Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Proud to Serve

"You'd never find Satre in an English cafe for two reasons. A: No Satre. B: No cafes."
– George Steiner (quoted in The English by Jeremy Paxman)

In much of Europe, the States, North Africa and other places too, a waiter is a respectful job. Go to Paris, Portugal or New Orleans. Go to Barcelona and have some tapas with your Rosé (and not be called a poof). Being a waiter isn't an embarrassing job. You can meet people who have been waiters for forty years and they're proud and dignified. Here in England, the job of waiter or barman is largely seen as menial, and now, mostly, Polish. In England, the culture of binge-drinking in pubs followed by a kebab prevails. Other countries are so much more civilised – and life is on the street. Life in England is a series of frustrating boxes – home, work, pub, home.

In Tangier, Morocco, we had freshly grilled sardines (free) with every beer we ordered. Or even just some nuts. But it makes all the difference. For most of the world a drink and a meal go hand in hand. But not England. Drink as much as possible in a short a space as possible. Have a kebab afterwards. We're so uncivilised. The English eat to get full and drink to get drunk. Period.

Cafe society doesn't exist in England like it does in, say, Paris. There's no sitting around to watch the world go by – it's boring here, and besides, there's no time. We have a lot of coffee shops – but the word shop gives the game away. They're places to drink milky coffee as fast as possible and go. In Europe you could spend hours nursing a single espresso or glass of vino, discussing Dostoevsky or Steve Reich (say). In England, it's guzzle down that mucafuckachino as fast as possible to make your next PowerPoint(less) presentation.

Never admit to being an intellectual or artist in a pub (or anywhere, for that matter). I tried playing chess with a friend in a quiet Wiltshire town on a Sunday afternoon. We were (literally) chased out by stoned skinheads with grudges to bear. Yet I've played chess in cafes all over the world – Egypt, Spain, Bali, Sydney – where it seemed perfectly natural. The skinheads in the Wiltshire pub had never seen chess played in a pub before (this was one of their grudges).

I quite like the little cafe in Battersea Park, over-looking the boating pond. It's an Italian family run place, with the head waiter proud and jovial. Okay, the food isn't great and it's overpriced but it has a nice family atmosphere.

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