Country mouse in the big city – in the library

I was recently visiting a unfamiliar town – a city suburb really – not far from where I live. I was there on an errand – a bureaucratic matter, where I needed to wait around until some documentation was ready to collect. At the time, I was unaware that a very short train ride would take me to the center of the city, which was well-known territory. So, I set out to explore the town. My first need was for breakfast and I found a small café that could provide just what I was after. It was a cold morning, so, after a bit more walking around, I needed somewhere warm where I could could sit and read/work and maybe get some coffee …

My home is a small, country town only about an hour’s travel to the nearest city. It is a very pleasant place to live without being in the “middle of nowhere”. Although it is a culturally rich environment, it is not ethnically diverse; there are people who are not “white British”, but they are quite a minority. The result is that, when I go to the city, or the suburb on my errand, I am presented with a very different environment. The obvious difference is that white faces are in the minority and signage on shops etc. is not necessarily in English. On the other hand, in a street with perhaps a couple of dozen shops, there are about 6 fruit and veg shops with a great variety of produce; I would love to have such a choice near my home.

I did not feel unsafe or even uncomfortable in this environment, but I did feel a little like I was visiting another country. It reminded me that I live in a slightly insular world. In looking for a warm place to hang out, something familiar caught my eye: the local library.

I am not a particularly regular library user. To be honest, they have very little to offer in my everyday life and are mostly only open during working hours. However, they are familiar, comfortable places and the one I found was no exception. The staff were friendly and I could get a somewhat drinkable cup of coffee and I found a table at which I could work. I quickly established that there was free WiFi and I was all set. I had not accounted for the local “color” coming into the library …

The first person to distract me was a woman, who appeared to be wearing a burqa, so that only her eyes were visible. I had seen several women is such garb around the town, so her clothing was unremarkable. I then realized that she was actually wearing a long black dress and a niqab – the the full-head veil. This became apparent because, when she came to the desk to talk with the staff, she removed the niqab, which is very unusual behavior. She was revealed to be a middle-aged “white British” woman with a strong London accent. Her conversation was rather annoying. She was explaining a problem that was causing her stress, but her style of communication involved repeating the litany numerous times, as if that made it any clearer to the listener; I found this very irritating, but was impressed by the patience of the staff. I found it curious that she should apparently choose to embrace Islam [I have absolutely no problem with that], but be rather selective in how she followed the practices; I wonder if other Muslim women might have been offended.

My next source of distraction was close by. A young guy sat down at the table diagonally opposite me. I was very careful to not make eye contact. He proceeded to have a series of conversations. That is permitted, as there is no rule of silence in the library. However, my main concern was that his in-depth conversations were with people I could not see; they were figments of his imagination. But it got worse! In due course, another guy came along [who was actually real – I could see him!] and they chatted. Their conversation reached what, for me, was a new low level of banality [and I have accidentally watched breakfast/daytime TV before now, so I have known banality]. For example, there were conversational gambits like “What did you have for breakfast?” and “What is your favorite breakfast cereal?”

I soon decided that, although the warmth of the library was pleasant, the cost was too high and I headed for the below-freezing air outside …

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