I want it hot and wet – preferably with Wi-Fi
Put the bamboo down and step back
Something for the Weekend, Sir? I came too soon. Normally this is not a problem. Coming early allows me to regather my strength so that I can then go at it, full-on, for the next eight hours.
On this occasion, however, I misjudged the situation and came much too soon. As a result I am standing outside on the pavement in the rain instead of sitting in a warm cafe, charging up half a dozen mobile devices and caressing an overpriced mug of barely caffeinated froth.
Some people consider my penchant for turning up for full-day appointments a couple of hours in advance to be a waste of my time. Not so. It means I beat the commuter rush and anticipate any traffic delays, leaving me time to settle down and perhaps do a little work in the cafe while things are still quiet.
When I stride into my client’s premises, I am fresh as a daisy. That is, one of those nice daisies in a picturesque green meadow on a fresh day in spring. My fellow minions, on the other hand, stagger into their workplaces at that same moment direct from the commute – hassled, crumpled, grumpy and glossy with sweat.
Smug little me, eh? Well it didn’t work this time. It’s my first visit to this part of town and hadn’t anticipated that there wouldn’t be a cafe – at least, not one that’s open at the apparently ungodly hour of 7am.
Well, yes, there is a kiosk selling hot drinks at the station entrance as I am ejected through the barriers. I stand at it for a minute, shivering on the hard, wet pavement under heavy English clouds and driving rain, illogically wondering where I might plug in my laptop despite the fact there are no wall sockets available. Or indeed any tables or chairs.
It is, as I say, a kiosk. No warm cafe, no electricity, no froth. Just poor me, a pavement and pissing precipitation. This is it for the next two hours.
Today, I’m working for a private client who warned me the office would be shut until 9am. There must be somewhere I can go in the meantime.
I launch Apple Maps on my phone. It tells me I am in downtown Reykjavík. So I fire up Google Maps and discover to my middle-class horror that the nearest open brand-name cafe is almost two miles away.
Hmm, I should have time to walk there and back – but not without getting drenched in the meantime. This would mean not arriving at my client’s premises fresh as a daisy. If I was any kind of daisy at all, I’d turn up as one that had been mowed, trodden on and liberally adorned with cow pat.
Google Maps is also telling me there is a smattering of tiny restaurants in the vicinity so I decide to try my luck and hit the streets. By 7:30am I am standing at a grubby door marked “CAF” whose glass panes have been painted over with magnolia emulsion.
Entering intrepidly, I find myself in what appears to be a storeroom where someone keeps broken furniture. People in hi-vis vests are sitting on dirty white garden chairs at sloping tables, swilling from chipped mugs and scoffing smelly English Breakfasts with plastic cutlery from paper plates.
I have arrived at the shittest cafe in the world.
But it is open! I spend a few blank moments perusing the menu on the wall behind the counter before realising I am staring at a faded 1980s ‘In Case Of Fire’ notice. They are serving tea from a gigantic metal urn. I am beginning to gag in an atmosphere heavy with deep fat frying but manage to order a coffee, which is dispensed swiftly (one teaspoon of instant) into a plastic picnic cup. It costs 25p.
I pull up a garden chair and gingerly rest my coffee on the edge of what looks like a wallpapering table, hoping the sheer weight of liquid won’t collapse it.
There are no power sockets. There is no Wi-Fi.
I check my phone and note with dismay that while outside in the rain I had 4G, now that I’ve sat down, my connection is rapidly dropping through 3G to 2G, then to Edge, then to fax modem, then to Morse code over telegraph, and finally settling on smoke signals. Weak ones.
Not that Vienna
Funnily enough, some people would pay a premium for such a total lack of connectivity. Take the Terrassencafe at the famous Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, where the owner is so pissed off with customers plugging in to recharge their devices on her premises that she adds one euro per device to their bills.
Ah, Vienna. What would your uncle say?
Then you have all those independent East London retro-hipster cafes run by tossers who maintain Wi-Fi for themselves but make it unavailable to customers in an attempt to “get people talking to each other”. Nice try, gentlemen, but since your customers are hipsters too, they don’t so much talk as shout at each other, and let me tell you, they shout utter bollocks.
Retro-hipster cafes also have a unique anti-tech feature known as “not opening before 10am”. This ensures people like me are kept out, along with office workers, office cleaners, men who work with their hands, men without Mr Twit beards… indeed, the great unwashed as far as they are concerned. In the unlikely event that one of us should accidentally stray into one of their cafes to join them for breakfast at 1pm, they ensure we never return by serving up sour hipster coffee in a ludicrous metal-calipered Lem-sip glass with a pretty leaf design in the cream but costs £4 and tastes as bitter as fuck.
As for me and my 25p instant Nescafé, we’re holed up in the equivalent of a Faraday cage. Indeed, this is another cafe fad I’ve read about but never experienced until this moment. It seems like an extreme way of getting people to talk to each other and to be honest I’m afraid of speaking at all because I’ll reveal myself as a relative posho in my current company. Since everyone else here is talking like Dick van Dyke and look poised to break into a bit of The Old Bamboo at any second, I reckon it’s best I keep quiet or run the risk of having one of those old bamboos shoved up my arse.
Then again, I probably wouldn’t last long in a high brow cafe either before they called the doorman over to “throw this oik onto the street”.
Instead, I am intrigued by the genteel but realistic approach taken by the Tea Terrace Restaurants and Tea Rooms found in House of Frazer stores in London and Guildford. Instead of locking you out of Wi-Fi altogether, they provide small Faraday cages at the tables.
It’s not as bad as it sounds: these Faraday cages are designed to look like hardback books. As you are aware, leaving books lying around the place gives other people the impression that you’re an intellectual. You know, like they do at Wetherspoons.
If you feel the need to converse while supping tea, you just ask your guests to pop their smartphones inside the hollowed-out “phonetentiaries” (yes, I’m afraid that is what they're called) before thrilling them with the latest details about the effect Brexit is having on the value of your third home in Gstaad.
Confusingly, the website states: “We are always very proud when we see our customers sharing their happy moments at The Tea Terrace with their friends and family by posting their Tea Terrace photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat as well as other social media.” How they are supposed to do this when their devices are trapped inside a faux English Dictionary is anyone’s guess. But then what do I know about retail catering?
Back in my less elegant hovel, I finish a second coffee and idly crunch on the kettle scale resting at the bottom of the cup. I’ve wasted an hour reading a book – a real one – and my hi-vizzed fellows are giving me suspicious side-glances. The ambient chatter has died down. The atmosphere is tense. From behind the counter, I hear the dull clatter of a dropped bamboo.
It’s time to leave and try my luck in the rain. Perhaps I’d be better off standing at the kiosk after all. Maybe they’d let me plug in my laptop and cower under their hoarding for an hour while cuddling a properly silly latte before strolling to my appointment. Until then, I’ll settle for the warmth of my hands and a cold grey sky.
I’d even offer to pay for the electricity, like at the Hundertwasserhaus.