Pencil in hand

There is something quintessentially civilised about sitting in a café. I love saying that because I love sitting in a café, and I love drinking coffee.I also love saying that, because anyone who might be tempted to think of something else quintessentially civilised is in danger of being thought uncivilised for doing so.

Perhaps it was the arrival on my desk of an academic paper for translation that had me hankering for days of old when much of my required reading was done in a café.

The agency from whom the work came must have young translators on their books, because it instructs translators to print out the text and read through the entire paper before starting on the translation.

All this printing and paper has possibly been conceived as a tool for improving quality. I do not disagree with it; I merely find it impractical for most of the work I normally do. I find I can achieve the same degree of thoroughness by reading a text through on screen and either highlight of otherwise annotate using the tools provided for in the appropriate programme. Doing it on the computer has the advantage of making such comments searchable. and, if you discover you are dealing with (think: grapes) a terminological cluster, then you can find all instances of related terms using the search feature in that nifty computer of yours.

I balk at printing out 25 pages, but this is my first job for this agency, and I should respect their wishes. I am quite convinced that they cannot track my movements – let alone my eye movements over the printed word – from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but I consent privately to complying with this odd “instruction”.

I have read some of the manuscript on the sofa, and some in bed for want of a more effective soporific. Handwritten scribblings can be tiresome, so I decide to speak my translation into the recorder app on my newest toy, which I unintentionally called a phartsmone yesterday. Evidently, my phone is smarter than I. Listening to the sound of my own voice induces a drowsiness which makes further reading impossible. I am only half-way through the manuscript.

Much to the annoyance of the proprietors of the coffee shop of my student days, I could make a cup of filter coffee last well over an hour. Students may be short of cash, but they do have other resources at their disposal.  The trick was not to drink the coffee, but to absorb myself in my reading material immediately, pencil in hand.  Only when the waitress came sidling by in the hopes of whipping my cup away would I gesture towards the cup as if to pick it up. This tiny action was enough to keep the waitress at bay. As time wore on the intensity of her glare would increase and I would be forced to take a sip.

It was a harmless game which afforded me a place to read and think in relative solitude, with the added bonus of being an excellent vantage point from which to people-watch.

I had to see a man about a charity collection box in the village today, and fully intended to stop at the café afterwards for a coffee. So it was with much glee that I stuffed my manuscript and two sharpened old-fashioned pencils into my satchel-like leather bag mid-morning to accomplish this minor chore. What self-respecting manuscript is not dog-eared, anyway?

A double espresso, water to the top, and forty-five minutes on this fine, sunny day was all it took on the balcony verandah of the café for me to accomplish a thorough and annotated reading of the text for translation. How glorious to be away from my desk! How wonderful to realise once again how little work so very many people which make up the population of this village actually do on a Friday morning!

How interesting to note that both mother and daughter are slouching in precisely the same way at the next table. The mother disappears. In her absence, the daughter is chatting to her friend. While doing so, both are also occupied with the distracted operation of their phartsmones.

The essential element of eye contact in face-to-face communication is entirely missing. The space between them is vacant, colourless – without vibration, and devoid of the milk of human kindness. They seem happy enough, though, in their own bubbles. I am able to report this in such detail because I stared – yes, stared pointedly – at them for a full self-counted ten seconds from a distance of a metre and a half without either of them noticing. There was nothing remarkable about this except that their “eye-contact antennae” were so very sluggish!

My eye-contact antennae are well-trained, especially in the peripheral vision department, as are my lip-reading and eaves-dropping skills. The latter two don’t work so well when I am surrounded by Portuguese, but since I have been studiously silent since I sat down, one of these two young woman has no way of knowing that.

When some handsome young man whom she has not seen for a long time appears at the café, they stand to one side and chat for about ten minutes. Lots of eye contact and body signals there. Hmm. The young woman has turned on her antennae and suddenly I am aware that she keeps looking at me, and lowers her voice occasionally.

This behaviour is normal, but entirely unnecessary in this case: I have no great interest in her because I am enthralled by the excellent arguments contained in the conclusion of the French paper I am reading, and am already planning my strategy when I start translating properly later today. As I scribble my last little note in the margin on the last page of the manuscript resting in my lap, I realise that even in the age of phartsmone addicts, the power of people watching is alive and well. The young woman who was talking to her guy friend has finally noticed that I am left-handed. Her two companions did not.

The Church bell rings the hour; it is with some haste that I dash up the hill to check the lawn (currently covered in topdressing) at the villa where I garden part-time. The Fresias are in full bloom – so suddenly! The absent owners said I should pick them and take them home when this happened. So I do.


(who will translate anywhere)

6 thoughts on “Pencil in hand

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  1. Apart from the translations, which I don’t do, this struck every chord, pushed every button, and registered as true. People watching from a sunny outdoor cafe is one of the best occupations. Actually writing with a real pencil, on real paper, is a real experience which typing on a keyboard can never match. Exactly as you say, the computer is faster for all sorts of practical reasons, but none so satisfying as the sound and feel of graphite on paper. (No, ball point pen is not the same at all.) We should all do it more often.


    1. Quite right – we should all do it more often. I am thinking of doing this at least once a week, for the sheer joy of it all. This café is under new management. I have already made friends with them. 🙂


  2. This brings back memories, except the cafè I used to wait at was always so noisy I would never have been able to concentrate on a translation (even if I could do something like that). People watching I certainly did.


  3. I am of the fence generation, both addicted to my phartsmone and eye contact. I tend to (gasp) put my phone down during interpersonal conversations. That’s not to say I don’t pick it up and zip off a text, tweet, or status update, but the conversation pauses because I can’t seem to manage both. Thank you for sharing your people-watching observations. Now I think I’ll try that little experiment and see if the phartsmone users notice me watching while they talk and tweet simultaneously. I will also hence forth and hitherto refer to my device as a phartsmone and see who notices that. Ha!


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