Coffee. A big deal here in the Pacific Northwest, and certainly a big deal in Italy. The interesting thing is how different the two coffee cultures are!
When I first came to the States I was told that around here coffee is wonderful. I thought: great! I love coffee.
During my second day in the States, first thing in the morning, I asked for a "bar". The look I got told me that I probably said something odd. After describing what I wanted I discovered with a certain embarrassment that "bars" in the States are places where you drink beer and hard liquor. Oooops! Yes, I know (now), you can go to a bar in the morning in the States if you really like… but usually it doesn’t say good things about you and is not something that most people would want to mention too often to strangers.
In Italy bars are places where you have breakfast in the morning and drink coffee at all hours of the day. A coffee shop in other words (and… yes… they happen to also sell hard liquor, wine and beer, but not many people really drink that in a common bar… don’t ask…).
I corrected my mistake and proud of my new knowledge asked for a “coffee shop”. It sounds so much better than “bar” I thought. The person I asked told me that the closest coffee shops were “Starbucks” and a “Café Ladro”.
The choice wasn’t too hard. “Ladro” in Italian means “thief”, and the word is also used to describe somebody that rips you off. I decided that taking the Ladro was too much as a first experience (later I discovered that “Cafe’ Ladro” is actually pretty good).
Starbucks sounded a bit like a game arcade, but that is at least safe; plus it was right behind the corner (surprise!).
I went inside ready to order my Espresso.
First of all, how do I order a coffee? Seems easy, doesn’t it? Well… not really.
In Italy this is one of the classic dilemmas; a very simple every-day fact that is overcomplicated. In fact how you order a coffee depends on the place.
In some coffee shops you stand in line to pay first. When you pay you get a receipt. With that you go to a second line at the counter. Once your turn comes (or once people have stopped getting in front of you) you give the receipt to the barista, the barista looks at it, finds out what you ordered and makes your coffee.
Well, that would be simple enough, except that in other coffee shops you are supposed to go at the counter first and order your coffee. When you are done drinking you are supposed to go to pay for it at the cashier. In these coffee shops if you go to the cashier first you may not get a receipt at all and you may have to debate that you need it to go get your coffee at the counter. In Italy we like to make things a bit complicated, and then debate forever on the perfect way of doing it. The debate is not really aimed to change things, or really solve a problem. Nothing really ever changes. We just like to debate.
I’m digressing; but now you know why I had to wonder how you buy a coffee.
Well, it didn’t take long to find out. I observed the line going smoothly from the door to the cashier and from the cashier to the counter. I observed the barista write stuff on some sort of strange paper cups; panic; I started wondering if I was in the right place. I didn’t see anybody drinking coffee in ceramic espresso or cappuccino cups. I just saw people receive these large paper cups with a lid and semi-full of some kind of steaming substance. I saw people leave the place drinking it. Strange! What are they drinking?? The idea that they were drinking beer crossed my mind for a split second. Only much later I learnt that you can't actually drink a beer on the street in the States.
I was immediatly reassured by the fact that I could smell the coffee, I could see coffee beans and big steaming coffee machines; I WAS in the right place. Calm down Lorenzo! It is just different!
I looked at the menu, and saw an endless list of choices with quasi-Italian and strangely spelled names. I wondered why a “Caffe' Espresso” had 3 different prices, when I realized that perhaps it dependeds on the size.
“Size? It’s an Espresso… isn’t it?”
I then noticed that the 3 prices where categorized under “Short”, “Grande” and “Venti”. I knew the meaning of the English word “short”. That already suggested that it was a size. Kind of strange given that “short” seems to indicate a "small length" more than a "small cup".
But, what do I know!
I also wondered if “Grande” and “Venti” were the Italian words. In Italian “Grande” means “large” (and that would make sense), and “Venti” means the number twenty (huh? no idea!).
I went in line listening carefully at what people were saying and how they were ordering. When it was my turn I immediately forgot everything that I learnt while I was in line and ended up asking “Can I have an Espresso?”. They even understood me! Cool!
The barista was now pointing at 3 cups glued on a piece of painted plywood. The smallest was the size of a common water glass (Italian size). The largest was the size of a small bucket.
I don’t know if you ever saw an Italian espresso cup. It’s designed to contain a couple of tablespoons of liquid coffee, and that’s what you usually drink. It’s literally one shot. One. Done.
I asked if they had something smaller.
“Are you crazy?”
The barista looks at me. She knows I’m lost. She tells me that she could fill the small one half-way if I really didn’t want a full mighty “short”, but that it would cost me the same price of a full short and she was suggesting that I take the full one and that I dump what I don’t want.
I asked if she could fill it up one quarter of the way.
"You are crazy!"
At this point she really thought I was crazy, or just stupid.
I insisted and had my tiny shot of hot Espresso. Probably the smallest the barista ever served in her life.
What a relief! It had been embarrassing, the Espresso was a bit watery… but not too bad.
Well, six years had passed now. Today I never buy anything smaller than a “Grande”.