Friday, January 08, 2010


My fancy, expensive Italian espresso machine has broken down. It is still under warranty and everything should be fine soon, but this leads me to the problem of where to go to get my needed doses of espresso. I am living in Bermondsey in South East London at the moment, which is ethnically rich, but has only a few patches of what might be called "globalised London": those areas that are filled with national and particularly international chains of stores, trendy Italianate cafes patronised by yuppies, and that kind of thing. One area that does qualify is Borough, which has its fair share of Starbucks and Caffe Nero outlets, plus other places with Wifi and espresso that are adjunct to fashion museums. It's a nice area, actually. I might consider moving there when I have a bit more income.

One place that almost qualifies is Greenwich, which is today a mixture of traditional working class, people who work at the financial office complex at Canary Wharf, people associated with the various museums and historic sites there, and has also had enough brownfield sites and regeneration that a certain kind of boutique business can operate there. (For instance, the Meantime Brewing Company, which makes specialty beers - quite an ambitious company that you would describe as "independent" but is now a bit too big to count as "boutique"). Anyway, this was one place to go for coffee, so on one day between Christmas and New Year, I went there for coffee. Many businesses were closed but there were lots of tourists around, so the obvious coffee venues with sort of okay coffee (Starbucks and Costa) were packed with people and I went looking for somewhere else as I wanted to avoid the crowds. As it happens, Greenwich is yuppified enough to have Starbucks and Costa, but not so yuppified as to have decent independent coffee shops.

I ended up wandering to a cinema. The Greenwich PictureHouse is one of those cinemas that looks like an arthouse but mostly plays mainstream Hollywood films, and is ideal for those sorts of customers who wouldn't deign to walk into a multiplex but none the less want to see Avatar. I don't tend to go there to watch movies - if I want mainstream Hollywood there are cheaper places with different ambiance but equally good technical presentation in South East London. There is a decent chance of finding an acceptable cafe in such a cinema, though, so I went in hoping to find one. As it happened, there is a Spanish tapas bar in the same building, with a door going directly from the tapas bar into the lobby of the cinema. I went in and asked if I could simply sit down and have a coffee. The waiter's response was "of course" and I sat down and had an excellent Spanish style cafe cortado.

The funny thing about this is that I asked if I could sit down and just have coffee. In a tapas bar in Spain, I wouldn't dream of asking such a thing, as it would be assumed and in fact the bar would be full of people doing just this, or just having a small glass of wine or beer. In Spain there would be a bar as well as table seating, and I would probably sit at the bar. At this place in London, no bar.

Tapas restaurants in London are a little odd. People tend to order tapas style dishes from a printed menu in the way they would at some other restaurant, and to make a full meal of them in one place. They might order a few dishes to share, or they might order these same dishes to consume individually. The Spanish custom of having one small dish with each drink doesn't seem to apply.

I confess I find this general rigidity between "restaurant", "cafe", and "bar" in the UK (and my native Australia, too) rather annoying. I find the Spanish drinking culture far more pleasant than the English drinking culture. You drink over a longer period of time, and you drink small glasses of wine or beer. You also constantly eat little items of food with your drinks, so that "Consume huge quantities of alcohol on an empty stomach" thing that exists in England doesn't apply. (As the place where you would go to consume coffee is the same place you would go to have a beer, it is much easier to (say) drink coffee when you are in the company of people drinking alcohol and you wish to refrain from doing that, too). Tapas works best when you have a large number of bars in a relatively small area of town, and you hop from bar to bar having one drink and one small item of food in each. In some parts of Spain (Madrid, parts of Andalucia, Leon, and the Asturias) the tapas is free: you order a drink and an item of food comes with it. This of course leads to waiters sending complex messages to you about whether they like you are not by what they give you, but it is none the less a nice tradition.

Relatively little of this translates well to London, particularly when you only visit one venue. Which leads to my doing things such as ask whether it is okay to sit in a tapas bar and ask whether I can just have coffee. Many of the people just down the road might have liked to do this, too, but for mostly cultural reasons they didn't.

The other place I have found myself drinking espresso is an Algerian cafe in Old Kent Road. This place sells excellent coffee for half the cost of Starbucks, and people at the other tables are either eating French style pastries or African style chicken dishes with rice. There is a television at the back of the room which is usually showing France 24 (which is full of programs about the minute details of whatever is going on in the EU) and occasionally showing African football matches. (Algeria are playing in the African Nations Cup tomorrow, which might make it a fun afternoon to go there, although it is greatly sad that terrorist scum have ruined that tournament). The background volume in the cafe is a mixture of French and Arabic. It's a no hold bars ethnic place: people of an Anglo background are barely an afterthought. However, as is normally the case, it's completely friendly if I walk in. I am just someone who wants a coffee and my money is as good as the next person's.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

How I am not cool

The scene: Sydney, Australia. The year 2000. Michael is talking to a girl

Girl: Have you been to Soho?
Michael: Soho in London, SoHo in New York, or Soho in Hong Kong? Yes in all three cases.
Girl: No, the club in Darling Harbour.
Michael: Oh.

(Girl loses interest and wanders off)

Blog Archive