Coffee House Essay


I can’t really explain it myself, why I find myself sitting more and more often in the most unalluring café in Brussels, in the “Berlaymont” building, on the ground floor of the head­quar­ters of the European Commission. Not that there aren’t any other eateries in the city. There are even very good ones. Brussels’ gastronomy can’t be praised highly enough.


But I sit more and more often in this cafeteria, from which it’s not possible to carve out a coffee house essay to save one’s life. No table service; the visit begins standing in the queue at the bar. The employees of the outsourced operating company cash in uneven sums at the till: 1.03 Euro for a cappuccino. A little poster pricks the conscience of the guest on each visit, this time for the “EU Sustainable Energy Week”.


The cafeteria’s clientele is pedigree. EU officialdom meets here, very formally dressed and conducting a restrained rational discourse. So I was pretty excited when I once observed an encounter which looked like jiggery-pokery to me. It even had a little of the smell of sex about it.


In general, the café chat is of a kind one would gladly ignore. “Basically, what the commission does”, I hear in front of me. From behind, “Communicating with the citizens” reaches my ears.


The one time I eavesdropped with curiosity, I was sitting by the terminating glass front. I was looking into the crook of the Berlaymont building’s arm, into an empty, paved courtyard, with bare little trees and light shafts. In the background the LEX glass palace terminated; grey sky. The only breath of fresh air in the grey glass, silvery prospect was the outline of the neoclassical “Résidence” palace: lacerated, threadbare, brown. 


Perhaps I sit more and more in this café because its totality appeals to me. However much you strain, you see nothing but EU.


It was about three, the cafeteria was half empty. I had often seen my hero there. He was a small, rotund spectacle-wearer in a suit, over 50. He looked a bit like Elton John, but without the accessories.


The heroine was under 30 and quite pretty. She had braided her blonde hair, she was wearing numerous silvery bangles and her fingernails were painted red. I had never seen a woman with red nails in the Commission cafeteria before. The fingernails alone had the look of sin itself in the midst of the orderly office folk.


He and she, they were both British. The young woman spoke in a moderate cockney accent. Her frivolous shopping-mall style didn’t fit in this place. Did she want to fit in somehow?


I learned from the rags of conversation wafting across that the gentleman was entertaining the girlie with a thick array of gruesome stories. He began with the Scottish middle ages, changed to Idi Amin and escalated to the joke: “I should kill you”. He served the points dryly and at the moment of delivery, he shot his eyebrows expectantly in the air.


The young woman laughed darkly and gutturally. While he sat in front of her like an acolyte, she turned in her revolving chair and put her black-stockinged legs on show. “What about my shoes?”, she asked and raised a boot. I was agog. What could she want from the official?


She was drinking cola light through a straw. The can must have been long empty by now. By degrees I discovered the trick. She sucked the cola through the white straw, wetted her lips at best and then let the liquid flow back into the can. She probably did it unconsciously. But the game with the liquid increased the older man’s attention.


The gentleman finally got down to the girlie’s concerns. “A good CV will get you a foot in the door”, he said, “it’s all presentation”. He also advised her to choose italics, font size 14 for the introduction, font size 12 for the rest. It was no more corrupt than that, not in front of me anyway. And yet it was incredibly hot for relations in that cafeteria.