Err…Un Caffè, Per Favore?

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 12.14.50 PMLiving in a different culture and language makes the mundane stuff of every day life seem anything but average. The new norms and foreign tongue leave you feeling like a 6-year old when trying to fill prescriptions at a pharmacy counter, get school supplies, visit government offices, follow directions around town, or go to the doctor. Something as simple as getting coffee can feel totally overwhelming.  First, you have to choose from one of 6 cafe bars on the same block. Why are there so many? What’s the difference?! Now then, how do you greet them? Do you go with Buongiorno? Maybe Salve, which is a greeting left over from Roman times but is still used as a more formal version of hello? (I’ve figured out that you don’t say Ciao, unless the person is very young or a close friend.) Once inside, there’s the decision of how to get to the physical counter. Italians aren’t big believers in lines. They prefer the huddle. So I weave my way around other moms, business men and women, a few teens and older people trying to get a look at the pastries on display in a glass case. As I do so, I pass a ticket machine dispensing numbers on triangular pieces of paper. Do I need one of these to get some my coffee and baked good?! After a quick glance around, I can’t really tell. Some people have them, others don’t, but I grab one just in case, and wait. All around me, people are chatting. No standing around looking at the floor. Hardly anyone is staring at a smart phone screen either. They’re actually speaking to each other. Many arrive together, but then strike up conversations with friends and strangers alike once inside. In the midst of my anthropological survey, a number is called, and called again, and again. I realize it’s me. Er…uhhh… Salve! The room volume seems to drop instantly to a murmur, and I’m certain that everyone is looking right at me, waiting to hear what this foreigner has to say. Um… I manage to sputter out something about a cappuccino and then have no idea what any of the pastries are called so I point and say “Croissant”, which obviously is the wrong language. Ah, you mean the brioche the smiling man says in Italian. Then what follows sounds like “Vote for you door lay me le graily?” I think he’s giving me a list of flavors. When he says it slower and it still sounds like a word association game, I just point and hope for the best. It goes on like that – Where do I pick up my breakfast? Do I drink at the counter, attempt to find a table, move to one of these shelves that people are leaning on?, Lord…What if someone tries to speak to me?, Do I bring the mug and dish back to the counter or leave it here? Where do I pay? Do I tip? When I finally exit, weaving again through the new mass of people that have assembled in the 15 minutes I’ve been here, I’m spent and need a nap. But even if all of this is challenging, it’s been a true joy getting to know how it all works, minute by minute, day by day, week by week, until I’ve found myself a month or two later, walking into the same cafe to shouts of Buongiorno Gina! Come stai? I bimbi? (Good morning Gina, How are you? The kids?) My cappuccino and brioche integrali (whole grain) come up without asking and without a number. A few women from school offer me a free seat at their table. Of course, like moms everywhere, they are debating the pros and cons of the school year so far, but since we’re at an international school, the conversation comfortably jumps from Italian to English to Spanish and back again. I catch the majority, enough to nod appropriately and throw in my bit. I say a polite Buongiorno to familiar faces and sometimes have a brief chat from the comfort of my table of acquaintances. And just like that, what had been an unnerving  experience becomes pleasurably mundane once again.

Christine, there’s always something new you have to get used to, right? Living in foreign country just gives you more opportunities to stretch those acclimating muscles…


Categorized as Culture


  1. That reminds me of my 2nd visit to Paris. When I first went in 1994, I ordered cafe au lait like it was no one’s business. When I returned in 2006, the waitress shook her head, said “Non, cafe creme.” Confused (and not knowing much French), I repeated my request for Cafe au lait. She smiled looked at my, my BF and said “cafe con leche? cafe creme.” And so I had cafe creme.

  2. Thanks you Gina and Christine;
    Gina: It is like having you back home every morning
    So many times i think -couldn’t have said it better myself-
    (If i could write)
    I miss you ladies.

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