Tuesday 17 November 2020

The Post-Apocalyptic Cafe

Benedict Ambrose and I have ended our travellers' quarantine. Hoorah! This morning we rushed out to celebrate our freedom at my favourite cafe. We had not seen Edinburgh by daylight since October 2, so we  did a lot of staring out the windows of our bus to the Bridges. 

Fortunately, I knew well enough to check in advance to see if the cafe was open and if reservations were necessary. Yes and yes. There is now a 90 minute limit on how long one can stay, no doubt a hardship on those who treated the place like their office. However, it seemed quite reasonable to us. 

The Bridges seemed rather strange, though. There were not many people around. And when we got to the cafe, there was more strangeness. For one thing, we could not go through the old entrance. We had to go in through the other door, which used not to be used at all. We had to wait at the sign for a barista to show us to our table. Half the second room has been turned into a coffee accessories shop; it was going that way already, but now its commercial side is fully developed. In the principal room, the red leather armchairs in the windows are no more and there are tables pushed against the wall with the coat hooks. 

But most weirdly, there were only two other patrons when we arrived: young women, one with curly hair, chatting happily over coffee as if nothing strange had happened. 

There were three baristas on duty, young men, one with red hair, and a young woman. I recognised both men; the redhead half-recognised me. They wore masks which muffled their voices. When we were shown to our table, I finalised my NHS Scotland track-and-trace and registered our presence online.  

Despite the emptiness and the masks, the room looked rather like itself. But it definitely looked post-apocalyptic. I was reminded of a bomb I once read about that would kill all the people but leave the buildings intact: the neutron bomb, I think. Biological warfare would doubtless do that, too. 

Hitler famously didn't bomb Oxford because he wanted it as his British headquarters. I wonder if the Communist Party of China would prefer an Edinburgh completely bereft of Scots? Not that my cafe was ever the most Scottish place in the world, normally being full of university students from the four corners of the world. Even this morning, I eventually heard a man at a corner table speaking Polish into his computer. 

But the menu was similar to that of pre-Covid days: three kinds of avocado toast, for example. B.A. ordered a cappuccino and pain au chocolate; I ordered avocado toast and a filter coffee. B.A. then reviewed his Italian notes, and I tested myself on my most recent Polish flashcards, all work related: nieuleczalny, niezbywalny, dopuszczać, poseł. Occasionally B.A. made a remark in Italian, which I welcomed, as I have decided just to accept that English, Polish, Italian and French are always going to jostle in my head for attention. The trick will be to code-switch as quickly as possible. The ultimate challenge was the TV interview for Polonia Christiana in Rome.  I thought I had bombed utterly, but kindly Polish viewers wrote things like "How does the lady know Polish so well?" in the comments--leading to an argument about whether or not all Canadians speak French. 

"Ca dépende," I said to my Italian tutor yesterday, not remembering dipende fast enough. We talked about language registers: the one for every day, and the one for work. It's terrible not to be able to memorise absolutely everything all at once like a computer. You have to pick and choose: words for home, or words for work. Words for restaurants, or words for philosophical conversations. Eventually you can guess from root words. This is easier when looking at the foreign word; trying to form the foreign word in your head from a root can be hit-and-miss. Lekarz is doctor in Polish, leczenie is medication, nieuleczalny is incurable. There a lot of stuff before and after that last, tantalising, informative -lecz-.

B.A., interestingly, wrote down many local words and linguistic customs special to Lazio, I think, or Rome--like "er" for "il" and "o" for "lo". His three weeks worth of lessons concentrated on immediate things foreigners need to know in Rome: "Il conto, per favore" to get the bill in restaurants, but just "Quant'è?" for bars. After over 30 years of off-and-on Italian study, I did not know that.

One day I will apply for two months leave. If I get it: one month advanced study in Rome, one month advanced study in ... Poznań? Wrocław? Or should I go to the end of my world and immerse myself in Chelm? I'm not sure B.A. would be so keen on the Chelm plan. 

Anyway, studying languages at the cafe was also normal. Eventually two women chatted in what was probably a dialect of Chinese in the far corner of our room, and I wondered if the Babel babble (Italian remarks from one chair, muttered Polish from another, Chinese conversation) was driving the man across the floor from us nuts. However, noise at the cafe is also normal, so perhaps he liked it. 

To burn off energy from our quarantine, B.A. and I finished pruning the Japanese Rose hedge and burned the branches in our BBQ last week. Rosa rugosa is an invasive, foreign species, but various phone calls elicited the information that the council would accept it in the garden waste bin. However, the council has slashed its collection service, and I was terrified the whole lawn would break out in spiny shoots. I was also a bit nervous of bylaws that forbid bonfires--and so the BBQ effort. 

I reflected today that I spend too much time being worried about getting into trouble with the government: quarantines, masks, track-and-trace, garden rubbish, bonfires. It would be more virtuous to think less of "getting into trouble" like a coward and more of "getting along with the neighbours," Cutting down the rose hedge definitely pleased one neighbour and will be a nice surprise from the other when he returns from his shift on the North Sea. And the rosewood smelled a lot better than something else that is burned on this street, let me tell you. 

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