Padding into the kitchen at 10 BC (10 minutes Before Coffee) I find my young son, James, crying silently and uncontrollably with laughter behind a giant box of Golden Grahams. He’s peering over the top at Walter, who is popping Weetabix into his mouth — whole, dry and sideways. Unaware he is being observed, our visiting language student from Italy crunches vacantly like a wide-mouthed frog, crumbs cascading down his cardie.
My brain struggles to cope as I inadvertently pour un-boiled water over coffee granules. So this is why James has started getting up far too early for school; he’s setting his alarm to watch ‘our’ students eat breakfast. And who can blame him?
Our house in Bournemouth sees a stream of language students passing through, allowing us all to observe the cultural chasm, which, like me, yawns widest at breakfast. Like a cross between David Attenborough and Basil Fawlty, I am both fascinated and appalled.
James’s joint favourite, next to Walter’s Weetabix, is Enoch’s eggs. A gentle soul from Hong Kong, Enoch’s fried-egg ritual is marvellous to behold. Meticulously removing all the white from the egg, as if performing key-hole surgery, he carefully raises the whole yoke, wobbling on his fork. He observes his quivering prey for a moment, then, with a sudden fly-catching movement, the yolk vanishes, leaving behind a mere glistening eggy trickle from both corners of Enoch’s mouth. It’s worth setting the alarm for.
I do try to make allowances but I’m at my most vulnerable and least tolerant first thing in the morning; and, while my brain remains in neutral, I find myself gawping, unable to tear myself away. In my more muddled moments I think they’re doing it on purpose, dreaming up combinations that would make Heston Blumenthal gag, with the sole purpose of doing my head in.
The most imaginative combination came from Serge, a self-confessed ‘banana addict’ from Barcelona (we had our suspicions). His combo was crispbread spread with gorgonzola and ginger marmalade, with a side-order of banana. Actually, gorgonzola with ginger marmalade might actually work, rather like manchego and quince — I’m just not sure about the banana. And we had to hide the mint sauce from Karin from Austria who, over the course of a week, used a whole jar of redcurrant jelly on her toast.
It seems toasters and electric kettles are rarely used in continental Europe where rolls and croissants are heated in the oven, and pans are favoured to heat milk and water. Many of our students genuinely do not have a clue how to operate either device, which does lead to some terse early-morning exchanges.
‘No, you don’t put teabags in the electric kettle!’
‘Ees jus’ for water?’
‘Yes, it’s just for water; and no milk either.’
I have also had to explain why we don’t put Weetabix in the toaster; and I still can’t help flinching as jam and butter slide off bread into bowls of coffee forming greasy slicks on the flakey surface. Sensitive to my pain, Xavi from Barcelona patiently explained that he can’t eat solids in the morning.
The worst crimes are committed against cereals and in my deranged morning state I wonder if the choice of crockery isn’t wilfully perverse. I’ve witnessed a French law student slopping coffee all over the table, trying to lift and drink from a large, handle-less cereal bowl. This wouldn’t have been so bad if, at the same time, he hadn’t been spoon-feeding himself cornflakes from a tiny coffee mug, which, despite having a handle, remained resolutely on the table.
Amelia from Rio, meanwhile, liked a mug of hot chocolate in the morning, brimming over with porridge oats. I couldn’t watch.
And just when I thought Eros, a Danny DeVito lookalike from Milan, was playing by our rules with a sensible bowl of cornflakes and milk, he fixed me with a smile and casually stirred in three spoonfuls of Nescafe.
I know I need to loosen up but for breakfast, for the time being, I’ll stick with credit crunch and moral fibre, thank you very much. With milk — in a bowl — with a spoon.
Jonny’s best breakfast was a nice kipper in a pub in Norfolk