Milan, Italy circa 1996: The Caffeinator
My brother became a barista. This is his dedication to me.
Italy. A land of magnificent addictions.
There are certain seminal moments in life. Moments of such importance, they become personal milestones. Moments that change perspectives and lead to a higher understanding of ourselves and our place in this universe. Enlightenment.
Sometimes travel is about those moments.
But not this time…
This is just a story about how I acquired yet another addiction on this long path :oP
Fascinated by Italian culture, when I got to Italy, I recall immersing myself in all aspects of Italian life. Whether it was talking afungoola with the locals, doing the DaVinci, or eating at pizzarias until I was out of dough, I was totally into it. The extra kilos on my frame that I acquired after my arrival weren’t just fat - they were a lifestyle choice - my hard earned spare Italian tyre. Soon enough, I was waddling through the various piazzas with the best of the big boys, like a carbon copy replica, in my three quarter length leather trench coat with scarf and gloves in one hand and a chunk of mozzarella in the other.
I knew my rendition of the stereotype was good, because from time to time, locals would ask me questions in Italian. Whenever my mouth wasn’t full of some type of carbohydrate (which wasn’t often), I’d always smile at their surprise when I replied in English. I would have replied in Italian to complete my performance, but ‘aaaafungoola’ isn’t the swiss army knife equivalent of Italian literacy.
That being said, I accepted that language would be a barrier to completing my Italian evolution. Nevertheless, I had accomplished a lot in my 2 weeks there. I looked Italian. I weighed Italian. I had increased my cheese intake by a few hundred percent. And since appearances are almost everything in Italy, I figured that I had achieved 99% of what makes Italy Italian - not bad, when you consider it has taken the rest of the population a few centuries to come this far - life moves slow when you’re sleeping half the day. In fact, the reason that I learned the darker side of the language was by necessity - I needed a mode of self expression that was sufficient to get me by when Italian efficiency at lunch time took its toll on me. As the rest of the city slept, I swore.
But prayers aside, the other 1% of what makes Italy Italian had so far eluded me. In my mind, it was the most important 1%, without which the other 99% meant little. I’m talking about that other black gold - Coffee. That small fragment of their culture that is such a focus of their way of life, it became an international Italian icon. Every continent on earth has been touched by it. Billions of people partake in it every day.
While the Italians can’t lay claim to discovering coffee (it was first discovered in Ethiopia in the 9th century and it took the Muslim world another 6 centuries to get that humble bean to Italy), it was in Italy that the grind took on a whole new dimension and colonized Europe. I could speculate on many noble reasons for this historical achievement, but the reality of coffee’s renaissance in Italy is probably due to the fact that it is one of the only things that stopped the Italians from making the siesta an all day event.
I recall standing outside a coffee bar in Milan, leaning on a wall, nonchalantly observing a scene that played out within. How unknown it was to me then. Coffee was black stuff other people drank in take out cups in nasty western take-out joints. Yet, before my newborn eyes, I watched well dressed men and women standing at a very stylish bar, in the company of mahogany table tops and sipping from small porcelain cups, laughing in shared conversation. I wondered what taste was in those cups. This was a world away from Ronald's coffee and I needed to know its secrets. And as per usual, curiosity killed this cat…
…I walked into that bar and I remember the effect that the aromatic scent of freshly ground coffee had on my virgin senses. It was a powerful scent. It had its hooks in me almost instantly. If they could have sold that smell, I'd have taken a lifetime's worth in that moment. When the barista asked me what I wanted, I just looked at him. Interesting question. I was puzzled. I said: “Actually, I really don’t know!”. He looked at me quizzically for a moment, and then his expression changed.
He leaned forward over the bar and whispered to me: ”Is it your first time?”. Something about the scene and his ever so sensitive tone in asking me this delicate question had me feeling like a teen queen on prom night. So I went with the moment and confessed to him that I was new to coffee and I asked him to be gentle. We both started laughing.
Then, without further ado, a cup of something steaming hot and foamy landed in front of me. The barista told me my first Italian coffee was a cappuccino. Buon Appitito!
I sipped that cup of coffee and when the piping hot beverage it hit my tongue for the first time, I had only one thought: Gross. But like all acquired tastes, by the second sip… I was thinking… mmm... not bad. By the third sip, I was already becoming convinced that there may just be something to this coffee business. Then, before I knew it, the bottom of the coffee glass was staring at me. The barista asked the inevitable question with a knowing grin: “Another?”. Before my brain could process the question, the caffeine had my head nodding in the affirmative.
The scene repeated. Again… and again… and again…
I walked out of that place several hours hour later and 50 dollars poorer, buzzing like Cornholio. I’ve been on the juice ever since. But my first time was the best. Its not every guy that gets to lose his coffee virginity in Italy :o)