Sketch of Ole and Steen, Dogs that Look like Bears
Snegls and Surrealities: A Peculiar Portrait of a Danish Import Café
Ole and Steen cafe, a Denmark import, coffee, snegls, and muffins. Here, mellow, twenty-year-old, indie music plays on the radio over the agreeable chatter of families here, lots of them, South Kensington Station is near. They’re all getting out on a beautiful spring day, being with people, talking about nothing important—everything seems important at the time. Hungry eyes inspect the extended bakery display, fingers point to the treat they only get on Sundays. Female baristas look like sisters. It’s not just their white tees and black pants, they come in pairs. Two with black hair parted down the middle, two with short, brown hair pulled back in close-enough ponytails. Like with like. Two take orders and fill paper sacks with goodies. The other two foam milk and pour espresso shots.
The American accent in London is like revving lawn-mower engines, bulls in China shops, an episode of the Duke’s of Hazzard playing on a vintage television in another room. Their laughter sounds like a hillbilly caricature of an American. They all talk too loud, even when they’re trying not to. An American family of five sits in a back corner. Momma has tight, curly brown hair and a patchwork of tattoos on her legs and arms. Beside her, a girl with Farrah Fawcett hair she learned how to do by watching a Tik Tok video. She has yet to master this style. The girl sucks on a bottle of 7-Up as if it’s a baby bottle. Sometimes she looks twenty. Other times, she transforms into a 7th grader with an oral fixation. One pubescent boy in a grey, nondescript baseball cap he bought at a hotel gift shop. Dad is catty-cornered by Mom and on his phone. He’s hunched over, fifty pounds overweight, grizzled like a Teflon pan after a sea bass dinner and a face to match. Dad shows his baseball cap-wearing son his phone. Boys with boys. Girls with girls. Dad has more to talk about with his son than his wife, who looks like an irritated bear, abused after years in a traveling circus. Her expression is peevish. Momma is immense, not to be trifled with. Her kin were big-boned. She leans her elbows on the table, emphasizing her speech and looking intent on being heard. Little Farrah sucks on the empty soda bottle. They’re all in t-shirts, shorts, and trainers. They’re disheveled, worn-down travelers on a dream trip to London. Never an iron shall pass over their garments. Little Farrah can’t stop sucking on her bottle. She’ll translate this to cigarettes when she’s old enough, if she hasn’t already. Dad and son are consumed with their phones. This family trip has more hours clocked online than any other.
At the table next to them, another American family, as if they travel in packs, magnets drawn to each other. There is a baby and a kindergartener. The kindergartener is bored and ripping apart her stroller, flinging toys and blankets onto the floor. Mom ignores. Baby cries.
A hip and healthy-looking American couple come in. They ask for a chair from a middle-aged Italian couple who are quietly enjoying their bagels and flat whites. Unfazed, the Italian man is in a striped shirt and looks like Pablo Picasso with less sexual chemistry. He winks at the woman (presumably his wife) and she takes a sip of her drink. His wife is in a black puffer vest - what’d you do kid, jump ship? Middle-aged women in London love a good puffer jacket. She also wears sunglasses on her head. Her hair dyed blonde and balayaged, pulled back in a short but neat ponytail. She scans the cafe, noting the American family and their tattooed momma bear and Little Farrah. The barista calls out “Flat White!” More and more people are coming in now. The Italian couple continue their conversation quietly. Pablo wipes his nose with a napkin and whatever his wife is saying to him, he’s not convinced as he crosses his arms, and gazes into his empty cup and not at his wife.
Across, an adorable British family. A sweet and small, blonde daughter in pigtails, Dad plays with her, Mom giggles as she watches. In and out. Just a quick coffee. The sweet girl hops aboard her sweet, pink scooter and glides to the front door on sugar and rainbows. They leave with smiles on their faces. How soon their place is taken by a grey, middle-aged woman in a mismatch of patterns: a blazer of Morocco, a scarf of a quaint English Village, faded blue jeans, saddlebags, a dilapidated crossover body bag hanging too low. The customers coming in distract their ginger child. Mom is too young to be this grey, hair splaying out of her ponytail, no time for primping, and she wants people to know how she suffers. The ginger toddler wanders and she reprimands him. Dad gets up, watches the boy, follows him. Dad’s in cargo shorts and a graphic tee, sunglasses on his head. It’s all the rage this year…and last year and since the 1970s. Another middle-aged man is with them, balding, grey shirt, grey face, unshaven for a fortnight, blue jeans, glasses on head. He’s on his phone, too. Human connection is found in a little black box, even when surrounded by people and cute ginger toddlers who only want to experience the world and learn how things work.
