For the last ten years I have been part of a phenomenon that has enriched my life immensely. It started out simply. I had returned from a trip to Italy where I had enjoyed the neighbourhood cafés and the ambience that they offered. I loved to sit and watch the local residents dropping in for their morning espresso and a quick chat with the baristas and the others gathered in the café. A sense of community in action before my eyes and something I seemed to see more of in Europe than I had in my home in Canada. It drew me back to Europe several more times. But what I really longed for was to have that same sense at home.
Frankly I was not consciously searching for something specifically missing in my life and was not even really aware of any big holes in my life but still I looked longingly at the Italian café experience. There was something there that appealed to me.
As luck would have it, shortly after returning to Canada I was telling a friend about our wonderful trip and she told me about a new café in our city that I might be interested in. It sounded wonderful, Italian style with great coffee and delicious baking. My curiosity and longing for the mood of the Italian café got me to there that same day: A small corner building that had had a life as a convenience store and a laundromat housed this new café. Okay let’s see what this is all about.
My heart skipped a beat when I entered the door. The aroma of the espresso, the people gathered around the bar and the feel of the place was like heaven on earth. I was thrilled! It felt like being back in Italy. The cappuccino I ordered was so very Italian. Happy to use my limited Italian I said “grazie mille” to the very Italian looking young man making the coffee and was on my way. This would be a great place for me to stop to have a cappuccino after Pilates and before I drove to my office. This was exciting, a new place to go and such good coffee. Little did I know that the quality of the coffee was just the tip of the iceberg.
Going to the café every couple of days quickly became a regular practice. Even though it was sometimes hard to find a place to park I would make the effort for the experience. After only a few visits to the café I knew the name of the barista and he knew mine and used it every time I walked in the door. What a wonderful feeling to walk into a place and be greeted by name! I was even more delighted when my cappuccino was sitting waiting for me when I walked in. My friend the barista explained that when he would see me parking my car, he just got to it and made my favoured beverage. I was impressed. I felt so welcomed. No surprise that I also started to go there more often.
My practice was pretty much the same each time I went there. I would go in, greet the barista and start sipping my delicious coffee as I stood by the bar with whoever was gathered there that morning. The conversation varied and sometimes I would join in and other times I would just listen. After all I did not know any of these people and I had wrongly assumed they did know each other. In actual fact pretty well everyone standing around the bar was there on their own and did not know the others. That separateness changed rapidly. I would be introduced to someone by the barista, other times I would introduce myself to someone and when new people joined the group they were introduced to all around. Over time the regulars all knew each other at least by first name. This was not a homogeneous group. Some of my new pals were my age but some were younger than my own children. Most of them were male but I was not the only female. Everyone was off to a different place after our shared time over coffee but the discussion of “what do you do?” did not come up too often so where everyone went to was a mystery.
Through our early morning coffee conversation we began to discover common interests and concerns, things that connected us in some way. We laughed, shared information about events happening in the city, we talked about many things like cars, kids, houses and homes, and we ranted about decisions made by local and provincial politicians. I looked forward to going to the café wondering who might be there, where our conversation would take us. Would someone new come along and join the group?
I was loving this new found place of companionship, conversation and coffee. Now it was not like I did not have any other social connections. I have a large extended family and many friends. We take part in many social events over the course of a year and host many events in our home so what made this café experience stand out?
In retrospect it is difficult to pinpoint the factors that made this place so special early on in the experience. So much has happened over the last ten years. Such deep and varied friendships and relationships have developed over the decade of delight that it is hard to put the happening into words. While happily playing in the waves of the ocean one tends to forget the steps one took getting in there. But I have put some thought into those initial steps and have discovered some of the magic.
Here was a place where I was openly welcomed and where I felt valued. I wasn’t just the cappuccino at 8:30 AM; no I was Irene who also happened to like her cappuccinos. Here was a place where I met a wide variety of individuals who like me loved to take time enough over coffee to have conversations about things that we jointly valued and sometimes things that we did not agree on but we enjoyed the discussion nonetheless. I felt a sense of belonging to something bigger than me and the traditional groups that I was familiar with, family, work colleagues, neighbourhood friends. Here was an opportunity to meet, talk with and develop relationships with people of all ages and from all walks of life. Here my longing for the feeling of the cafes of Italy was a reality. Here was my community.
As my philosopher friend Van Morrison says in his song: These are the days
These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart
I hold my days at the cafe forever in my heart.
Irene McDermott © 2011