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3 April 2024

I had an epiphany. I had fallen in love with a café

It’s not trendy, but you can always get a table and there’s a soothing background hum of coffee brewing and plates clinking. It feels like home.

By Tracey Thorn

About a year ago I fell in love with a café. It isn’t a new café, or even new to me. In fact, it is a place I have visited on and off for close to 40 years, although sometimes with long gaps. It’s not a trendy café, or a gourmet café, or the type of place that features on Instagram. No one is photographing their drink, or their breakfast, or themselves in front of their breakfast. There’s never a queue, always a table, and the coffee is good.

I don’t go every day, but several times a week now, and it all started out of necessity when my niggling, incrementally worsening knee problem began to interfere with my long morning walks. These walks had become my start to every day during lockdown, and took me up steep hills, across the uneven ground of the heath, to a place where I’d have a coffee and then do the whole walk again in reverse. Last spring, thanks to the knee, I adjusted my schedule, doing a shorter, easier walk with a halfway rest in a café nearer to home. This café is the one I’ve been talking about.

At first it felt like a defeat, or at the very least, a miserable compromise. I wasn’t where I really wanted to be. I felt cheated, and also ashamed – it was poor form of me not to be able to walk properly any more. Yes, these thoughts in my head, they’re not always helpful, but what can you do.

Anyway, this all went on for a few weeks, until one day I had a sudden epiphany, which was this: I had fallen in love with the compromise café, and it felt like home. I posted casually on Twitter about how much I loved sitting there, and especially the background hum – the coffee machine brewing, the clinking of plates and cutlery, the microwave going ping, the radio out back in the kitchen, other people’s conversations. I commented on how soothing it is, and was overwhelmed with replies. Seems you all love a café.

People told me about YouTube pages, or Spotify playlists, or – all sites where you can listen to ambient café sounds. It is generally agreed to be not just soothing but conducive to work, which is probably why so many people now seem to set up for the day at a corner table with a laptop.

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Other replies reminded me of songs that have tried to capture the vibe. Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” for instance, where these lines – “There’s a woman on the outside/Looking inside, does she see me?/No she does not really see me/’Cause she sees her own reflection” – speak to me about that connected-but-separate feeling you can have in a café; the way in which you are socially present but invisible, no one really paying you any attention.

Although I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I do pay attention sometimes to nearby tables, and love the snatches of conversation I overhear, the little fleeting glimpses of other people’s lives. I started recording fragments in my diary: “I was sat in the café earlier this morning, two conversations going on around me, one about human rights, and the other about camper vans.” “And in the café this morning, a builder stares at his phone which is playing Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’, from another table comes a heated argument about the Covid enquiry.”

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to fully appreciate the joy to be found here. And what’s more, it’s a movable feast. This week Ben and I are away for a couple of days at the seaside. It’s mid-morning, he’s out on the shingle looking at curlews through his scope, and I have found a café. The tables are scrubbed wood, there are home-made flapjacks on the counter. A man nearby is talking about whether the house he and his wife have bought is actually too remote; two women are comparing notes on how the Not Drinking is going. Eggs are poaching, toast is toasting. The coffee machine is humming. I’m home.

[See also: At 32, I am only just getting over the concept of time difference]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown