I have a little group of friends with whom I get together several times a week. Actually, there are five of us who form the core of this group and we have been meeting informally for about an hour a day for about two and a half years. I jokingly refer to them as my Kaffee–Klatsch which is a German term with the following definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
Kaffeeklatsch is a German phrase translating literally as “coffee chat”. This is the type of casual conversation, small talk and especially gossip enjoyed by housewives who meet in the afternoon for a cup of coffee. Kaffeeklatsch is also used to describe such a gathering itself.
It is occasionally used in a more specific and derogatory sense to mean a group of people who waste time talking rather than doing.
When you work from home as I do, it helps to be able to get out and make contact, remind yourself that there is a greater world out there and to get some intellectual stimulation. The location for this coffee drinking and life-dissection ritual has moved within the neighbourhood over time but has come to rest in a little cafe in East Vancouver called La Bella Napoli. It’s a narrow, unprepossessing, little space wedged between an Asian green-grocer and a poultry shop. The north-bound Commercial Drive bus stops right outside the door on its way downtown through the notoriously poorer part of the city. The Napoli is run by a Canadian woman of Italian extraction whose father ran it before her. She’s a good business woman and runs a tight ship.
When you walk in the door, she, or one of her employees, greets you by name and knows what your ‘regular’ is. It’s soon on the table without you having to ask for it. The smokers, including her and her husband, are accommodated on an outside deck at the back or on a tiny patio at the front. Often regulars clear their own table and put their cups behind the counter, yelling their greetings as they come and go. Although we’re well-behaved cafe-goers, our Kaffee-Klatsch talk about some unusual subjects and are often eavesdropped upon from other tables close by. This past autumn we picked up a guy from another table that way and incorporated him into our group! He’s Iranian and is currently teaching theatre to a group of kids in Istanbul, and expected back at the end of July.
Topics of conversation range from art and artists (a lot of that!), to politics, culture, the supernatural, health, biology/chemistry/physics, the media, crossword puzzles, minority rights, conspiracy theories, books, child-rearing, recipes and death, to anme just a few. No holds barred! Our informal founder and the mover behind the group is a German, artist friend of mine who is ten years my senior. Her partner, in his late seventies, is Canadian-American and an accomplished artist and sculptor with a career as a master plasterer behind him. Our third member, a similar age and now also retired, is Danish and our master crossword puzzler. (I tease him by watching over his shoulder) Then comes me, the youngster of the group, and finally, a retired biochemist researcher, born in Hong Kong and also a portrait painter. You could call us diverse!
This diversity is partly what feeds us and I’ll hazard a guess that we help to feed the people who sup coffee around us. There are the three, wide-as-they-are-tall, and not very tall, old Italian gentlemen who come in for their espresso every afternoon, removing their hats, of course. They greet us in their broken English and ask after any one of us who isn’t there that day. There’s the woman who comes in with her two young boys whom we’ve been watching grow up. There’s the tall Estonian photographer, with his camera bag, who drinks espresso and speaks his native tongue with his much shorter compatriot. There’s the postal worker who drives a Canada Post delivery truck and lives down the back lane. There’s the woman we’ve code-named ‘Shirley Temple’ who wears fifties-style flared and petty-coated skirts and her hair in pig-tails. These are just the people who come in in the hour that we do each day! And there’s the tourists who come in wide-eyed, having read the blurbs about authentic Italian cafes along ‘The Drive’, and who don’t know what the system is for ordering. Everyone is taken in stride.
Our little group is often joined by any of our founder’s three grown kids and her grandchildren. Sometimes we see some of the artists from her and her partner’s drawing and painting group, Basic Inquiry. We had a sculptor join us yesterday. I’m getting quite the art education. Occasionally my mother drops by, or my friends when they’re here from out of town, or anyone’s friends who are visiting. Sometimes our numbers swell to nine or ten and then we have to pull over extra tables.
I’ve never been a person who liked the night-life bar scene. I don’t like music so loud that it makes my ears hurt. I’m not a big drinker. I don’t like smoke, or didn’t in the era when you could smoke in all the bars. I always wished that there was a local place where I could find someone interesting to talk to for an hour or two without having to ‘hang out on the make’. Cafes like the one we frequent build community. They give you a place to go and hear the local gossip, news and issues, and even contribute your two-cents-worth. The concept and the urge to commune is as old as humankind adn it’s coming back into vogue.
Cities are becoming so big that I find it’s hard to make contact – hard to know where to start. I guess I’m shy to some extent and not comfortable sitting beside a stranger and just starting up a conversation. The bigger the community, the less likely I am to do that. Perhaps this is what makes huge cities so potentially alienating for me. I have to say that Lena, the woman who runs the Napoli, is really good at introducing people to one another, and although she’s not pushy or interfering, she notices who’s alone and chats with them as she swipes the table next to them. Eavesdropping is almost a requirement for cafe life and a reason a cafe needs to be fairly tightly packed with tables. If they’re too far apart, you don’t meet anyone.
I highly recommend the Kaffee–Klatsch. I’m socially, intellectually and humorously stimulated and feel more a part of my community. Besides, it gives me something to write about!