My hearthstone

I had to pull over in my car yesterday when I heard the news that Sisto Malaspina was named as the person killed in the Bourke St attack on Friday.

I don’t know the offender’s name, nor do I care to put it to memory but if you live in Melbourne, you have heard the name Pellegrini’s.

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Pellegrini’s – Bourke St, Melbourne

Sisto has co-run Pellegrini’s since 1974. Pellegrini’s had already been there for 20 years when he and his business partner Nino took over, but they realised that if something ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and Pellegrini’s has stayed pretty much the same since then.

I wasn’t a regular there, I’d been a few times over the years, but I know the feeling of comfort and familiarity from a regular haunt. I worked at Marios’ in Fitzroy for a few years and I still drop in whenever I am in town. While the places are different, they have both seen decades in the same location, with the same pair of owners. And they both have the same ethos of doing a simple job well – which is not as simple as it sounds.

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Marios’ Cafe – photographic artwork by Massimo Di Sora

I learnt so much about my city and myself from working in or spending time in cafés. I learnt to be efficient, assertive and resilient. I learnt how to read a person’s body language, negotiate and intuit. I learnt how all the pieces of a city come together by watching its inhabitants mingle and move together, bounce ideas off each other, work on the next big thing, or simply fall in love slowly over weekly carbonaras.

If you stop for long enough in a place like Pellegrini’s, whether behind the counter or as a customer, you will see every facet of society come through the doors: celebrities, doctors or lawyers, artists and writers, parents and students, or the drug affected, homeless and unwell. At a place like Marios’ – and I suspect it was the same at Pellegrini’s too – it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you are just someone who wants something to eat and drink. If you think you need special treatment or you need to be fawned over – find somewhere else to go.

Now as a parent, I take Wade to cafés to learn the ways of civility, patience and marshmallow eating. There are lessons for both of us in learning to sit patiently at the table for things that you want – and knowing when to call it a day because the best-before date on his good manners just expired. I love that there are staff members and customers who knew him before he was born – when he was an uncomfortably placed heel in my rib cage while I delivered coffees – and now he is ordering his own lunch like a boss.

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Pondering life’s larger mysteries

The life of a city can unfold like a play through the front windows of an established café. Neighbouring businesses come and go, styles wax and wane and the social structure of a street can change over time. But cafés like Pellegrini’s and Marios’ are my hearthstone. I return for comfort and familiarity. While these spaces were the fuel that stoked my fire in my 20s, I am drawn to them for other reasons now.

Anxiety and depression regularly circle and threaten to commandeer a lot of the real estate in my mind these days. I often feel the pull to retreat further and further away, but I return to cafés almost daily. Mostly it’s my civic duty to ensure that my blood/caffeine ratio doesn’t get to publicly dangerous levels, but also, cafés are how I stay grounded to the world.

I’m not maniacal about food or even the coffee so much and you won’t see me sharing photos of food on Instagram.

It’s the feeling of the place that I like and need. I like sitting and watching or chatting if I want to. I can meet up with friends, work on my laptop, or sit alone with my thoughts or my Facebook feed. I can dip my toe in to the world or immerse myself if I feel like it. I can spend a little or a lot. I can wind up or wind down.

Nothing fills your cup like walking in to a place where your usual coffee is brought with no fuss, and a familiar face asks you how your day has been. When the weight of the world is starting to creep over me again, a simple interaction like this can keep those feelings at bay. I loved giving that service as much as I love being on the receiving end of it now.

A place like Pellegrini’s is a place to check in with your city and yourself. Whether that is daily, or returning nostalgically after moving away from an area, as I do now, there is something precious about that constant.

A good café like Pellegrini’s is like the beating heart of a city, and I feel like someone reached in and plucked it out of the CBD today.

Vale Sisto.

I am so angry that your life was ended by an act so fundamentally opposite to everything your contribution to this city stood for.

Connection, community and comfort.

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Sisto Malaspina

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