The American writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) once said: “Coffee is a lot more than just a drink; it’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.” Her statement well summarizes the essence of coffee and how life happens through and around it.
Things gain value depending on the significance each person attributes to them; therefore, coffee is not simply a drink, but a key element of some countries’ cultures and a source of different emotions. Italy is one of those places where coffee is considered a symbol, a fundamental component of daily life for most people.
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Coffee in the Italian culture
Coffee opens every day and closes every meal. The typical Italian home breakfast (also for the children) is “caffellatte” (here in Australia, they call it “latte” — a word that in Italian means milk), and biscuits, which are usually dipped into it. It is also common to have a cappuccino and a croissant at a cafè on the way to work.
Besides cappuccino, there are many variations of coffee, including “espresso,” “lungo” (long black), “ristretto” (short black), “macchiato” (espresso with a dash of milk), “caffè corretto” (espresso with alcohol), and “shakerato” (cold coffee with ice and sugar mixed in a shaker and served in a martini glass). Italians have two non-written rules: Coffee doesn’t go with savory food (therefore, eggs and coffee is “a no-no”), but it is okay after you have eaten, and you do not drink a cappuccino after a meal.
Some time ago, I was in Italy on my way back to Australia. A friend of mine had driven me to the airport and while I was waiting to go through security, we decided to have one last coffee together. I ordered a cappuccino with a sandwich and I vividly recall his expression. He looked at me seriously and said: “You are not an Italian any longer.” I still find myself laughing every time I think about it, but this is what happens when one belongs to two countries and absorbs both customs. Despite my acquired Australian citizenship, I was born and raised in Italy and this beverage has a very special place in my heart and meaning in my life.
My life through beans and pods
Since my youth, coffee has accompanied most key moments and I have associated the thought of it with home, joy, care, and love. When I was a child, my dad used to have breakfast and then kiss me goodbye before leaving for work in the morning: Still in bed, half-asleep, I would smell the scent of his aftershave on his face, and the fragrance of coffee. That memory and the tenderness it brings to my heart will stay with me, just like the image of my mum waking me up (often too early) smiling, carrying a cup in her hand, and sitting on my bed while I drank from it, as she did for many years.
My mother loved coffee and was very particular about it. We used to sit in our favorite café to share a special moment together and I will never forget the joy and satisfaction in her eyes, especially in the last months of her life, while sipping her favorite beverage.
The espresso cup I use every morning is a gift from a dear friend and it portrays a Hawaiian girl. When she gave it to me, she pointed at her and said: “This is your ‘avatar’ and you will always remember me while having your coffee.” And, of course, I do.
My relatives and friends always offered me (and still do) a cup of coffee during my visits and, in my mind, I have linked each person, or family, with a different blend, flavor, and smell. Those who had a coffee machine and bought a certain brand of beans or pods and those who prepared it on the stove — all of them showed me their love through this drink.
Due to my upbringing, when I think about meeting with someone or they are visiting me, having a coffee becomes the expression of our relationship and a sharing experience.
The good news, for an Italian like me, is that Australia too has its coffee culture and capital and it is right here in Melbourne, with its numerous café and endless variations of the popular drink. Every day, people from all different backgrounds gather around a “cuppa,” which becomes their common theme and a part of their lives. I moved to the other side of the globe just to discover that, even Down Under, coffee proves to be much more than just a beverage.