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Cafe culture: Glen Mutel

Whether you’re there to eat, drink, chat or just people watch, an afternoon in a cafe is time extremely well spent

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At the entrance to the overpriced, two-bedroom flat I rent, there’s an odd, isolated little landing, no bigger than a pool table. For years I wasn’t sure quite what to do with it, so it became a halfway house for washing, dirty boots and unpacked boxes.

Then, earlier this year, on my way home from work, I spotted a discarded little wrought iron table, the kind you might find outside a Parisian cafe. Inspired, I nabbed it, put it in the middle of my odd little landing and added a chair, some wooden bookcases and a few framed pictures.

In a stroke, I’d transformed this ugly utility area into something far more pleasurable. And while the thought of a middle-aged man pretending his landing is a cafe might seem a bit tragic to you, the sight of this table and chair still pleases me — no matter how cluttered and chaotic my tiny flat feels, there’s now always a place to sit, and read, or sip, or just daydream.

Cafes are a real passion of mine. They seem to be where I spend a lot of my money and much of my time, so maybe it’s fitting that a part of my home should now resemble one.

I think what I like about them is their flexibility. A cafe is a place where you can order as much or as little as you like, from any part of the menu, in any order, and take as long as you want to consume it.

When my daughter was a baby, this was a real lifesaver. During this period I clocked up countless hours in cafes, restoring my frayed spirits with a coffee and a book, praying the hiss of the coffee machine wouldn’t wake her up. The longer she slept, the more I’d eat and drink, adding to my order in sporadic little increments.

This flexibility is taken to an almost implausible extreme on the Continent. In the cafes of Italy, Spain or Portugal, you can nurse a coffee for an age and nobody minds. I once spent a delightful afternoon in a cafe on a little square in Venice. I must have been sat there for about four hours, nibbling, sipping and smugly watching passing tourists argue as they wilted in the heat. Yet at no point was I put under pressure to leave or speed up my spending. In fact, when it was time to go it took me 10 minutes to find anyone to pay.

These days, my fondness for cafes and my love of travel seem inexorably intertwined. To me, there’s no better way to gain a sense of place, especially in Europe, whether you’re slurping French onion soup on a pavement in Paris or enjoying ridiculously rich chocolate cake in Vienna. At their best, the cafes of the Continent are elegant, often historic, life-affirming environments. And they cater just as well for starry-eyed couples as they do for fatigued families and boisterous groups of friends.

But I feel their true value lies in the service they provide the unaccompanied. Cafe culture really props up the solo traveller. When you’re beating your own path, there are only so many churches, museums, palaces and galleries you can visit before weariness sets in. At which point, why not find a seat, grab a menu and spend a lazy afternoon watching the locals go about their business?

I realise this might make me sound old. Well, it’s a passion that has certainly developed with age. When I was young, the thought of sitting alone in a public place used to terrify me. I imagined if I sat by myself in a cafe or pub I’d just look sad and friendless to others. I’m sure plenty of young travellers still feel this way.

But these days I’m a parent, and as every new parent knows, time alone isn’t something to fear — it’s something to be treasured. And where better to spend this precious time than in elegant surroundings, with something worth drinking, something worth reading and something worth watching — if only so you can tell yourself that this represents how you’re living your life, and not pretending that your pokey little flat is a European cafe.

 

Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)