a big beautiful mess

Cafe Sketches

After privately, to myself, deciding that this cafe was my favorite in Arkhangelsk, I realized that it was uncannily similar in service plan and aesthetics to an American cafe. You come in, place your order and pay at the register, then sit, and your coffee is brought to you. If you want something more, you have to go back to the register. No “devushka!” when the waitress ignores you, no waiting for the bill at the end–there’s no ambiguity in the relationship with the waitstaff. Everyone knows their role and performs it well. And, it’s one of the two places where I know what words to say to get the coffee that I actually want. Add to that that they rarely ask if you have exact change, and that the prices are reasonable, and that the service is quick, and that there’s almost always a couch seat free, and that there are photos of zebras and Venice for sale on the walls, and I’m hooked.

But even here, a variety of strange things keep you from ever quite forgetting that you’re not in Kansas.

For example, the men who are served their fruit smoothies in elegant glasses with pink and yellow straws–and actually use the straws, slurping daintily while they talk in posturing grunts about whatever it is men talk about here.

For example, the man who, one rainy Saturday morning, instead of the “Fitness Smoothie” ordered a whole carrot the size of a child’s forearm and sat crunching on it while his girlfriend flicked calculating glances at his eyes, wondering when to ask him when they’re getting married.

For example, the woman in purple who comes in and in a voice too loud for the Arctic, announces to the waitstaff, “Hello, young people!” and then tells them exactly how to do their jobs while they smile and giggle.

For example, the Tree Man, who dresses in long robes, and has flamboyant orange and green tattoos around his eyes and over his clean-shaven head, who comes to the cafe to meet with conservatively dressed people in black jackets and turtlenecks, and whom everyone ignores.

For example, the middle-aged couple, resting from shopping, who sit without taking off their furs and overcoats and wait in silence for their fruit juice to come. The woman purposefully, deliberately swallows her entire drink in one long gulp, sweeping the straw back and forth across the bottom of the glass with her mouth to make sure she’s gotten every last drop, and then sighs deeply, regaining her breath as she stares into space and waits for her husband to finish.

For example, every unmarried young woman dressed in an absurdly glamorous fox-fur vest who sits, one leg elegantly extended, the arch of her foot bent suggestively over six-inch heels, waiting for a coffee that would taste no different in Moscow, without taking off her frosted sunglasses.

For example, a gaggle of almost-middle-aged women dressed in what look to me like middle school Snow Ball gowns, who swarm in to celebrate after a concert of some sort. They dominate the whole cafe, finally settling down to a moderate chatter in one corner. Some of them want salads, calling their order to the queen bee, whose olive green satin gown ends at her ankles to reveal practical black pumps. They’ve brought their own bottle of champagne.


  1. 30 April 2012    

    Wow, is that ever surreal! That sounds like a place one ought to head, in the event of writers’ block!

  2. 1 May 2012    

    This place looks very familiar. Thanks for taking me there. Wish we had lived closer to it so I could have spent more time there. Great story. Time for you to double down on your online identities and offer something for Cowbird. Plus, I think Esther needs some Cowbird in her life.

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