I had just sat down to prepare to begin to start to think about doing all that end-of-the-year yardwork waiting for me in the garden. Luckily, I was able to derail that train before it ever left the station. I decided instead to just sit on my balcony in southern Italy and bask in the late morning sun.
Conveniently, my eyes were already set to 'deep-think mode', (meaning they were closed) and it was far too great an effort to open them in order to poke around in the garage for parts to the weed whacker.
From the valley below, I heard snippets of a tarantella tune. Lively accordion music was leaking out of the fishmonger's minivan along with water from melted ice as he wound his way up the hillside, house by house, hawking fresh fish. Hmm... I knew it was Thursday since the fishmonger makes his rounds once a week, but only on the day before 'fishday', i.e. Friday.
I thought about food and dared to take a squint-eyed peek at the sky. I estimated a 90% chance of wine in my near-lunch forecast... not unusual for this time of day. Aaah, life is good. I am retired, relaxed and ready for lunch in Italy. Contentedly, I sighed. WAIT!
There is a faint aroma... the distant but familiar perfume of...
WHAT'S THAT?... COFFEE?!... IT'S COFFEE!... I WANT SOME COFFEE!!
GIVE ME COFFEE!!!
Many of you know that I recently retired and moved to Italy - the fine food and wine epicenter of the known universe. It's been only 6 months; 3 weeks; 6 days; and 14 hours, but already, my entire reality is altered.
I have changed. Oh my, how I've changed. From a genial, affable, retired guy to a bona fide fanatic... sort of Jekyll and Hyde-like.
The wonderful food and wine didn't change me... not in the least. They are simply easier to find here. No. The surprising change was me setting aside my giant teacup and picking up a tiny demitasse to become (gasp!) a devout coffee drinker.
Hello. My name is Frank and I am a coffeeholic.
Who knew that those teeny-tiny cups of Italian coffee were a gateway drug?
I drink wine here because I deserve it but I drink coffee because I NEED it. And right now what I need, is a cup of hot, thick, rich, delicious espresso... some of my special 'vitamin C'. It started innocently. At first, I'd sip an occasional coffee in the evenings after pizza with my new friends, just to be sociable - to 'fit in'. Then, I began to look forward to a morning cup of piping hot espresso - as a reward for getting out of bed. Soon, I wanted a ritual shot of afternoon espresso as a mechanism for staying alert and setting a pace. It also served nicely to keep me busy until it was time to drink wine. Now, multiple hits of strong coffee throughout the day are an urgent matter of my very survival. Unfortunately, espresso is not yet available intravenously. After all, a day in Italy without coffee is like a something-or-other without a whichamacallit - y'know?
Yes. I drink coffee now.
But I vow to use my powers for good. I do not desire that insipid, see'through, 'acqua sporca', (dirty water) served in greasy spoon diners from Paw Paw, Michigan to Pie Town, New Mexico. Neither do I lust for fussy 'frappapressocinno' thingies whipped up at smug 'starbucky' joints. In fact, there isn't a single greasy spoon nor a solitary Starbucks in the whole, entire country of Italy. So, you ask, how could this have happened? How did I become a bean'head in the land of fabulous food and wine? That, my friends, is a great question... and it deserves a great answer. But first, COFFEE! 3oz of steaming hot joy in a tiny, little cup.
Retiring in Italy has not been without its, uhm... challenges. You see, Italy makes you feel strong-full of energy-able to accomplish great feats-no, wait... sorry. That's coffee. The coffee does that. Actually, Italy makes you feel stupid. Sometimes I don't quite understand how things are done here and often, I don't quite get the full gist of what people are saying, or rather shouting, at me.
But, it's because they do it all at once - 4 or 5 of them, all shouting at me at the same time. Now friends, I learned to speak Italian in quiet rooms, from self-help books and tapes. I took turns listening and talking quietly... mostly to myself. There was only me, responding to 'sensible' questions regarding the locations of museums and bathrooms. I listened attentively and responded slowly - to myself, one-on-one. I never had to answer questions like... "Quick, where the hell is your water main?" or "You mean you didn't want a giant opening in your wall there?" and "A giant-ass truck full of cement will be here in 5 minutes... where do you want it?"
And although I've lived here for only 6 months; 3 weeks; 6 days; and 14 hours, they all speak, or rather shout at me, in their ancient local dialects. Someday, I swear that I will rise up and tell them that I do not speak their silly dialect... except I don't know how to say that in dialect.
So in the meantime, I smile and gesture and nod and laugh along with them and we drink coffee... lots and lots of coffee. Unfortunately, drinking so much coffee causes me do my stupid things even faster, more efficiently and with much greater energy. This in turn, gives them even more to shout about - so I must drink more coffee in order to keep up. It's a vicious cycle and I'm certain at some point, my blood type will change from O Positive to Deep Roast.
Thinking of Italy without also thinking of coffee is unthinkable. Put together with a couple of cookies or an odd bit of pastry, coffee is our national breakfast... or at least our national stimulant. Without it, Italy might grind (pun intended) to a halt. Then what would become of the poets, artists, politicians, retired advertising guys and assorted other slackers without our coffee? Will our hangovers reign supreme? Even the Pope, (one of them at least; Pope Clement VIII) called coffee "a delicious beverage" and thought it would help vanquish Satan. Given his surroundings, Satan's beverage of choice is probably iced tea... and in any case, that's an awful lot to ask, even of coffee.
Italians are purists. They will not tolerate bad coffee. The locals visit their preferred bar on the way to work for a quick cup of their favorite coffee. I go out for coffee now too. Not because retirement is so much work, but because really good coffee from one of those fancy machines in a neighborhood bar is a social and gustatory treat. I linger and laugh along with the others and we lean against cool, clean counters while a sleek, spage-agey machine hisses and spits at us majestically. A few knowing twists and cranks by a talented barista and out squirts our dark, delicious elixirs. The best part is that last little sip hiding the undissolved sugar at the bottom of the cup.
Could this be heaven? Well, it's likely the closest I will ever get. I must remember to ask Satan about that when I am forced to finally catch up on my yardwork in Hell. But no worries, I'll save my good friends a spot at the bar and we can all drink some great, very hot coffee and shout at each other unintelligibly.
How's that sound?