Closing my eyes. Early morning at Heathrow airport, still a bit sleepy from a transatlantic flight, waiting for a connection to go to Prague. I have a few hours ahead of me. I’m listening. And I hear noises I haven’t heard since the last time I came to Europe.
I can hear there is a busy bar nearby. English pub/French café – we’re in Heathrow after all. Busy but still quiet – it embodies this certain European withholding and containment that you won’t see (hear?) on the other side of the pond where the noise level is considerably more elevated. A quiet hubbub is what it is. I hear stifled conversations and shifting chairs. People are laughing, talking, sharing and eating. Some are reading, some are daydreaming. I’m resting my eyes. I hear grumbling too.
Here they serve coffee, wine and beer. It’s early in the morning but someone is drinking a beer. It’s quite possible it’s 6:00 p.m. where they come from. I smell cheese. It’s breakfast time. Eggs and ham. There is also a hint of sausage lingering somewhere. And of course it smells like butter – a delicious buttery fresh crispy bakery that’s still warm on the inside. Another patron is breaking a hard-boiled egg on the porcelain saucer of his espresso cup. Turning and tapping the egg on all sides. I hear the crushing of the egg shells. And then I hear them – these noises I know so well from my childhood and from going to cafés with my parents and friends.
At first, I notice the little spoons hitting the porcelain of the espresso cups. Someone just dropped one in his coffee cup. The small sugar tube packet is torn up and tossed to the side. The little spoon is bumping the cup as the coffee is stirred to dissolve the sugar. Delicately placed face down on the side, the spoon makes a magical noise as it touches the metal zinc of the copper-topped café counter. Or maybe it’s stainless steel, I did not look carefully before closing my eyes. Or was it brass? I will double check later.
I am pretty sure the tables are small and round, like a table should always be at a café. And I can hear people adjusting themselves on these old but oh-so familiar chairs made out of some sort of plasticy wicker. More saucers are hitting the café counter. At the same time, the waiters are picking up their metallic round trays to go dispatch breakfast orders and morning coffees. Actually, they don’t pick up their trays, they drag them clanking them with the counter in some sort of metallic togetherness.
The person behind the counter is preparing more coffee. The steam is hissing. The coffee machine is in motion and makes everything around it slightly move. The columns of clean saucers piled on top of each other start banging quietly in a tinkling noise. The medium-sized lunch plates continue clattering sending waves of table dishes noises that aren’t unpleasant to hear. The rows of espresso cups creating a wall next to the coffee machine are moving and hitting one another in a clinking rhythm – I picture an impressive row of cups – 20 long by 10 high.
All the while, a waiter is towel drying glasses, putting them away and placing them upside down as they rattle against each other back on the shelf. A blackboard erasing sound is barely audible through this lively atmosphere but the crisp noise of the chalk writing up today’s menu and specials remains strong and determined. Plat du jour and œuf mayonnaise? Fruit tart? A jambon-beurre sandwich with a fresh baguette and real butter? I will look later.
More noises are trying to surface amidst this busy morning – I hear whistling from the coffee machine and one of the waiter, I hear more clinking from the glasses and the small plates, more espresso cups and saucers hit the café counter. I imagine that someone is going to order a kir framboise or a Pastis any minute now.
Close your eyes and listen. Listen to these particular noises. These noises are what makes Europe so distinct from the U.S. No paper cups topped with plastic lids. Now open your eyes. You’re in Europe!
Hear: busy French café noises