I lived in Spain for fifteen years before moving to Thailand in 2015, thirteen of those in the barrio of Ruzafa, Valencia. This little story was written a few months before I left Spain permanently, although I didn’t know I would be doing so at the time I wrote it.

Each morning at eight I arrive at Café Lolin, just around the corner from my apartment in Barrio Ruzafa, Valencia, as Xieu, (pronounced Choo) the Chinese owner, is opening up. (And as much as I would love to, I always restrain myself from greeting him with ‘Ah, Choo’. I doubt very much he will understand the limp joke.) While he gets a head of steam up on the coffee machine I start putting out the tables and chairs on the terraza, i.e. the pavement outside his café. The heavy sun umbrellas I leave to him. Occasionally I’ll take the newsagent his early morning cortado and collect the newspapers for the café. At least I’m assured I’ll get first read of El Pais that morning.

As I drink my café con leche, Xieu’s wife, Fang, arrives and takes over serving while Xieu busies himself in the kitchen preparing the Spanish breakfast staples; tortilla de patatas, beicon y patatas, morcillo, trocitos de lomo.

Shortly after, Ferne, their daughter, passes by, taking Cristina, her often petulant daughter, to school (although to be fair, I think most little girls are petulant at that time of day). I’ve watched Cristina grow from a small round faced dumpling wrapped in a blanket when Ferne did a promenade around the tables presenting her to the regulars, who cooed and cawed as society demands, to a confident seven-year-old, queen of the calle.

I have fond memories of my grandkids – six-year old Katie and Danny, two years younger, on a weekend visit from the UK, running up and down the street with Cristina, laughing and shouting in languages totally incomprehensible to each other while being chased by a child-devouring monster, my forty-year old son, Jim, while his elder brother, Tom, and I wished to hell they’d rush off and scream elsewhere. But other regulars never minded.

Over the years, with the addition of two sons to Ferns’ family, Alex and Andres, the space between the door of the café and the row of tables on the terraza has become almost a kindergarten. If the family are busy there’s always someone to keep the kids entertained with a bunch of keys, a mobile phone, or spoon-feed them with one hand while turning the page of Las Provincias (the local daily) with the other, while someone else will make sure that none of the other kids run out into the street in front of a car. We hear stories of neighbourhoods of the past where everyone kept an eye out on kids in the street, but in 2014 Ruzafa, not one of the niños of Café Lolin is unobserved out the corner of someone’s eye.

Like most cities world-wide, many of the bars, cafes and shops in my barrio have been taken over by Chinese, and I have to be honest and agree with the cultural image they display, that as a race they can be rude, difficult to deal with, and totally concerned with the extra centimo they can stick on the bill.

And that’s where Xieu, Fang and Ferne provide a total contrast.

Whatever time of day you arrive for your café, tostada or copa, there’s a big smile waiting for you. They may have been on the go since day-break, and you may have had a bad day and want to take it out on someone – but while every other bar, café and shop in the barrio will welcome you with a glower, Xieu and the ladies are there, never without a smile, a chat if they have a moment to spare, an invitation to share their meal if I turn up late afternoon while they are having their very belated lunch.

Café Lolin makes the barrio a barrio in the fullest sense of the word, a neighbourhood.

One day in late spring they weren’t there. No Xieu, Fang nor Ferne. My coffee was served by Jorge, the son, who had previously run the afternoon shift. A nice lad, but no Xieu. My questions as to the whereabouts of the family were met with evasive answers. Eventually I stopped asking, until one day a few month laters Fang visited briefly. Same big smile, same enquiry about the health of my grandkids. She gave me their new business card, a restaurant to the north of the city. 

I’m glad they made the step up and are doing well, but Café Lolin isn’t the same without them. No more putting the tables out and taking the newsagent his morning coffee, no more chat with Fang as she potters preparing for the day. I even miss the kids running up and down – sometimes. And I never did get to say ‘Ah, Choo!’