About working in cafés and foreign languages

I write in cafés. I have written in cafés mostly for more than 25 years. One of my novels (The Common Bond) was dedicated to the three cafés where I wrote its first draft. But I have had little experience writing in cafés in a country where I understand the language well — the United States, in this case. Now I find that I am not able to write in cafés in the United States.

After a while, I found this one. Trident, on the west end of Pearl Street in Boulder. It is basically perfect — half of it is a used bookstore, carrying many old first editions, and the other half is a distinctly literary café (almost everyone in the café is working at a lap top, in a notebook, or with a pen on scraps of paper). The music is interesting and not intrusive. Comfortable chairs. Occasionally a pretty college girl. Have a look at the web site for this place by clicking on the link above.

Hopeful. I got a coffee, a croissant, a water, and found a comfortable table. Opened the work file. Stared at it for a few minutes. Changed a word in the first sentence. Attended to a trivial email. Read to the end of the first paragraph. Changed another word.

An hour passed. All I’ve done is listen to the conversations around me. I understand every word everyone says; although, of course, much of it is boring and trivial, sometimes juicy bits flow by, sometimes the topic is interesting enough to follow for a while — and follow I do.

My table in the Trident

Since I can’t write, at least I can pretend by blogging while I attend to the talk around me. And that’s the point: I cannot avoid attending to the talk around me.

In foreign places, where we live most of the time, where I rarely take the time and effort to learn more of the local language than I need to get through the basics of the day — taxi directions, do some food shopping, ordering in cafés and restaurants, making polite but brief conversations when meeting someone. Realistically, I speak and understand no languages other than English, although I can get through the day in a number of other languages (German, Slovak, Spanish).

In these foreign language environments, talking is white noise, background elevator music, just another source of sounds that are easily turned out. In fact, it has been these extraneous white noise sounds that have always promoted the concentration I need to write in public places. My mind brackets out what it does not understand or comprehend. But the presence of life, the sounds of a vibrant world, does not let me forget that I am not alone, that I write within a context, and that context is life. When I am in a quiet room alone, it becomes tomb-like, lifeless, and my brain deadens.

Therefore, I have always written in cafés.

Now I see (I remember, actually) that this only works when I do not understand the language being spoken around me, only when I can make white noise of it.

Any volunteers to proof read and copy edit my new book? Otherwise, it will lie unattended until we get to Mexico City after mid-August, and I can work again.

Put this café in any foreign place and it would be perfect; I would live in it.

Giving up and heading home with a slice of life photo from the streets of Boulder — the coming and going dichotomy of American women in current times.

The reality of contemporary American life. Which one gets the Big Gulp?



8 replies »

  1. Boulder??? Do you have a little car with a wonderful rumbly motor? Enjoy! Julie

    • Aren’t you keeping track of us? Holiday in Boulder, DC in July for training, then we move to Mexico City. No car, darling, but Mexico City has earthquakes — we could try one of those.

  2. Maybe after more time I would get used to understanding what people around me are saying and stop being attentive to it, but hasn’t happened yet. I still feel a bit of surprise when walking along the sidewalk and hearing people speaking English as they pass by. If I do get used to it, by then it will probably be too late, because I will again be living in a place where I don’t understand most of what people say. That is good for my work.

    I am a lifelong fan of pretty women. It’s one of the favorites of my propensities. But actually, what caught my attention to take this photo was the contrasting juxtaposition. (I am still quite surprised at how fat people are here, but women in particular. This is a really fat country.)

  3. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break while you enjoy the flowers. You’ll be back in the groove in D.F.
    Happy vacation!