Café Lata: Coffee, students and conversations

A favourite meeting point for students. Photo by Errol Chopping

A favourite meeting point for students. Photo by Errol Chopping

Vladivostok's centrally located Café Lata is a place to sit and think and sip and, and if you’re lucky, to chat.

One of those lazy days when you feel like doing nothing. I come down into the foyer of the Equator hotel and consider having coffee.

The ladies in the kiosk are used to me now and they know I’ve rehearsed saying ‘coffee please, with sugar’ in Russian. They’ve stopped laughing now too. They usually make the coffee with one of those inexpensive pod machines, you know the ones, popular everywhere, and it’s not too bad.

This morning there’s no coffee for me though, for two reasons. The foyer is full of people, very surprising, and they are crowding that kiosk. The ladies are making coffees for them, not me, at full tilt.

The security guard is middle aged but obviously strong. He's well muscled under clothes that might be partly uniform. Blue serge trousers and a similar blue shirt and a blue jacket, on which there is some kind of emblem. He sits at his desk just slightly off centre near the stairs. He's certainly been up on his feet this morning because these hundred or so people are there for an event hosted in the hotel conference centre.

They hang about outside waiting for doors to open but they don't look like typical delegates. They're mostly men, mostly middle aged and mostly smokers.

Anastasia, the receptionist, looks at me over top of their heads, rolling her eyes.

Anastasia. Photo by Errol Chopping

When they start to move in through the single conference room door, there's loud and enlightening music and an almost coral blend of strong chords and choir.

One can imagine the performers smiling as they sing, with up-turned faces, reaching with hands towards the audience while the microphone is held strategically closer and farther from their mouth as the song requires more or less intonation. The security guy is busy. He keeps his eye on them.

Anastasia indicates that the masses will soon be gone and funnelled into the conference room. What a funny mixture. What sort of conference is this? I discover soon that it’s an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The other reason for my abstinence is that good coffee awaits, elsewhere. At the Café Lata.

Down the steps I go. Past the Admiral.

Past the Admiral. Photo by Errol Chopping

The gardeners are depositing rich and dark potting mix and lots of tiny flowers in the beds behind each step. It’s a misty morning, with the air full of moisture, but warm. I walk past the Siberian Tiger. Up the street. I have a meeting to go to, at the Café Lata.

I am walking in the heat, the mist is clearing now. I’m in the mall. The fountains are working and the flowers here are showing bright and clear and the locals are in summer clothes. It’s getting hot. All the shops are open, and doing a good trade.

There’s lots of people on the benches. I pop out the other end. My calves start to ache as I reach the corner and I welcome the chance to rest while the traffic lights are red. One kilometre walked, one kilometre to go, to the Café Lata.

In the mall. Photo by Errol Chopping

Together with me, on the street, is a businesswoman, wearing a pencil skirt. Next to her stand two men, one in a T-shirt and jeans, the other in a polyester business shirt, but without a tie, and dark trousers. They’ve escaped from their workplace for some summer brunch near the Market.

I cross the road and start to negotiate семеновская (Semenovskaya St). People shield their eyes with magazines to make their own shade. Here, small mercies, we are in shadow. Temporarily a relief.

Now the upward slope increases, and up I walk. The calves again. My own shirt sticks to me a little. People are resting on the tall steps leading to the fishing shop, which is full, of course, with rods and lines and nets. The window sports ex-army gear, a pair of goggles.

The passers-by are only partly interested in fishing, for it’s a convenient distraction to pause here. Youngsters gather with their mobile phones. Girls chat. Many are holding store parcels and paper bags, with shirts or belts or shoes.

There’s the smell of smoke somewhere. I can detect sausage, or a shashlick barbeque. Up above the tower buildings are facing off, each non-blinking in defiance of the next, and further still, up ahead, I can just make out a park by the corner, although there’s a busy roundabout there too and I can hear the traffic and the noise. Later I think I’ll go there for some Milk and Honey. Now it’s for the Café Lata.

Half way up the road, a footpath is broken and one building is set back from the others. In front there’s a makeshift car park, paved with slabs of concrete, which float on the earth like ill-fitting tiles. Although there’s theoretically room for four cars, only three can fit, their drivers prop them where they stop.

My eyes are distracted by the sign up ahead, and slightly to the right. A massage is available, and a travel agency awaits. Neither are of interest though and if I keep my head down I can make it up this hill. Finally here. There’s a small and unobtrusive sign. It’s here. Welcome to Café Lata.

Café Lata. Photo by Errol Chopping

Tiny. It’s like a lounge room too. The walls are papered and the paper is embossed. There’s carpet on the floor. It’s very quiet, and still. At most there are seven tables, and only some of them can host four patrons. A desirable corner booth, just inside the door, is occupied: three men with laptops and coffees.

Along the side wall are several 2-seat tables, and at one an older woman sits with paperwork and cappuccino. At the end and opposite her there is a bar, behind it appears to me to be another place, perhaps a kitchen. A girl of university age is working there, a tourist talks to her. I’m miffed, how did he find this place? Slightly behind me and to the left a door, a bathroom. Above the bar a chalkboard ‘Yes we have WiFi’.

I find a table and am one of five, not counting the tourist who leaves. Some places are designed to eat. Eat and run. Pay and eat and run. Some places are designed to drink. Meet and drink and laugh and play. Others are designed to eat then toast and conspire. Café Lata is a place to sit and think and sip and, and if you’re lucky, to chat.

There’s an aircon but at the moment it’s off and Lata is cool compared to the street. I relax, and wait for my compatriot. I think, so far away from home and yet so comfortable.

I approach the bar. кофе, пожалуйста (coffee please), с сахаром (with sugar). As you know, I’ve rehearsed it.

My compatriot comes in, hot and tired. Walked from the FENU dorm, across the road, along the ramparts of the new bridge spanning the bay. Past the concrete of the halls of the funicular railway above Svetlanskaya, down through the roundabout and past the Milk and Honey. We set up our computers and join the WiFi.

Together we drink our coffee and deal with how to record our voices over powerpoint, a five card presentation deck. You see, in every session, in every subject, for every assignment we need to provide a heralding for students. A voice capture explaining the needs of the lecturer and the needs of the assignment. These files are big too and have to be uploaded to the university online system. Even with Lata’s quick WiFi, it takes ages.

A boy arrives and then another. The university girl welcomes them. She moves three tables together and eyes ours, still occupied, and the one used by the paperworker. Two more young men and another two young women enter. That’s six now. The place is getting full.

The paperworker leaves, maybe she knows something. The university girl claims her table. The laptop men from the desirable table near the door slide in, in a kind of flanking movement, to join the others. My compatriot and I now retreat, and move to their table. What else can we do? Two more women arrive.

With masks. Photo by Errol Chopping

The four tables are now covered with one large cloth. The university girl brings masks, perhaps Venetian in style but more practical, in plastic, and these masks, they’ve got dark straps of cloth across them, like eye patches. Something is happening! Is it a game? Is it a religious ceremony?

Somewhere in this activity people lapse, or die. Others gleefully laugh and sigh.

It maybe Dimitry Davidoff’s Mafia game. It may be just a winking ‘I am it’.

Despite the sinister overtones, no-one actually passes on. They come and cooperate and pass their time, they enjoy the quiet and the coffee, in the Café Lata.

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