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Notes on a Tabaccheria

The Nuances of Italy Are in the Ordinary

“A tabaccheria feels like a Caravaggio still life, come to actual life but without the dramatic lighting.”

My introduction to a tabaccheria was as dull as it gets. My university advisor wrote me a note: “Go to a tabaccheria. Look for a ‘T’ sign.” Buy a stamp there for your resident permit kit—a boring introduction to what would soon become one of my favourite places.

At its core, the main goal of a tabaccheria is to sell tobacco. However, like most wonderful things in life, its purpose transcends its primary objective. Inside a tabaccheria, you will find not only multiple cigarettes and types of tobacco, but also candies, chocolate, sometimes souvenirs, public transport tickets, recharge cards for mobile phones, postage stamps, special stamps required for official documents, lottery tickets… As ubiquitous tabaccherie were already familiar with the sale and regulation of state monopolies (cigarettes, tobacco), it was natural for them to become sale points for others (stamps, tickets, etc.). Sometimes a tabaccheria will also have a bar where you can order cornettos, coffee, Aperol spritz, chips…the basic, typical offerings. And yet the tabaccheria is not a minimalist’s dream. Nothing in a tabaccheria is perfect.

A tabaccheria feels like the precariousness of the countertops, piled high with everything on offer. A tabaccheria feels like the elderly complaining about the heat and scratching their lottery tickets, like the kids tugging their parents’ clothes and campaigning for another piece of candy, like the store bell delicately ringing every time someone enters. A tabaccheria feels like the comforting brown of the who-knows-how-old furniture and the faint smell of cigarettes. A tabaccheria feels like a Caravaggio still life, come to actual life but without the dramatic lighting.

Tabaccheria Biagini Torre Pedrera

A writer I admire, Samantha Hillman, wrote an article titled “Heaven is a Foreign Supermarket” on how exploring supermarkets is one of the best ways to glimpse into a culture. I believe the sentiment of genuinely enjoying a place transcends the monuments in travel guides and Instagram photo spots. It is in the mundane places–post offices, convenience stores, newspaper stands, tabaccherie–that you really know a culture. While travel guides push the extraordinary, they rob an individual of perhaps a more enticing experience: it is in the ordinary that we are indeed able to understand the nuances of Italy. Maybe the reason why I am so attracted to tabaccherie is that my grandfather is a tobacconist himself, or maybe it’s because it is a representation of the quintessential Italian lifestyle, the Italian lifestyle that finds beauty in all forms and celebrates it. Whenever I visit a city in Italy, I try to see a tabaccheria at least once. One of my favourites so far is Tabbacheria 58, on Corso Regina Margherita in Turin, where the walls are adorned with posters from around the world, maps, souvenirs and the best part, a huge section dedicated to Pastiglie Leone.

In his novel Architecture of Happiness, Alain De Botton wrote, “The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile…our sense of beauty and our understanding of the nature of a good life are intertwined.” To me, a tabaccheria extols humility: it is a posto sincero, an honest place. A tabaccheria is not pretentious. It does not care whether it’s good enough for your Instagram. There is beauty in its simple existence. The space is a reminder of the humility that life is made of.

When I moved to Italy, I carried with me the cliched, Netflix-like dream: Vespa rides by the coast, drinking Aperol spritz in open-air restaurants, twirling spaghetti into a beautiful round and waiting for an epiphany… Did I find this? To an extent, yes. But the other stuff I experienced was even more fulfilling. I found meaningful places that offered me a glimpse into the local Italian lifestyle. I found myself audience to experiences that don’t usually end up on travel blogs, but are more than worthwhile. My friend Andrea likes to say a tabaccheria is a social temple for older people and although the lottery tickets are tempting, it’s because of the sense of no-nonsense-no-frivolous-business a tabaccheria offers. He reminds me that humans, no matter their age, keep circling places that don’t ask much of us and that allow us to just exist and enjoy. When friends visit and ask for recommendations, somewhere in the list is always a bullet point: “Go to a tabaccheria. Look for a ‘T’ sign.”