Cafe Culture

Are you able to work in a creative sense in a cafe? I can sometimes. A lot depends on what I’m working on and whether the sounds and smells around me are overwhelming. Some cafes are really noisy, others have a low background hum spiced with fragments of conversation which can be wound into possible future stories or just provide an interesting point of reference. People are largely unguarded in a cafe – they might be catching up with friends or having a conversation on the phone. Yes, even those one-sided conversations can provide a spark of interest for the eavesdropping writer.

One of my more memorable cafe experiences happened in a small country town. The promise of coffee and raisin toast lulled me inside, along with the cafe’s description as an emporium. After I ordered I had a wander around the cafe which had various shelves, book cases and tables set up with preloved goods. It was one of those places where you would probably see something different each time you visit.

There was a clutch of women at a couple of tables at the front of the cafe, and in the absence of any background music it was impossible not to hear the conversation between the group. I was writing up some notes on some things I’d spotted whilst roaming around the village, but within a short period of time the conversation caught my attention and I felt the need to jot down some of the things that one woman in particular was saying. It isn’t something I would normally do, but I felt like she may have been putting on a performance for an outside audience and it was too good to ignore.

I started to type up some of the phrases that the woman was saying. The trick was that as she was speaking, the woman was also bouncing around the shop, touching this, inspecting that. There were other people in the cafe but they were all women who seemed to know each other and weren’t particularly bothered by her antics.

I was jotting some of the colourful phrases down when suddenly she swooped towards me, placed a hand on my shoulder and asked me what I was doing.

‘Don’t mind me, love, I’m a bit nosy.’

Fortunately I had seen her approach and had managed to flick to another screen. Unfortunately it was a browser window which featured an in-depth article about a murder that had taken place in the town. My claim that I was just reading up on some local news probably didn’t ring true, but she tapped my shoulder and moved on to the next thing of interest.

I wasn’t being deliberately misleading or intrusive. Being able to catch turns of phrase or unguarded moments of conversation is good training for a writer’s ear. Often we speak in a kind of shorthand, or sentences drift off. There can be a lot of murmuring or hand gestures or facial expressions which don’t necessarily translate into the written word. But the cadences and rhythm can be picked up and this can help to provide an authentic tone to a future piece of written dialogue.

It isn’t unusual to be sitting at a cafe and working on a laptop or device. I’m not saying that the person that looks focused on something in front of them is recording your every word and gesture. But you might be inspiring them to some authentic writing in the future!

There is an entertaining post from Pauline Conolly about writers and cafes which you can find here.

[Photo: hot chocolate with home-made marshmallow at Paragon Cafe, Katoomba (before it closed) – one of my favourite scribble spots]

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Journal Jottings

One of the many benefits to keeping a journal, regardless of frequency, is the option to revisit times past and impressions as at a certain point in time. Not everything is recorded, of course, but there is a delight in coming across scribblings which capture a particular moment.

A few months back I travelled to Central Station in Sydney before heading off on the Indian Pacific to Adelaide. I arrived at Central early to book in luggage, and as I waited I wrote the following.

Central Station; Cafe Du Nord. Cafe with French vibe, jazz music, copies of French Impressionists on the wall.

Wizened little old lady on the way to Kyogle via Brisbane. Train passes through on way, around 3 am, too early to stop or get someone to collect her. So she travels through to Brisbane then doubles back.

She has been on the Indian Pacific from Broken Hill to Sydney; was tacked into a carriage which was latched onto the end to carry the overflow of passengers. She is planning to take the Ghan later this year as the only capital cities she’s missed visiting are Adelaide and Darwin. She spoke of her trip to Broken Hill with her husband before he left (she didn’t know he was going); they took advantage of fortnight travel holiday packages where you could travel anywhere in the state on the railway. They went to Broken Hill, down to Albury, swept back up the north coast. Accommodation was included in the package so it was an economical and enjoyable way to travel.

Surprised at the absence of shops and cafes at the station, just a couple downstairs in Eddy Avenue. In my memory the place was bristling with shops selling food, umbrellas, flowers, tours. The only constant is change.

Passing through the inner suburbs towards Central, glimpses of backyards, flashes of kingfisher blue pools, the houses have the rattle of the railway embedded into their fabric. The disarray and dishevelment of the railway workshops, once a thriving, bustling locus of activity.

The awkwardness of some travellers, the jostling of luggage, flying missiles of drink bottles, thumping against other people as they make their way with a singular focus.

The heady joy of eavesdropping. Railway staff speaking of station inspections and audits. I’d given no thought to it but of course there would be protocols around this. The easy ebb and flow of conversation between two older ladies, travelling together, comfortable in silences as well as idle crumbs of chatter. No juicy gossip here, just vignettes of thoughts, perceptions, observations.

It is the time of year for the tang of mandarins. Such a distinct fizz on the air as the skin is broken, carved up by a thumbnail.

Do you jot down thoughts as you travel?

[Photo: part of the magnificent old railway station at Temora, NSW]