“Posso prendere un caffé macchiato?” (“Can I have a macchiato?”), I said in a voice a decimal louder than my usual volume. I was standing at an angle in order to squeeze between two suit-clad men and a group of students at the bar. I was on my tiptoes and had raised my hand to get the barista’s attention.
I connected eyes with the barista who would later become, if you will, my barista. His eyes crinkled into a smile above his mask, and he pushed up his starched sleeves.
“Certo, signorina” (“Of course, miss”), he said, immediately beginning to pull a shot of my post-pranzo pick-me-up.
Afternoons at the local bar are chaotic. Some people only have a minute or two to sneak in an espresso before continuing on with their day. Others are here to linger and gossip in hushed tones over soda water and cappuccinos, and others to people-watch or make conversation for hours with whomever else pops in. There are children underfoot and arms shooting out in every direction to grab a cornetto or caffé. Making your way through the crowd is no easy feat: it is a lesson in confidence and patience.
At first, I was timid. My Italian was shaky, my voice quiet. But one day, I found this unassuming caffé on the corner in Viterbo, where the letters on the sign are peeling and the plastic chairs are always full. I met the barista, and my longest running, most dedicated Italian relationship began. He is the person that I look forward to seeing every day.
The silver espresso machine is so polished that you can see your reflection clearly, like the back of a spoon. The writing on the Faema machine translates to “espresso and cappuccino, the Italian lifestyle.” The wall behind the machine is coated in magnets and stickers from around the world, creating a chaotic pop of color that very much mirrors the bustle in the afternoon. Every day, I stand amongst the other regulars–the university professors and students, the maintenance workers in their swishy neon orange jackets that take up a lot of space and the neighborhood elders. I sip my caffé with them, and feel like this bar has become my own.
Every day after my lunch break at work, I walk across the street to have my espresso. The espresso is bitter and makes my mouth pucker upon the first sip–a feeling I crave. It’s not the best caffé I’ve had in Italy, but I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else. The barista makes more than caffé: he makes me feel at home in this small city.
My barista is a man who appears ageless (is he 45 or 65?) and is always sharply dressed in his black vest and bowtie with a brown apron tied firmly around his waist. His dress isn’t unusual: it’s often found in established bars across Italy. But his effort in this small, roadside bar is a lesson in la bella figura, the practice of dressing well. It’s more than the coordination of the chocolate-colored apron and the brown swirl on the vest’s lapel; it’s an expression of dignity, open arms and hospitality. Even when the chatter turns into a low roar and the temperature in the bar creeps up from the crowds, the barista is never rushed. Time seems to slow down instead.
During the afternoon rush, when all customers are in desperate need of caffeine, he always connects eyes with each customer and flashes everyone a smile as fresh as his laundered shirtsleeves. I wait patiently for my moment as he turns to me to say prego, followed by “Dimmi Cara,” my favorite phrase in the Italian language. “Tell me, dear.”
His warmth and attention every day has boosted my confidence when speaking Italian. Here is where I learned to speak louder and to enunciate each syllable, instead of jumbling my vowels like I do in English.
As patient as a schoolteacher, he has gently corrected my pronunciation when I need it, pulling down his mask to move his mouth dramatically and wave his hands on the accents.
Like clockwork, when he is pouring the foam on my macchiato (It’s mah-kyat-o, not ma-key-aht-o), he turns to me and asks, “Ehhh come stai?” (“Ehhh how are you?”), assuring I say bene (good) or at least cosí-cosí (so-so).
In Italy, the job of barista is a well-respected position. It’s like being a town official: baristas know everyone in the neighborhood or town, and they have their favorite customers.
An Italian bar is a lesson in upkeep and pride. The bars are kept clean, and the espresso pours constantly and consistently. When my barista isn’t tapping down the espresso, he’s cleaning the bar, moving his rag up and down while holding lively conversations and calling out customers by name.
“How was class?” he will ask the backpack-clad students. He’s quick to coo at the babies in their strollers, only leaving his sacred post behind the bar to make them laugh.
Amongst the bustle, the barista gives each and every customer an overflowing cup of pazienza (patience). He makes you feel valued and seen. Sure, the caffeine helps, but the time he takes with each of us is what has stuck with me. Even if my bar lingo is slower than the others, he patiently waits for me to finish my order, his eyes locked on mine to encourage me along.
Like all good friendships, I’m constantly learning from him. I try to mirror his actions. To gesture my hands openly to encourage conversation, and to hold eye contact when I ask someone how they’re doing. To wave hello to the owners at the local bakery. To ask “come stai?” to those I haven’t and mean it.
From the coffee houses of Trieste to the crowded neighborhood bars in Catania, the interactions with baristas are one and the same. At first, on my travels around the country, I dreaded the expected question that would inevitably slip into conversations with baristas: “Di dove sei?” (“Where are you from?”). But over time, the feeling this question gave me changed. I saw the care and curiosity that the baristas have when they ask this question. It turns the routine of a few seconds at the bar, tossing back an espresso, into a happily directionless, joy-filled exchange.
Quick to jest, more than one barista has asked if I like the “dirty” or “gross water” American coffee. These playful interactions have enabled me to meet more people at the bar as well. In the U.S., grabbing a coffee is transactional and often rushed. Standing in firm lines, everyone checking their watches and phones, thinking of the next thing. Coffee is a vehicle, not something to be savored with neighbors.
Last week at my bar, I stumbled over my order. I mispronounced words I should have known by now, falling into the old habits of my American tongue. “Scusa, mi dispiace, sono americana. La mia pronuncia non é buona,” I admit listlessly, waving my hand in a you know what I mean motion. “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m American. My pronunciation isn’t good.”
My barista turned around and leaned over the bar, crossing the divide between us. He gave me a stern look. He raised his finger and pointed to me. “Sei bravissima,” he said. You are amazing.