Negotiating the Cafè Culture in Italy

In a big city like Bologna or Verona selecting a cafe for a break between exhaustive sight seeing is relatively easy. There are swanky aluminium and glass ones, distressed wooden furniture ones, ones constructed from bits of old school gyms – essentially little pieces of London in Italy. Many are even copying the American ‘Starbucks’ model of pint sized lattes spiked with bucketfulls of sugar, and writing their menus in English (I once asked for a latte al caramello and was haughtilly corrected to caramel latte by the Italian barista.)

But what if you are one of those adventurous tourists that wanders ‘off the beaten track’ to little picturesque villages, or mistakenly to a lifeless town where social activity consists of old men playing cards. There may be a surprisingly large range of cafes to choose from, but each has its particular role in the community. You many walk into one and, adjusting your eyes to the gloom, realise ten tanned deeply lined male faces are staring with blank hostility at your presence.

This is the first type of cafe to avoid – the old man bar. These are recognisable generally by the little scatterings of cigarettes outside on the ground and tables, ashtrays that look like they’ve never seen a dishwasher, a pungent smell of sweat and beer, a TV blaring with a distinctly uninteresting sport like snooker or darts, and the low grunts of men gambling over cards. If you feel you can break through the first awkward silence after your entrance you could spend an enjoyable few hours hearing detailed biographies of all of the customers, or their strong fascist views, or about their surprisingly healthy sex life. But, particularly being a young woman, I prefer to avoid that kind of entertainment.

If you see a traditional looking wooden sign announcing a ‘vecchio’ (old) bar, or any words to do with being ancient and historic, these are also best to avoid. Generally they are not particularly historic and they are significantly overpriced. Personally I find the newer bars are cleaner, have better lighting, potentially have English-speaking baristas for those in need, and have more relaxed attitude to foreigners ordering milky coffees at the wrong time of day.

So you’ve gingerly committed to your chosen cafe, now how to negotiate the etiquette within. First, particularly if its a small bar, nod or say buongiorno with your best attempt at a rolled ‘r’ to both those behind the bar and the clients around. This way you might get fewer stares. Then its generally best (and faster) to order at the bar and then ask or use awkward sign language to signal you want to sit down. On the other hand you can feel like a power worker in an important office and chug your coffee at the bar before scattering a handful of change on the counter and sweeping out (you’re far too busy to wait and pay at the till).

Once you’re seated and have your coffee you can relax for a bit, hopfeully noone is watching you. When it comes to paying go back to the till at the bar. Here you have to use real restraint to avoid a very British faux pas. Although in Britain we dislike physical contact with both strangers and friends, we often put our money in the hand of the bar tender, obviously being careful to avoid touching skin. In Italy this is not acceptable. Money goes from your hand to the securely neutral ubiquitous glass dish beside the till, to the hand of the bar tender.

Then upon leaving try to say grazie and arrivederci more times the bar tender, nod at a few old people and escape.

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