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Back Buzz - April 23, 2001

[pumping heart] Porter's Coffee House, 4 Manor Row, High Street, Tenterden, Kent

In small villages all over England you fully expect to run into plenty of tearooms, but coffeehouses and cafes selling espresso drinks are rare indeed. You might expect a place like Tenterden, one of the most picturesque towns in Kent, to have some sort of coffeehouse hiding in one of the Elizabethan or Georgian buildings lying along its broad tree-lined High Street. Considering tourists come from miles around to take a ride out of Tenterden on the Kent & East Sussex Railway, not all of them want refreshment in one of the local pubs, especially if they're about to drive home. So a coffeehouse makes sense, non?

Recently I went with a friend to Tenterden to meet his cousin for a pub lunch. Since the cousin was accompanied by his eight-year-old daughter, who happens to be a big Thomas the Tank Engine fan, it was only natural we should stroll over to the railway station and watch the steam trains pull in from Bodiam Castle and Northiam. Many of the cars on the Kent & East Sussex Railway are painted up to look like characters from the children's classic. (For my possibly confused American readers, the Thomas the Tank Engine stories were created 50 years ago by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry for his son Christopher and have been recreated on PBS.) As we watched Thomas the Tank Engine himself chugging his way slowly up the hill, belching steam as he struggled along and doing a more accurate representation of The Little Engine That Couldn't, a light snow began to fall. Since I was surrounded by a bounteous profusion of photogenic images and my digital camera had suddenly gone on the blink, we made our way back to the High Street, Yours Truly skipping hand in hand with little Chica. Yes, this was definitely a coffee moment as opposed to a pint moment. And Porter's Coffee House offered a warm retreat.

As the four of us entered the coffee house the proprietor was a bit pompous and unfriendly, undoubtedly suspicious of the young one amongst us. But Chica is an extremely well-behaved eight-year-old and there was no need for this man's attitude. I suppose this is simply another form of age-ism, where adults expect children to be obnoxious and unruly. Certainly no adult wants a screaming kid to invade his or her sanctuary. But in the case of a child who acts like an adult, why complain? There are a few well-behaved children in the world who deserve a little respect. (And this coming from a childless woman who relishes my child-free hours.)

Anyway, back to the coffee. I was happily surprised to see "macchiato" on the espresso menu; usually when I'm anywhere in the UK other than in central London I have to explain to the barista just what a macchiato is. And when we ordered our macchiatos the proprietor immediately asked if we wanted doubles. Yes, I thought to myself -- I'm finally going to have a real macchiato! As it turned out our macchiatos were okay, made with just the right amount of perfectly textured milk foam, but they simply weren't brilliant. They tasted as if the espresso machine needed a little cleaning and the shots needed a little firmer tamping. But I shouldn't complain too much; I'll admit I'm a caffeine perfectionist.

Speaking of bringing children into coffeehouses -- and pubs, for that matter -- reminds me of an e-mail exchange from six months ago with my Bay Area friend about dogs in pubs:

Today at the Solano Stroll I headed into PUB on Solano Street in Albany, which is so packed during this event that they serve the beer in pint-sized plastic cups. Several dogs wandered around the place, including a yellow lab with a million dollar bill tucked under its collar, behind its neck. I told the landlady that the millionaire dog had offered to buy a round of drinks for the house, but she demanded money from me anyway.

I'm glad to see American dogs are starting to hang out in pubs as well -- especially the rich ones. In English pubs I've befriended so many independently wealthy people it becomes depressing; I keep wondering when it's going to rub off on me. Anyway, me and my nonrich English friends do get the occasional round bought for us by these people, and we try to reciprocate but sometimes can't.

If a millionaire dog buys a round for the entire pub, is everybody there expected to buy the dog a pint of beer? Or would a dog biscuit or a scratch behind the ears suffice?

And on the subject of English children, here's another e-mail exchange complete with e-mailed graphics:

The photo I'm enclosing was taken on the road up to Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. This suggests that the local school district must be at the bottom of Britain's scholastic ratings...

So what does DEAD SLOW CHILDREN mean? I thought I had seen a lot of British idioms, but this one baffles me.

I'm assuming DEAD SLOW means simply EXTREMELY SLOW -- where Americans might express it more clearly and technically as SCHOOL ZONE: 5 MPH LIMIT instead of simply SCHOOL ZONE, the American equivalent of SLOW CHILDREN. I still don't understand those signs which display the silhouette of an elderly couple with canes seemingly stumbling across the street in fear of their lives. Is this a caution or an invitation?

Yesterday I forgot to send you the most interesting of the things I clipped from the Los Angeles Times over the weekend: a photo taken along a country road in England.

Britain certainly has some strange road signs and customs. This year they're covering up all the PUBLIC FOOTPATH signs so people won't walk through farmlands and spread Foot and Mouth Disease on their shoes.

I wonder if there are any parts of the country where SLOW CHILDREN'S EYES REMOVED FOR NEXT 3 MILES signs are posted...

Speaking of signs, I've noticed all these plain block-letter TO LET signs in windows. They seem to be identical in size and shape to the TOILET signs you see in public places. Could they be marketing the same sign for both purposes, simply enclosing a removable "I"?