HABITUÉ

A habitué is someone who is frequently found in a particular place – a well-known patron of a place. The word has its origins in French and has been in use for over two centuries! Why do we not use it as often anymore? I occasionally think I would like to spend a few hours sitting quietly in a coffee shop/café observing people coming and going – I love watching people at airports. Think of the store of short stories that are waiting to be woven out of the actions of others …

A friend and I met for coffee the other afternoon. She had mundane household shopping to do and was on a tight schedule between that, seeing me, and picking her daughter up from ballet. Life can be such a juggle that it is no surprise that we have not seen each other for months.

And so there was the usual catching up to do before settling down to discuss poetry and other issues of mutual interest. We could have gone on forever instead of sipping the coffee at undue speed and eating cake with a degree of haste. Why did we do that? It was because the passing of time made its presence felt like an uninvited guest: her cell phone blinking furiously as if it was barking “where are you?” and the serving of late afternoon tea and coffee giving way to beer and wine as habitués populated the tables outside to make the most of the balmy weather.

Habitués they were for they had a languid air about them. They moved unswervingly towards favourite spots, smiled and chatted to each other with shoulders relaxed, heads nodding, eyes meeting, hands touching – or not. These are the after work ones contemplating a leisurely evening ahead. There are the morning ones too who read newspapers or tap away at their laptops with large mugs of coffee at their elbows and crumbs sprinkled across the tables.

Modern habitués of coffee shops are comfortable in their milieu: a real home from home – or should that be office from office? From Cape Town to Port Elizabeth I have watched people settling down in coffee shops and tea gardens, opening their laptops to work on their own; to meet in small groups for a work discussion; to catch up on the morning news; or to spend time with a friend or colleague away from the hurly-burly of life.

One habitué of our local coffee shop used to walk there briskly from her home around the corner, purchase the newspaper to peruse later at her leisure, then settle down in a sunny/shady spot (seasonal preference) to read a chapter or two of a novel while indulging in a large coffee and a slender slice of cheesecake. She was such a regular customer that the waitresses seldom asked for her order!

Then there is a group of four men who take the daily crossword seriously enough to meet over coffee, each armed with neatly folded newspapers and pens at the ready. They are always a delight to watch.

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