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Contented Coffee Shop

Posted on Monday 26th February 2007 at 00:00
On Saturday 18th September 2004 I left home for the first time in my life and moved to Bristol to begin my degree course. I spent the day unpacking and gradually getting to know my new flat mates. By the early evening I'd been out shopping, having located the nearest shops on a map I'd been given, and was now itching to see some more of the city that was to become my home for the next few years.

Lizzy - a rather round Welsh girl - and I, met a few of her friends from another hall of residence and we set off for a look around. The original plan was to go to a Star Bucks we'd seen nearby, but it was closed, so instead we found ourselves on a small coffee shop which stood, and still stands, on the corner of Baldwin Street, Clare Street and Colston Avenue. I ordered a hot chocolate, as I didn't drink coffee at the time, and we sat outside in the fading light of a chilly September afternoon and watched the people go by.

Ever since that day I've been most fond of the idea of spending one's time in coffee shops and other similar public places. It seems the right way to spend one's youth, whether it be with a book, a laptop, or simply with a drink and maybe a small cake, observing humanity all around you. I often hear or read of people employing their free time in such a manner, either as a source of inspiration for some creative work, or simply to fulfil the desire for a change of scenery once in a while, and they always paint the most appealing picture of urban leisure time I can possibly imagine.

It was partly for this reason that I found myself in Star Bucks in Broadmead at around 4pm on Saturday afternoon. I'd had a fairly fruitless shopping expedition and was cold, tired and thirsty and so decided to take refuge in somewhere where I could correct all these ills at once, whilst also planning out the rest of my afternoon.

It was busy inside, so I immediately went upstairs, where I expected to find more of the small, hard chairs and tables that occupied the lower level. Here though there were leather sofas, and soft arm chairs, and easy listening jazz music. It was as busy as downstairs, but for some reason didn't feel so. The atmosphere was happy and relaxed, and I gradually felt the stress of the shopping melting away, if you'll excuse the clich'd description.

I found a sofa and sat down with my medium size latte and a chocolate chip cookie the size of a dinner plate, noting with a sense of well contained joy that my chosen seat was as comfortable as it looked. To one side of me was a girl of around 20, a fellow student maybe, curled in an arm chair and reading what may have been a thick novel, pausing from time to time to send the odd text message.

My neighbour on the sofa was another young girl, maybe slightly older than the first, with one foot resting on the leg of the small round table in front of her, and an air of complete bliss. She was chatting casually to a companion in the chair opposite, and the collection of bags between them suggested a break from the retail jungle not entirely dissimilar to my own.

I pulled out a book I'd thoughtfully brought with me and began to work my way through more of the short articles by Clarkson that are proving to be such compulsive page turners. By the time I next looked up, the shopping girls were getting ready to leave, commenting as they did so that if they didn't get on they may never leave. I knew how they felt. They were soon replaced by a couple with matching salad pots, who smiled and chatted quietly as they ate.

The girl with the book was still in her seat, seemingly with no coffee mug anywhere to be seen. Clearly it had been removed by a passing waitress. This got me thinking. How long can one sit in a cafe or coffee shop after one has finished consuming their purchase before it becomes rude for them to remain there? Surely there must be a point where sitting a little longer to add to the enjoyment of the visit becomes squatting, or at least a nuisance to those wishing to sit down.

How often must one buy a drink to permit the continuation of their stay? I'd guess that it isn't acceptable to sit there all day after only buying one drink, but where is the line drawn, does anybody know?

I began to worry about this more and more as the afternoon continued, not wishing to outstay my welcome, but always using the girl with the book as a benchmark. After about an hour and a half I was considering leaving in a chapter or two, but was not really able to persuade myself to depart the happy environment. I suddenly felt my enjoyment punctured by a cold breeze, as though an outside door had just been opened nearby.

After a few minutes it occurred to me that this was not possible, given that we were upstairs, and I looked up to see an air conditioning unit on the wall, blasting out chill air for all it's worth. As you know, I'm not fond of air con when it is used out of season. Given that in winter it never ever reaches the highs of summer, even indoors, it seems most rude to burden us with such unpleasantness, especially in coffee shops.

After that I left quickly, but even as I walked out, it occurred to me that I've not been so at ease with the world in general in a very long time indeed.

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