It’s a Saturday in mid July around 12 noon. I’m sitting outside at a café. I’ve chosen an open-face sandwich on thick rye, piled with a layer of hummus and topped with a little salad of sliced cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, green onions, and baby arugula, my glass of California Rose sweating in the sun. The young Latino server tells me that the owner just returned from Holland and that this is what the Dutch are eating.
Okay, so I’m not traveling to some iconic spot this summer, not Rome, the Costa Smeralda, or Lake Cuomo. But I’m here at this café, a mile’s walk along the water from my house, and doing in part what I would be doing on vacation, walking for hours, sitting outside in cafes, watching local people, exchanging random conversation.
Not to be confused with coffee shops, which are small restaurants, cafes in the past could be found only in Italian neighborhoods, especially in New York and San Francisco. They were indoor spaces and truly coffee-centric with a few pastries. Now, thankfully, they are everywhere. I have three within a mile of where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, all with outdoor seating but each one with its own personality, with different menus and different visitors. Wine and sandwiches are part of the mix now as we learn to pause and smell some of the roses on our own turf.
Three women and a man sit at a nearby table, all attractive 20-something Asians. One of the young women has long black hair, full make-up, her tall delicate frame teetering on three-inch heels. The man holds an imposing camera and is taking occasional shots of the street while they wait for food, half of his I Phone protruding from his back pocket. He trusts life.
An extremely tall thin man, close to seven feet, exits the café and lurches down the street in slow motion, his shoulders hunched with age. He’s wearing trousers the color of the sun, a collared shirt in a lighter shade of the same tint, and a soft-brimmed tan hat. I wonder about his life and how it dressed him this way at this moment.
Another man, older and overweight, reads to a five year-old nestled against his side. She interrupts him with her own version of the pictures he points to. A woman joins them, and I know by the way she sits next to him that he is her husband instead of her father.
I overhear two middle aged women with a seemingly intimate friendship, discussing a couple they both know. They have slight undefined accents, but they’re speaking fluent English. “He said…. She said…, and then he did….”
We get up from our chairs and spend the next two hours walking in and out of shops, including a small bookstore, because books are better than Kindles.
I’m not saying that travel isn’t great, only that some of the reasons we travel, to enjoy exotic locations and unfamiliar people, have become part of our own domestic reality, especially if we live in urban centers. And the casual café is a great place anywhere to observe a particular community.