Around nine o’clock each morning and I head for my favourite bar for a latte or a cappuccino. In Italy there’s practically a bar on every corner and each has its own social life from morning to evening. Sitting in my little corner I am fascinated by the array of people who come and go.
Before coming to Italy I imagined Italians whiling away the hours sitting at tables outside coffee bars watching the world go by, having heated discussions about politics, waving their arms in the air and generally just taking it easy over a cappuccino. How wrong I was. It was quite shocking for me to go to a bar and not find many tables to sit at, it was even more shocking when people asked me what was wrong my cappuccino as I was drinking it too slowly. In my opinion cappuccino and latte are meant to be enjoyed slowly, every sip savoured to the last, not gulped down in the rush to get on and go somewhere else.
Over the years more tables and chairs have appeared in bars but it is still not how I had imagined all those years ago. I have been going to the same bar for about 18 years, chosen originally as it was one of the few near my home where you could actually sit down. Bar life in the morning is a lively affair with mothers and children grabbing a hot drink and a cornetto (not the ice cream, this is the word they use for a brioche). Kids come in and head for the crisp stand to see if their favourite packet is there with the little toy inside that they are collecting. Every now and again a child is disappointed and may throw a tantrum, all is not lost as the barman has a special stash of little toys behind the counter for moments such as these. He gives the child a toy and the mother breathes a sigh of relief as the day can now continue as planned.
People stand up and eat the cornetto, alternating with a quick slurp of cappuccino. The atmosphere is electric as people here always seem to be running late. Business men may pop in for an expresso, they stand at the bar, down it in one fell swoop, put the change on the counter and rush out. Definitely not how I had imagined. I am capable of sitting in my corner and getting through two lattes while half the town has already been and gone.
There are the stragglers who appear after the morning rush, they drift in, sit at a table in front of a newspaper and then order a drink. One particular style of coffee is rather popular with the road workers, it is called a ‘cafe corretto’, an expresso mixed with a liquor (for me it seems to be anything but ‘correct’ at that time of the morning but then who am I to judge?). Some will drink a little grappa (a strong liquor) side by side with their expresso, others will order a ‘digestivo’, sounds like a biscuit but it is, in fact, another alcoholic drink with a clever disguise.
Then there are the mothers who, having dropped their kids at school, come in to talk about what’s on the menu for lunch and dinner, no cheese sandwiches, or hot dogs here, they sound as if they are discussing a restaurant menu. Conversation is lively and animated, the mothers have fun.
You also get the loners, a bit like myself I suppose; the odd old gent who may grab a beer and people who come in for a chat to the barman, to hang around and have a few laughs. Scandals and gossip at times abound, political discussions and a lot of throwing arms up in the air, it’s just that people do it standing up at the bar instead of sitting down at tables as I had thought.
Throughout all this activity, in the background, is the constant clatter of cups and saucers, a comforting sound of a busy bar where people come and go, sharing a little of their lives. The bar folk are helpful and friendly, if someone needs a lift somewhere there are always volunteers, sometimes someone will even volunteer to go to the post office for everyone. A big happy bar family. A cosy place in a world that often shocks and hurts. The outside world is present only in the form of the newspapers sprawled on one of the tables, but even the world news takes second place to the happenings in and around the locality of the bar.
Each bar has its characters, these people stand out from the rest as being different, but they are as much a part of bar life as all the other people who come and go. Who knows maybe I’m part of this group, I drink cappuccino at any hour of the day, in Italy it is normally a morning drink though you can often find me in the bar at aperatif time or in the afternoon slowly drinking my frothy coffee. My coffee always has to be piping hot even when it’s 90 degrees outside, but they know me in this bar and my coffee is always perfect. I sit quietly in the corner, reading or writing, no arm waving for me or heated political discussions.
A popular topic of conversation is the weather, it’s a myth that only the English are obssessed with what’s going on in our atmosphere. It is always too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry but when the sun is out people are generally happier and sit for longer outside, on the low window sill of the bar, smoking. When it snows, those who can, hang around for longer than usual waiting for the morning rush hour to end. After all, no point in rushing somewhere when you may get caught in traffic bumper to bumper because someone hasn’t put winter tryes on their car. When a snow storm is causing havoc outside there’s no better place in the world than your local bar.
Italian bars are a hub of activity with gentle lulls during the day to give the barman time to catch up with the cup and saucer washing. In winter they are warm and cosy, in summer cool and fresh, there is always someone ready to pass the time of day, faces come and go, cappuccinos created and drunk. They are special corners of the world where you can remain quietly anonymous or be the life and soul of the party, somewhere to spend time with friends, associates and family. A place to be who you are with whom you want to be, whether a crowd of people, a few friends or alone with a good book.
If you find yourself in Italy don’t miss out on your morning coffee, find a bar to make yours for your stay. Enjoy the atmosphere, enjoy the people but most of all savour your cappuccino.