kindness of strangers

Olé au lait

Olé au lait
Written by Cathoel Jorss,

When I travel I am never alone because always there is the companionship of my shyness. This sometimes feels like a long shadow I drag over things (‘allo, scuse us, thank you, pardon me’) and sometimes like a large soft yielding mass I work my way through to reach people, to reach the surface: the world, spiky and free. Cities are terrorising for a shy person. At the same time I fall into this kind of trance of exploration and love where I can spend a whole day feeling my way up hills and round corners and scurrying joyously from one shadowed alcove to the next, under trees feeling the spent light curl up inside itself and sleep on its own downy belly, like so many dormice, striking out into the sunlight and forcing myself – by dint of a good hard short talking-to, you can do it c’mon just do it, to stride across the diagonal length of the largest square in Spain for example where hundreds of people in throngs stand about pointing their implements at the view (stonemasonry, cafes rooved with white umbrellas, and the freemasonry of each other). Most mornings it takes some courage to leave the sanctuary of my room. I walk into the breakfast bar. People in Germany and Spain seem to greet each other in such situations, in Australia that would be only me. I gather my comestibles: yoghurt, tea, fruit. I put the room key in my pocket and step out into the day.

In Madrid the days are blue and whole. The sky runs freely with very often no clouds of vapour dissolved in it. From the vantage point of the ancient city you can see mountains, towns, all of Spain. Coming on this vista unexpectedly down a narrow alleyway between the little high houses I catch my breath and start to cry. It’s wonderful, it’s beautiful, it’s reached through an endless twisting byway: like the past.

On my second day I fell into a little bar and cafe called the Cafe Olé. As well as cafe au lait they serve spirits, wines, beers, and a raft of different kinds of open-faced sandwiches including one variety loaded with solid chunks of solid Spanish omelette, tortilla. It’s almost Germanic, that one: potatoes on bread. The lady who cooks brings out tray after tray and people wander in out of the sunlight and order, familiarly, stand there and eat. I discovered the sweetest, lightest pastry on earth. I went back another day and had it again: the coffee and the pastry cost two euros. The third time I ate it I discovered it is made from a transverse slice of baguette soaked in egg and milk, what on an English menu we would call French toast: a babyish kind of comfort food with just the right amount of sugar through it. The bread dissolves into light, fruity custard. They serve it with knife and fork. I was so happy there, eating my torrija and soaking up the atmosphere like bread sucks milk, the soft feeling of being included.

Later in my long visit I found other places where I felt at home. The city itself felt welcoming, ancient, its splendour laid open and well-worn. Finding oneself tripping down a turning side street with some enticing view hovering at its end, finding oneself saying out loud without really intending to, “I just – feel – so happy here!” You know the affinity with places. I noticed the needling cypress trees and their green dark clots; the way they seem to sift the wind and sough it into a cradle song that reminds me of islands, distant and far-offshore islands, and afternoons spent on my own as I wandered the hillsides of my grandfather’s old farm and laid my face reverently, familiarly on the warm stones with their mottled discolouring like an old lace badly stored, greenish purplish blueish white grey colonies. And mosses, the velvet of ancient things and my favourite plant. It all feels so personal. Like the fold-down table off the back of a stranger’s seat on the airplane I seem to have been boarding and reboarding every month or two since I was a baby. That private space unseen in the public glass, the back of the mirror, inside of the knee. The pinkish smell of my own fingertips. The plants that grow in between stones.

A lady who runs a shop in a large, chill, drafty barn halfway up a steep hill with an unfamiliar flag hung out the front told me, in labouring English far better than my almost-nothing Spanish – español silencio, the Spanish of silence – these things are from Malawi and she visits every year, they are running their own school in this community and the school children and their families make these products – apart from those over there (her white arm waving, a hanger of bead necklaces and assorted things), “Those are from French.” “French?” I said, “so, a colony?” Yes, she said, “things of my French.” Looking closer I could see of course she meant second-hand, these were things friends had donated: a handbag with the tag still on, an ornate belt, a necklace of shells. “This,” she said, “I make myself. In my terraza,” the courtyard of her home. It was a cake of clay soap which she wrapped for me in newspaper, explaining, “Is very good for the soft sky.” For the sky. “My sky,” she showed me, stroking the belly of her forearm invitingly, “very soft, very soft.”

The smell of Malawi is like the smell of Java where I grew into my childhood and where I have never been back. The Java that I long for doesn’t exist anymore, the outer islands have been logged, the mountains hollowed for high rise and bridges, everything ruined and mined. We won’t talk about that. I went back afterwards to the Cafe Olé and sat there gazing and writing and that is where I gradually came to terms with the place and its strangeness and my strange attraction to it; the sense of knowing and belonging that I also found in old Lissabon, with its needled cypress trees, its castled mountain tops; its alleyways, its tiny, remote, yet intimate vistas. I gave the bar tender my careful request in Spanish, marshalling my few dozen words: “por favor,” “cafe machinata,” “decafinado,” “miel.” To order a pastry I could only say, pan bread and azúcar sugar: sweet bread por favor. All I can do in Spanish is eat. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Australia.” “Ah,” he said. “When somebody come in… who is friendly… open-minded, like you: open heart: they are always Australia. Or… Irish.” I smiled at my hands. He said, shrugging, “To us… you look English.”

In a flurry of Spanish he turned to the older man sitting at the bar, refilling his glass of some creamy liqueur. “Something, something, Australian,” he said and I tried hard to eavesdrop. The one or two words one gleans in a spume of an almost entirely new foreign tongue feel like shells vouchsafed by the sea: there is so much more, beauty, so colourful and alive, in the rolling deeps under this enveloping foam. The bar guy pointed at me, explaining something. They both nodded, their gazes resting on me as I ate. “Cafe delicioso,” I ventured, and he smiled: all warmth, no malice, free.

We sat in silence in the quiet cafe, which is dim and all clad in dark wood. Dusty things stand on the higher shelves above the rows of glinting liqueurs. Right up top is a wooden matador, proudly erect in his faded scarlet togs and with one hand rearing up almost to the yellowed ceiling. We sit like birds under the shelter of his masculine wings. The tomatoes on the sandwiches are very red, no white in them, their seeds a dark greenish orange and filling the gleaming segments like jam. I stroke the soft sky on my arms. A beautiful woman comes in, glamour clinging to her like light from the street. She reminds me of Jennifer Lopez, only older. Casting off her garments and bags she sits down on the stool next to mine. After a long long time I put my hand on her forearm like a moth. “Bella,” I tell her, probably in Italian: “muy bella.” I am? she asks, pressing her hand to her breastbone. “Si.” And she says, something something, your eyes: showing me by opening her own very wide and indicating me from one eye across to another. Very… something, much something else. I would love to know what the beautiful Spanish lady said about my eyes. But I can’t understand and say thank you, and we lapse into silence, the two men also, the bullfighter magnificent and motionless above us standing guard over the ages: he is holding up the ceiling, roof, the whole soft sky with only one hand and the cargo carved modestly in front of his matador pantaloons seems to my shy glance so imposing from below it is as though we are all drinking coffee in the shelter of its fruitful shade.

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