As will become increasingly clear a lot of things cause me to suffer inordinate panic: seeing an acquaintance down the street, for instance. I would rather not deal with awkward small talk and having to fret about whether a handshake is necessary or a ‘hello’ with hands in pocket will suffice. Rather I would avoid the situation altogether by crossing the road, reading my book intently (as if anyone can actually read while walking) or ducking into a store and buying something I don’t want (given my other fear of feeling like a thief if I walk out of a shop without buying anything). Another situation that causes me to think too much and, in doing so, ruin whatever enjoyment I had managed to scrape together is going to cafes.
Now, for those who are not perpetually stressed out about nothing, going to a cafe is a pleasant thing to do. It is a chance to unwind, have a coffee, read the paper, absorb the ambience etc. For me, however, it is the process of renting a seat for a period of time and getting out before a waiter evicts you. In other words, going to a cafe is, for me at least, a game, a terrifying game.
How long is there between arrival and eviction? Well, it is here where things get stressful, there is no official time (in fact for most people there is probably no unofficial time either). Thankfully I have devised my own cafe seat rental formula: 1 coffee x 1 people= .5 hours, 1 coffee x 2 people= 1 hours, 1 lunch x 1 people= 1 hour, 1 lunch + 1 coffee x 1 person= 1.5 hours and so on.
I now adhere to these time limits whenever I go to a cafe at which I am not a regular. I do call myself a regular at one cafe and there I do not apply my rules, much to the chagrin of the cafe I am sure, I once spent three hours there after one measly double espresso. Also, if you arrive after somebody else and they are still there when you are ready to go the rules do not apply and you should make a point of staying as long as they do. That way you can point to them when a waiter tries to evict you. My rules have generally served me well, I may no longer derive any pleasure from going to a cafe but at least I am definitely not overstaying my welcome.
However, what happens when I go to a cafe/bar on the other side of the planet? My watertight algorithms burst apart. It seems to me that in Spain, as in Italy, cafes are a routine part of the day. They serve a function: deliver coffee to a person who otherwise has better things to do. People don’t seem to mull over their espresso for lack of anything better to do. In Melbourne mulling takes up a great deal of my time, so you can imagine my horror when I noticed four people, one after the other, walk into the cafe I had chosen, greet the barista, bang down their coffees, farewell the barista and depart in the time it took me to sip away my own cafe ‘americano’ (long black) and open my Spanish newspaper to look at the pictures (I cannot understand the articles). My cafe-rent equation appeared defunct.
In the desperate vacuum that opened up I resorted to contingency measures, i.e. guessing how much time a coffee would buy me. Last night, this situation saw me quaffing red wine after I finished my coffee too quickly, this morning I visited three separate cafes, each within three blocks of the other, within an hour.
At the third cafe, however, two gentlemen entered at the same time as me, with newspapers and went not to the bar but to a table for their coffees. Noticing this I resolved to have my third coffee while keeping an eye on how long these two guys stayed around. After half an hour one of them got up, paid and left. I felt vindicated, my Melbourne timings had held strong after all.
I am absolutely certain that that man did not leave the cafe because in the corner there sat a very wired Australian staring at him and glancing at his watch a lot.