One thing is for certain, Ireland isn’t short of little coffee shops and cafes. The recession may have taken a big bite out of the hospitality industry, but Irish people are slow to forgo their cup of tea and cake.
Since my return home to Ireland I’ve frequented many of these cafes. Some of them were around before my departure to the Big Apple.
There are the more traditional cafes that house many delectable goodies, have a basic enough beverage menu mainly consisting of tea, coffee or a mineral (soda), and their clientele are, for the most part, old age pensioners (sometimes accompanied by their daughters).
Other places popped up while I was living it up in New York. The more recent cafes are ultra-modern, have an expansive and fancy drinks menu (espressos, macchiatos and caffe lattes) and are frequented by women who fall into the middle to upper-class category.
I enjoy both types of cafés. I like the feel of Ireland from the more traditional coffee shops, and I enjoy the newer additions for their likeness to New York coffee houses.
But the part I enjoy the most is sitting at my computer, inconspicuously glancing around to see the body language of the customers at other tables. And more often than not I get carried away from my own work to listen in to the sometimes very interesting conversations of others.
Today is no exception. After I dropped our two children (Colum, 21 months, and Sadie, six months) off to day care I headed to work for a few hours. I had a half day – much welcomed after a fun-filled weekend at a bachelorette party in Kerry at the weekend.
Before I headed to Lidl to do my weekly shop I stopped off at one of the super trendy coffee shops in Limerick for a hot chocolate and a nose. Women lunched in groups. The average age of the ladies around me was mid forties to sixties.
Life has been good to them. Their style is straight out of a magazine. Despite the rain outside and the chill in the air the trendy scarfs loosely thrown around their necks were fashion statements.
Most wore dresses, or tailored pants, complimentary colored and styled tops, and their hair was neat and tidy. Their shoes simple and classic. There was a hint of Stepford wives from this crowd of ladies who lunch.
I was sitting in a pair of jeans, high heels and a white shirt. I was underdressed.
Twelve tables were occupied when I arrived, and 10 of those were full of little groups of women (the smallest group was four). The other two tables housed couples; at least I’m assuming they were couples.
I overhear the ladies at the table nearest to me discuss current news topics, a sale in women’s dress store Brown Thomas and an upcoming wedding of one of their daughters. The gentle wrinkles on their face make me believe they are all in their fifties, some possibly sixties. There are five of them.
In the past few weeks there have been many horrific crimes that have gripped our nation. On Saturday a man’s body was discovered shoved into a wardrobe of a house in Dublin. He had a horrific death by stabbing.
Later Saturday night two young men partied with drugs late into the night and both died a few hours later. Although investigations are still ongoing, the rumor is that they took a bad batch of drugs.
In the previous two weeks a Real IRA member living in Dublin was murdered by a local drug gang for being outspoken about eradicating drug pushers, a young man in Limerick related to gangland crime was shot in cold blood at a family wedding in Co. Clare, and a mother who had psychiatric problems smothered her son the night before he was due to start school.
All of these bad news stories were discussed in depth by the lunching ladies who mainly ordered salads and light dinners. Two of the five had a glass of wine.
After nearly 40 minutes of rehashing the weekend news a woman dressed in a pink top and black jacket asked her neighbor how long it was until her daughter’s wedding. Four weeks was the response. I’m assuming by the question aforementioned the woman in pink had not received an invite.
The conversation continued on the topic of weddings, outfits (and a sale in Brown Thomas) and wedding receptions. This particular lady’s daughter was getting married in a five star hotel in Galway.
A larger group of women, who looked all to be in their early forties, laughed a lot, not loud enough to disturb other customers but enough to make us all look in their direction and wonder what all the fun was about. I couldn’t get close enough to their conversations – and believe me I really wanted to- but I did meet two “powdering their noses” in the bathroom before I left. Like any group of women they were indulging in some gossip.
A tall woman who looked to be the youngest of the group shared her dislike of one of the women’s husbands. “He is just creepy,” she told a blonde woman in a tight black dress.
“Oh, I know, yes, I was just saying that to Liz last week,” whispered the blonde while looking over her shoulder.
I’m not sure if they were aware I was around the corner washing my hands while they reapplied their lipstick and had a good bitching session. The conversation didn’t last long, but a promise to keep their opinions to themselves was made before they rejoined the group.
Because it’s the middle of the day on a Monday, I make the assumption that most of these women, if not all, are either stay at home mothers (kids are in school) or non-working wives.
I thought about what my friends and I chat about when we are together, and something suddenly struck me. When I’m with my friends we spend endless amounts of time talking about our kids (their bad and good habits, their sleeping and feeding patterns and the joy they bring to our lives).
We also go on about our husbands or partners, set plans in motion for a night out and are always on hand to offer advice (even if we’re not asked) to one of the girls at the table about their life.
What I found interesting with these groups of women was the superficial chat or lack of personal connection. It was more like the ladies were acquaintances rather than friends. They knew and put up with each other, but when their lunch ended I wondered if they ever chatted on the phone, met up outside of lunch or even cared for one another.
Last weekend as I met a friend for a cup of coffee in one of the more traditional smaller coffee shops in Limerick city the conversations were very different from today. But they had more heart.
Two grandmothers (one accompanied by her grandchild of about three years) drank tea and smoked a cigarette outside the coffee shop on one of Limerick’s busiest streets. They were both blonde, obviously dyed. The burlier of the two found herself giving out about her daughter, her daughter’s choice of boyfriends and lack of interest in getting a job.
Her friend with the grandchild told her several times to “kick her out” of the family home and force her to look after herself, something the first lady was “seriously thinking about.” The frustration was quickly forgotten when a woman they knew pulling a shopping cart passed them on the street.
They began to discuss this woman’s misfortunes, the death of one of her sons and the lack of “get up and go” in the woman ever since. Before they quenched their cigarettes and finished their tea they made plans with one another for dinner later that evening in one of their homes. They parted ways in different directions.
I thought to myself they seem to have a hard life but their spirits are good. They are strong women. They were dressed very bland (one in black pants that was too big for her and the other in a skirt to her knee, exposing her varicose veins). They both wore white trainers and coats.
Inside the door of the coffee shop sat a young couple very much in the throes of love. I see the girl, who looks about 19, repeatedly hugging her man and looking for that physical comfort.
By the gist of the conversation he was going to Dublin to college and she was going to try and see if she could get a transfer from her job in a clothing store in Limerick to join him. He seemed excited to be heading for a new experience. She looked miserable.
Two mothers with five children between them lunched at a big table inside the restaurant. While I was paying for my bun and tea I couldn’t but overhear their raised voices. They laughed at some episode of the English soap Coronation Street – “did you see the cut of her dress” – they said in reference to one of the characters.
They also disciplined their kids several times in the short space I was queuing to pay for the food – “sit your backside down now Jack” and “If you don’t come here now you’re not going to Granny’s house later.” The threats didn’t really work but the moms didn’t let it faze them. They were enjoying the comradeship that obviously existed between them, and that’s all that mattered in that space of time.
I guess it doesn’t matter if we’re ladies who lunch or women having a quick cuppa and chat -- we all like to have female friends no matter of our age. We all enjoy the exclusivity of female relationships, and there are many different relationships that can exist with various friends.
It’s nice to lunch like a lady, talk current affairs, dress nice and sip coffee, but it’s also nice (nicer in my opinion) to have a good old natter with our closest friends, talk about our nearest and dearest (whether its good or bad) and share a laugh.