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The colourful characters in my coffee are always an inspiration for my writing


Love, sex and caffeine

When Elliott Katz needed inspiration for a book on relationships, he found his muse in local coffee shops

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I was at home writing a book of relationship advice. It didn't take long before I started feeling isolated. I needed more inspiring surroundings.

I remembered the atmosphere of the old Café Prag in Montreal. This is where Leonard Cohen is said to have written Suzanne while drinking espresso. Years ago, I watched a patron stand up, walk over to the café's piano and, unannounced, start playing.

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I thought of Café Central in Vienna where I drank Viennese coffee and absorbed the same culture that Sigmund Freud enjoyed and where Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin played chess. I imagined what it would have been like to eavesdrop on their conversations.

Viennese coffee-house culture was recognized by UNESCO as part of Austria's intangible cultural heritage. Where could I find such an inspiring environment in Canada's coffee-house culture?

If I lived in downtown Toronto, I could hang out in funky cafés with exposed brick walls, latte art and colourful local characters. But I'm at the northern edge of the city, near Bathurst and Steeles. Here, we have coffee-house chains. One day UNESCO may even decide to recognize our own coffee-house culture as part of our Canadian "intangible cultural heritage," which I imagine could also include hockey, paddling a canoe and swatting black flies.

As far as I know, at the Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Hortons in this neighbourhood, no famous songs were written, no political revolutionaries played chess – for that matter I never saw anyone play chess, and nobody walked over to a piano and started playing – well, there are no pianos.

But I did discover my local cafés have their own colourful characters. One day, a woman at the next table told me the government wanted to hire her to be a spy on Wall Street in New York. She was proud to say she turned down the job. On another occasion, a woman told me she knew phrenology and could tell a person's personality by measuring and feeling the shape of their head. I thought she could use it to see if couples were compatible.

My book is about relationship advice for men – I called it Being the Strong Man a Woman Wants – and I found inspiring scenes and conversations in abundance at my local cafés. It was a slice of real-life relationships.

I saw a man with a long stemmed rose sitting alone at a table. He kept looking around. Finally a woman arrived. He stood up and gave her the rose. She smiled.

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I watched a young couple get their coffee. I could tell it was their first date. The man nervously turned to the woman and asked, "Where would you like to sit?" I watched another young couple speaking for an hour and then he leaned over, stroked her hair and kissed her. She ignored his advances.

I heard a woman complain about a boyfriend who didn't call the night before as he had promised. I heard a divorced man talk about his battle to not lose his relationship with his son and how he is now close with him.

I saw another man with his daughter and wondered if he was divorced and this was his access time with her.

A woman waiting to be interviewed for a scholarship to study abroad thought I was the person she was supposed to meet. Even though I told her I wasn't, she shared with me why she thought she should be awarded the scholarship. She also told me that she's divorced and, with little communication with her ex-husband, there is a lack of consistency between the two homes in raising their children.

I heard a man talk about how he had been successful in business but then made mistakes and lost everything. He said he eventually rebuilt and couldn't have done it without his wife. He said marrying her was the best thing he ever did.

I saw several couples who looked like they had been married for many years enjoying each other's company over coffee.

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I drank in everything I saw and heard – as well as a lot of coffee. I saw some of the messages of my book reflected in the interactions around me: Take responsibility for your relationships. Don't blame your partner. Take the lead to change the situation.

Witnessing these interactions inspired me to keep writing.

I was surprised that few people asked me what I was writing, but why should this surprise me? Our coffee places reflect our Canadian values: pursue your dreams; don't bother others and we won't interfere with what you're doing.

J. K. Rowling describes how she wrote her first Harry Potter book in the Elephant House Tea and Coffee Shop in Edinburgh. She said, "Wandering off to a café with a notebook and writing, and seeing where that takes me for a while is just bliss."

I understand what she means. Writing about relationships in a café surrounded by people living out the challenges, joy, frustration, pain and opportunities for growth in relationships motivated me.

Learning how to have a successful relationship is an age-old question. Many of us wrestle with it in small moments in our cafés. There may be no chess players or pianos at my local cafés, and Leonard Cohen may not have hung out here but they are definitely inspiring places.

Elliott Katz lives in Toronto.

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