The Shins “New Slang” plays quietly on the stereo. Ginger Toddler is back, and Greying Mother reprimands him. The boy points to something he wants to show his mommy. He pulls on her hand. She begrudgingly follows him because he’s whining, and so she goes. She stands over him, looking at the baristas, taking her shabby ponytail down, not watching her child, not acknowledging his lust for life. Perhaps it’s tiresome by now. Perhaps the light children have at that age is for everything. Every bug and paper towel. And maybe it’s too much to ask for Mother to be excited about every chair, bird, or shiny object. Dad talks to the balding guy. Dad leans in, Balding Guy leans back. Balding Guy looks like Greying Mother, the brother they’ve dragged along today. The men talk about charity shops. Dad leans back. Greying Mother returns with the toddler in her arms and the child looks disappointed. He sucks his thumb to soothe himself. He wants someone to listen as he babbles over his mother, who speaks to her brother, speaks to her husband. “You want to try it?” she says to the toddler who tips an empty cup of flat white toward his face. Mother reprimands him when he hands her the cup. The boy looks at me with curiosity. I smile and wave. The child lights up, smiles back, wanders in enjoyable circles as his mother follows. The child zigs and zags, finding something of interest in every corner.
Greying Mother’s life didn’t turn out the way she wanted. It’s not enough, not right now, that her child is precious and curious and full of life. Maybe brimming exuberance is arduous. She hauls her child like a sack of sugar into a chair as he whimpers and cries because someone has brought in a dog that looks like a Kodiak bear cub. The child wants to feed the dog half a bagel—grabs the food and waddles to the dog, happy to see a new thing, happy to roam. The Kodiak Bear dog is a celebrity as people enthusiastically hover around it and ask its owner, “Is that really a dog?”
The ginger child is bored now, throws the bagel on the floor. Dad, long suffering, mutters, “James, that’s not right” and returns to his conversation with his brother-in-law. Greying Mother stands ready to leave, a faded tote over her shoulder. It reads “Shelter and Hope” in purple and red. The men aren’t ready to leave so Greying Mother sits again, watches James. James looks at me once more and gets my attention with a cherubic smile flashing his rabbit front teeth. His hair is the color of strawberry flavored wine. He runs off again and dad shouts, “James, James, James James, James!” It’s Dad’s turn to run after him. “My father is now the vicar,” Greying Mother says, but no one responds. As they leave, Balding Guy picks up a spring bouquet he’d been hiding between the chair and wall.
The American family and their tattooed momma bear gather their things and exit the cafe. At this time, I note they are all wearing olive green t-shirts, blue jean cargo shorts, and Walmart trainers. Dad is about two feet shorter than Momma. True love comes in all sizes. Identical dress means they’ll be able to locate each other if one gets lost. They don’t realize they’re already lost.
Their seats are immediately taken by a gorgeous fucking family straight out of the fashion magazines and reality television. Mom looks like a runway model two years past her prime. Dad does too. God, what good genes. Strong jaw lines, the lot of them. They have a boy and a girl, the perfect number, ages close to one another. My God, Mom is fucking gorgeous with her perfect dirty blonde hair in a perfect bun atop her perfectly shaped head. She takes off her perfect black puffer coat, sets down a teacup-sized Pomeranian that looks like a happy brown cotton ball. A dog worthy of its own Instagram account. Mom yawns. She has a perfect mouth and looks stunning when she yawns. She’s in black skinny jeans, a black and white zip-up jumper with a floppy collar, tiny gold earrings on her perfect earlobes, perfect natural make-up look, their small, adorable dog searching for Danish pastry crumbs. The kids ask for money, return to the counter for a snack. They’re all in casual wear and look fucking perfect. Always an iron shall pass upon their garments. Mom and Dad sip flat whites, Perfect Son and Perfect Daughter exchange quiet words, share pastries. “Try this,” Perfect Daughter says. “It’s good,” Perfect Son says. He takes the dirty brown cotton ball for a short walk around the cafe. The dog is the size of a postage stamp. Mom works at her appearance, and it shows. Dad wakes up looking like an actor in talking pictures, like Van Johnson in The Last Time I Saw Paris. The four of them radiate a light of goodness and beauty. The Perfect Daughter snuggles the dirty brown cotton ball, and it’s a picture-perfect scene no one felt they had to capture a photo of. They’re not on their phones. They’re talking to each other, smiling, joking, enjoying each other’s company. All is right with the world. All is as it should be. Perfect Son tells Perfect Dad a joke and Perfect Dad teases him. We all want what they have and none of us can figure out how to get it.
More and more Americans come in. People sit, stand, walk in, chat for a while, and depart. Cafés are microcosmic ballrooms. The movements in and out are like dances. Queues stood in and seats taken, plates cleared, baristas calling out drinks, music on the radio. The espresso machine swishes and whirs, forks clatter on plates. No one stays more than fifteen minutes. This is a place you can bring your kids and dogs to, a fleeting community hub, but it’s not a place to linger. It’s a way station to somewhere else. Perhaps the Star Wars exhibit down the street or the park. It’s Sunday and the weather is comfortable. No rain in sight, but big, beautiful clouds are bountiful. Outside, tiny yellow leaves rain on the street like an explosion of New Year’s confetti.
A sign near the front counter says, “Thieves operate in this area. Please watch your belongings at all times.” Church bells ring out at 10am.
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