I have traveled all over Italy and feel that I have an adequate grasp of its cultural nuances. Yet, as I have said previously, the beauty of Italy is its diversity and that diversity comes in a myriad of forms.
Don’t be naïve and assume that because you’ve lived and worked in the northern region (I refer here, to myself) that the lifestyle, food and culture in the nation’s south coincides. As with many places around the world, there is a visible north / south divide.
This realization hit me in the face. The alarm call for Gatwick Airport was 3:30am. I was sans coffee, food and not in a good mood. A three-hour flight ensued where I took issue in forking out a small fortune for greasy EasyJet pre-packaged plastic mush. Hence, I was a vacant hollow of a mess when we finally arrived at Catania airport at 10am. With a coffee bar in sight, I legged it over and in my most polished and formal of Italian, proceeded to ask for ‘duo macchiato per favor’.
The burley Sicilian barista with rustic sideburns and dripping in gold chained ornaments nearly choked.
‘Duo macchiato, che cosa macchiato? Cosa voi? COSA voi?’
His arms gesticulated wildly, his bushy face came within an inch of mine. I could taste his strong cologne.
Aghast and incredibly confused, I stood like a pillar and proceeded to utter my most humble apologies. This only stirred him on more,
‘Cosa voi? COSA voi?’ he boomed loudly across the airport.
I was mortified.
But, let’s retrace. What this incident demonstrated was a totally different approach in daily interaction, not to mention the crumbling of barriers between barista and customer. For me, my attempt to order coffee was a disaster. I had said the wrong thing, made the wrong comments, wasn’t quick enough, didn’t speak loud enough, etc.
Conversely, I discovered this was a totally normal interaction in Sicily. The island’s tone is louder, the people more boisterous, the conversation blunter, the food richer and the coffee stronger. Energy, enthusiasm and life permutates in every facet and stands in stark contrast to the singular north.
Me, with my Australian brazenness masked now with an adopted English reserve didn’t comprehend these nuances upon arrival. Like so many tourists, I naively assumed that because I had travelled and lived in one city, the other, albeit 1,341km below, could be the same.
After a quick interjection from my Italian other half, ‘scusa, duo café macchiato per favor,’ two perfectly presented, steaming hot and strong coffees were obtained. My mistake? Not explicitly referring that it was ‘café’ I was after.
The Sicilian barista erupted into a watermelon smile, my partner beamed and I wolfed it down.
For, me sans coffee, is a sight no one should behold.
Quirky Coffee Facts
– The average age of an Italian barista is 48. It is a revered and respected profession and not to be taken up by a 14-year-old looking for a part-time Saturday job (guilty, as charged).
– It takes 42 coffee beans to make an espresso.
– In the 1600s-controversy ensued as to whether Catholics could consume the esteemed beverage. Pope Clement VIII granted coffee clemency and thenceforth, Catholics could indeed partake in coffee time!
– Italy now has over 200,000 coffee bars (and counting).
– Why the name cappuccino? It derives from the cowl of a Capuchin friar’s habit.
– The introduction of milk to one’s coffee began in the 1600s, when a French doctor suggested trying Café Au Lait for patients.
Snapped! Coffee in Film
Café Express 1980
Coffee takes a starring role in this 1980 Italian comedy. The protagonist, played by the prominent Nino Manfredi ekes out a living by abusively selling coffee, hot milk and cappuccino on the night trains running between Naples and Vallo della Luciana.
Questi Fantasmi 1967
No Italian film roundup is complete without a Sophia Loren film. This 1967 comedy with Vittoria Grassman and Loren opens with this line: “I’d give up on anything except for this cup of coffee.” Loren then proceeds to explain the ritual of preparing a good coffee.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961
Simply, iconic. The Givenchy dress, Henry Mancini’s Moon River score, the angular New York 60s background – this scene is embedded in popular culture. Not to mention, it bears witness to the commercially accepted on-the-go coffee and Danish pastry.
Fun fact: Audrey hated Danish pastries, meaning the opening scene was a tad tiresome to film.
How to Marry a Millionaire 1953
I love this film and while coffee is sidelined throughout in favour of the curvaceous Marilyn, quick witted Lauren and legs-eleven Betty, it makes an impact in the finale. Seated at an American diner, the trio quickly come to realize that Lauren’s vagabond partner is in fact a millionaire, over burgers and coffee.
This film is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and eccentricities are a source of genuine amusement. The ‘Italian Family’ take a starring role, where coffee, amaretto, pasta and other delicacies are consumed in abundance. A favourite line from the protagonist, Cher: “You make good coffee…you’re a slob. But you make good coffee”.