21 August 2005

Report from a bubble

Yesterday's post was from a café. So is today's. A friend once said, in connection with my Today pictures, that I seem to spend a lot of time in cafés ... and it's true that, if I am to do something which involves sitting for any length of time at a desk or table, I tend to gravitate to a café or its equivalent. Why sit at a desk in an office, when I could be enjoying the constant theatre of life around me? In a university or college environment, I'd rather work surrounded by the open buzz of students (who are, after all, usually my reason for being in such an environment) than in the confined hush of a staff workroom. The same applies to a company premises, where the canteen is more stimulating than an office. And if I am not tied to such a place, then a café, or a park, or a café in a park ... or, if time permits, just an open cliff top ... but a café is pretty good. What else, after all, are laptops and pocket computers and satellite or cellular communications for?

Today, it's another café. Today, in fact, it's a café in a large store, which is unusual for me – I usually tend to the smaller places. My first excursions into candid people photography were made in the comforting anonymity of a basement café at a Bon Marché department store (now, I believe, Debenhams). I was fourteen then; I soon returned to the small café culture with which I had grown up, around which my Mediterranean teens and early adulthood revolved. Nevertheless ... every now and then, usually prompted by some more utilitarian purpose, I occasionally take to a shopping mall or large store and watch the altogether different stream of life which it offers. Occasionally the soulless, or the more organically human shopping centre, or just my local supermarket. Today it's an Ikea superstore.

Wherever they are, these places are really linked to the smaller café only in name. I should really call them cafeterias. They are industrial units, not social entities. They have input, process and output stages. They are designed to retain customers within the retail space. Human beings form their own social spaces within, but they are spaces brought in with them like tents – families, pairs of friends shopping together, couples planning a new home.

This café couldn't, in short, be more different from the one in which I wrote yesterday. People watching here is not the immersive ethnology of the true café environment but something more akin to watching laboratory animals, birds from a hide, or ocean floor colonies from a bathyscaphe. From my bubble at this table I watch across the aisle as life plays itself out in other hermetically sealed bubbles at other tables. Those other bubbles are close enough to reach out and touch, but as unreachable as the methane seas of Titan.

Despite all that, with its cold similes, people are the same here as anywhere; only their environment is different. Curiously, people behave within their bubbles more as they would in a private space, not a public one. It is as if their bubble excludes the rest of the world only an arm's length away, insulating them from public requirements. If they are as unreachable as the moon to me, so am I to them – and as irrelevant to their lives, as well.

Across from me now, a father bounces his child on his knee, making the sort of faces and noises which adults make when with very small children in their own homes, but not in front of other human beings. Directly in font of me, a young couple kiss and touch in a way that will evaporate into self consciousness when they move out of the cafeteria.

To my right, a baby in a high chair looks at me in frank interest. When I look up he smiles the huge, open, generous and unconditional smile of which only babies and small children are capable. I smile back, a rare communication across the gulf, but it would be a mistake to maintain the contact: it breaks the unspoken rules of the environment. The baby will one day learn this in order to grow and survive. I look back down again at my little pocket computer screen, and continue typing in isolation.

Child to child recognition is the only exception to this insular code. I notice, from the corner of my eye, that the baby on my right has transferred his frank attention to a point on my left; glancing that way I see a small girl returning it. Several tables away, a child of about three is crying; though its parents ignore it, several other children of similar ages lock their attention onto this distress signal like beacon locators and then stare at each other in mutual recognition. A child in an adult world is as much a bubble as tables are for me and for the other adults around: they see in each other a commonalty of existence, experience and condition which adults, even family, can never share. Children meeting in an adult world, like me in this cafeteria, are lone voyagers in a strange land; to them, the adult sea around them is as alien and uncrossable as the aisles between tables are to us – and they feel no more kinship with me than would an oceanographer for the anglerfish peering blindly in through the bathyscaphe window.

And, with that, it's time to resurface. Immersion is educational, similes and metaphors informative, but the wise explorer doesn't stay under long enough for the similes and metaphors to seep inside the bathyscaphe and become confused with reality.

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