed by fire recently.

I remember enjoying a tea in a carpet shop there, as tourists so often do in souks in different parts of the Middle East. The setting had been extraordinary there, as all the other shops in the souk that surrounded this place provided it with a heady smell of spices and other things that you can’t quite put a nose to (unless you are a local).  Then there was the bedazzlement  of the eye with the feast of colours from all the silks, pottery and silverware. The spices themselves are all bright and different colours (red, purple, yellow and green) and are poured in piles that make them look like mini sand dunes (or perhaps pyramids?).  I must to get some photos on here that show one of these places.

One would not expect to find places in London that are a patch like the tea and coffee shops in a souk there – although there are all the stylised places down Edgware Road that you might mistake for being like the thing you’d find somewhere in the Middle East.  However Ismail tells me that this cafe in Park Royal manages to capture the atmosphere, if not the full visual and olphactory experience you might get from a tea or coffee in a souk.

So here is another place to explore here in London, before I (once again) go to discover what new cafes are tucked away elsewhere in unusual places that you wouldn’t expect them – or that are simply unique or unusual regardless of wherever you might find them.

A story of mine and Ismail’s visit there will follow some time soon…

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Café Interlude

In Horta, a little place somewhere in The Azores, which is itself in The Atlantic midway between Europe and the U.S.A, there is a café which is renowned for people meeting to share their stories from having sailed from one side of The Atlantic to another.

I have yet to go there and find this café, however it sounds like it has to be one to add to the quest just for the seafaring stories that this would provide. 

It was my newfound friend, Philipe, who I met at photographers’ networking event, that passed on this piece de resistance of cafés extraordinaire. 

The conversation that led to him telling me about it began as we compared notes about what makes the difference between observing, and being observed, when hanging out at a café in London – and specifically Notting Hill (where we had just met and live or have lived in) – and compared with one somewhere in Paris or other big cities in France.

Those inside the café in France, Philipe tells me, are generally those who are passing through to grab a quick coffee at the counter and go. Perhaps sharing a story of the day just passed, or a thought for the day ahead.  You get to know the local community there. Those who sit out the front of the café are those seeking to observe the world passing by, either musing by themselves or philosophising with friends.

The cafés in Paris (and other parts of France) charge a premium for this world of musing and philosophising, whereas in London and the UK no distinction is made between the observers and the storytellers. 

In Horta, no such distinction could possibly be made, as everyone is transient and there only to have some respite from being afloat on the high seas.  Most likely, Philipe muses, the stories and the philosophy would abound about surviving that storm at sea as much as comparing notes on how to combat the next part of the journey.  What pictures these sea- and sun-burnt sailors must be inside or outside of this café.  A far cry from the café of either of the big cities we know, and one perhaps where the same people may only be seen perhaps once in a lifetime – with the tales taller than those the sailors’ masts or mizzens

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Just an ordinary café?

Back in 1992, almost twenty years ago to the day, coffee and café culture was almost unknown in Great Britain.

When you ordered a coffee, it was typically one type – percolated (aka filter) – and often served in a mug, rather than a cup. In the “greasy spoons” – which is the collective name for those little establishments that serve little more than a full English breakfast of bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, toast and either fried or scrambled eggs – it was an alternative to a mug of tea and instant, generally Nescafé.

The former was the case with the café I ended up frequenting, but the friendly ladies running it somehow served in a way that made the coffee and the mug hold just the right level of warmth for me – even without it being a latte, cappuccino or “flat white” (as is now popular).

I think the experience was tinged by the fact that my return to England was not an easy one, as my mother had contracted a terminal illness called multiple myelloma in the year before – and so I had spent four months back in my native New Zealand watching her fade away, starved of oxygen by the inability of the red blood corpuscles being able to reproduce (as this is what this vicious form of cancer does).

Grief had left me feeling numb at first – and I later understood that this is typical, but for some reason I took comfort in going to this little café just off the market in Dartford. 

The café is (or was?) a place where elderly ladies – or middle-aged mums and their grown-up daughters – met for morning or afternoon tea, and drank tea out of nice china cups along with nicely cut sandwiches or freshly made cake to go with it.  Yet it did a great cup of filter coffee too, and the best scones with strawberry jam and double cream.  It was a new girlfriend of mine, who worked as the Market Officer on the Dartford Market, who had introduced me to it – and so became the place we met on Saturdays after she did her work.

Thinking back on it now, I think it was as much the comfort of seeing “the blue rinse set” enjoying their outing together that I remember and somehow liked about going there – as I had somehow managed to miss that time of my mother’s life, although she was only 70 when she died, as I had spent 5 or more years working and travelling (and oblivious to her getting older, perhaps down to me having been the child she had had in her forties and so used to her always being older than other mums).

Now I am back here again, in old Blighty – twenty years later – I must go back to that café and see if it is still there, perhaps even down to posting photographs of it in an update to this blog post, and with a view to seeing what it was that made it stick in my mind as being a place to include on the list of cafés on my quest.  

Certainly it seemed to sum up the classically twee tea shop, yet somehow be curiously comforting to me in my early stages of grieving. I wonder if anyone else has had this kind of experience with what would otherwise be “just an ordinary café”.

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Outside the Sad Café

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.

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From Kings Cross to Somewhere in Paris

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.

Posted in France, Kings Cross, London, Paris | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment