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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Normal Coffee

From half a mile away, the Coliseum glowed.

It was just after 9 PM. I had finished an afternoon of writing and it was time for a bit of exercise, a cafè, and the company of strangers. I left my apartment – down five flights of stairs (in Italy, 5th floor means five floors, not four… the bottom floor is 0) – and began walking.

As seems to be the case more often than not, my feet took me toward the most ancient part of Rome – the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Trajan’s Market – and I strolled rather leisurely along Via San Giovanni in Laterano. From cafès along the streets came the sounds of – what else – the World Cup. Cheering, jeering, the rapid-fire sharing of insults and congratulations in all languages – mostly Italian, yes, but also French, German, English… I even recognized Turkish in the mix.

I bought a banana in one of the many fruit shops along the Via, talking to the vendor in (what is becoming more comfortable but still very slow) Italian, and continued walking, proud of myself for my accomplishment. The fact that a three year old Italian child could have accomplished the same transaction in probably much more ‘correct’ Italian didn’t faze me one bit.

Five minutes more along the Via and I chose a small caffè the way you choose most things in Rome until you learn the good from the bad: because it’s close when you get thirsty… or hungry… or tired. Café San Clemente. (Names here often come from proximity. Directly across the street is the church of San Clemente, the subject of my first Rome entry.)

I sat at a table outside – careful first to ask the price of a cappuccino WITH a table) – and in less than five minutes I was quite contentedly watching the World Cup match on a small TV dragged out and placed on a chair specially for this event, sipping cappuccino across the street from an 800 year old church, and soaking in the sight of the Coliseum half a mile away, glowing in the early night sky.

If the Coliseum looks almost other-worldly in the daytime, at night it is even more so. It is lit from all sides, making the night sky and surrounding streets darker by comparison – as though the ancient edifice floats, somehow, inches above the city.

Confident after my banana-buying experience, I had a brilliant conversation with the waiter in Italian. I asked what time it was, he told me 9:40 PM. I asked him what the score was, he told me (I don’t remember). I asked for my check, he brought it and thanked me. I thanked him and had a sip of cappuccino in satisfaction. Another successful conversation concluded.

After a few more minutes of trying to think up things I could say in Italian to the waiter and coming up with "I would like two tickets to Milan, please," and "Please can you show me where we are on this map," neither of which I thought appropriate at the time, I was ready to go. Just as I stood up I heard a woman at the next table order coffee.

She said, in English, “I would like a coffee, please, a normal coffee. Not an espresso, not a cappuccino, not a café latte. A normal coffee, with cream and sugar.”

A normal coffee. As though anything different than what she knew was aberrant, wrong.

I turned in time to see the waiter give her a dirty look and walk away. I waited to see what would happen. He did indeed bring her a coffee, with cream and sugar. And when he dropped it onto her table from a few inches high, he apologized for the drops that splashed onto her purse. When she thanked him, he glared at her again and walked away. She looked at me and said “what’s his problem?”

I didn’t bother to explain. Maybe I should have, but I don’t think it would have done any good. Instead I said “Non parlo l'Inglese” and walked away.

I’m in the middle of revising my perspective on the rudeness of Italian waiters.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am thoroughly enjoying your postings. You are missed at home but, reading your words puts me there with you. Thanks.

4:20 PM  

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