Silent night

2 min readMay 20, 2024

The cactus on the tables, the chatter in Campanese dialect, the fresh nutty toasted smell of an espresso.

Living the Dolce Vita in a neighbourhood square in Campania…Except I was in West Norwood, or “West Nowhere”, as our West Dulwichians would joke. The cafe I walked into was spilling out onto the main road, and it was just after Christmas, walking under a grey sizzling downpour.

As I walked in, I found a spot by the coffee machine, ideally positioned at a vantage point to look around the cafe, like the theatre director at the edge of the stage.

The barista came over and said, “Flat white,” and I replied embarrassingly, “Decaf. “Of course,” he replied. He knew he was definitely not in his home town of Sardinia.

As I looked around the cafe, trying to see what was on the menu, an Irish man in his 40s walked in, sat down a few metres away from me, and sat opposite a man I couldn’t quite make out.

I was curious, a cafe owner, catching up with an older man. It didn’t seem like his dad or relative. It could have been his neighbour; maybe they hadmet at Dulwich Hamlet FC’s stadium, the local football club, or they were just regulars at the cafe that I hadn’t noticed before.

The elderly man looked up from his slumber and came to life. “It’s busy in here, isn’t it?” “Do you fancy sharing a soup? It’s a rebollita, I think.”

“How was Christmas?” the elderly man asked inquisitively. Andy, the Irish middle-aged man, talked about the trips he had to make with his children to see his parents and in-laws.

“I feel exhausted.”

“How was yours?”

Jim didn’t reply. The room seemed to fall silent even though it was very noisy.

“You’re the first person I’ve spoken to since I went to the food bank before Christmas”.

Suddenly, my public service mind switched on, and I thought:

  • How is it that someone can be invisible and lonely in plain sight?
  • What is it about the cafe that brings together locals to help each other out?
  • What is it that the cafe owner can spot this person in a cafe that’s so busy?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese