Brewponent: What Italian Cafes Taught Me About Coffee

“Ciao, buongiorno. Vorrei un caffè, per favore.” I learned a multitude of Italian words and phrases during my four month stay in Italy this past spring, but these phrases were some of the very first. They translate to “Hello, good morning. I would like a coffee, please.” I learned them so quickly because, like many students, coffee is a daily staple in my life — as essential as a good meal or a good night’s sleep. In fact coffee was one of the things I anticipated most in my move to Italy. Coffee is deeply embedded in the culture of Italy and I could not wait to immerse myself in its history and practice. So every morning, after my bus ride into the city of Siena and before my first class I would wander into a different coffee shop and practice those two phrases, awaiting that bracing first cup of espresso for the day.

As with any social interaction in a foreign place there was a bit of a learning curve. The most prominent differences became apparent immediately. Despite its Italian origins, the word “espresso” is not used in Italy — one surefire way to out yourself as a foreigner is to ask for an one. In fact, I learned this lesson the hard way when one barista decided it would be funny to pretend he had never heard the word espresso and even had me write the word on a napkin, looking at it confused until he finally snapped his fingers and said “Oh! You want a caffè!” So from that point on I forever ordered a caffè, confused and slightly hurt by what I came to realize was the Italian sense of humor. Other rules were more subtle. For example: you shouldn’t order a latte or cappuccino after noon. Why? Because only children drink milk after noon, of course. These barriers were frustrating at first, but it forced me to take in another perspective on coffee — it’s context.

For as long as I have enjoyed coffee I have considered it an independent entity; the way it tastes or is prepared. Maybe it’s good, maybe not. But this new experience made me aware of where the coffee is served, in what way and why. I began to see the coffee shop as intimately tied to its product, its customers and its social implications. This is what happens when you uproot yourself from a comfortable environment and place yourself in an entirely new situation. Even the simplest of tasks take on a complexity that never would have been necessary in the past. I took on this newly immense task by picking a single coffee shop and immersing myself completely in it.

Picking the shop was easy. I went to school in Siena, a medieval city laid out in a spider web of curving, tight cobblestone streets with homes and shops crammed into aging buildings. It’s safe to say that real estate in the center of Siena is a precious commodity, so my school actually shared a space with several other businesses, including a tiny coffee shop called “Bar Pinatorrechio.” I guess I should explain that almost all coffee shops and bars in Italy are one and the same, serving coffee by day and alcohol by night (or sometimes the day too). And all of them are simply called “barre” or “bar” in the singular. This particular bar was a small establishment run by a brother and sister. After I picked the Pinatorrechio I began delving into its world.

Every morning I would have a caffè or cappuccino in the bar, trying to get to know the proprietors. At first we were just strangers; customer and server. And the language barrier did just as its name suggests, heavily slowing any progress I made. But day by day, coffee by coffee, as my Italian grew, so did my relationship with the owners. The woman’s name is Betti; the man’s Marco. They both were born and grew up in Siena. They inherited the bar from their father. With each new piece of information I could feel a relationship growing.

By the end of the semester I could hold a conversation with both of them, and did most days. I treasured their friendships perhaps more than any others I made with Italians in Siena because they, unlike my teachers or host family, had no earthly reason to be friendly towards me. I liked them and they liked me because of who we were. No more and no less.

When I arrived in Italy I was looking forward to the coffee, and I enjoyed it immensely. But what coffee gave me was so much more — an environment to bridge the cultural divide and make real friends. Nothing could have been clearer when I said a final goodbye to Marco and Betti before leaving Siena. So I implore you; the coffee drinkers to be aware of the context of your coffee. I was lucky enough to be forced to take on a new perspective, but there’s nothing stopping you from doing it yourself. Look up from your cup. Strike up a conversation. Get to know someone. Coffee shops are unique social hubs and should be treated that way. Coffee tastes great, but it can give us a lot more.