I woke up to and went to bed hearing the sound of the espresso machine in my ear, the best daily “Buongiorno,” or – in English – good morning. That sound would mark each of my transformative 271 days in Viterbo, Italy. Last year I left home for the first time to spend my junior year abroad in Italy for nine months, armed only with a love of exploring the unknown and of Italian culture. I didn’t know how to speak a word of Italian when I first arrived. I had to adjust to living with a host family as well as adapt to a new culture in a foreign tongue.
I believe I truly learned to be conversationally fluent by ordering my daily coffee, which I enjoyed while listening and talking with the Italians I met in my favorite coffee bar. I will forever be grateful to the owner of Blu Bar, Francesco, who recognized my American accent and taught me phrases like “Rome is a mess” and how to root for the local soccer team.
Lured by the strong, foamy cappuccinos, my addiction to Italian coffee sustained me through the initial tremendous upheaval in every aspect of my life.
Every morning I walked to the main street of Viterbo from my house in the city in search of a caffeine boost before school. As I walked, I observed a full spectrum of life at each coffee shop I went to. At the bars, Italian high schoolers crammed for their morning oral exams with friends while old men and women discussed soccer and business tips. Young children begged their parents to go back to sleep w hile young couples walked their dogs along the cobblestones. All flocked to the bar for a quick breakfast of coffee and a cornetto or croissant-like pastry filled with cream, jam or Nutella.
Gradually I began to adapt to the Italian lifestyle and to find my place within the culture alongside them. I came to know the local patrons of some of my favorite coffee bars extremely well, especially the people who frequented the “American-style” – yet culturally Italian – Happiness Cafe and Cafe BurBaCa. These bars became my living rooms in a foreign land, as they were the places I gathered with my friends to hang out and study as well as where I learned how to communicate who I was in Italy.
Coffee shops are the hub of social life in Italy. The sweet cinnamon caffè lattes and friendly conversation of Sandra, the Happiness Cafe owner, and her son Federico helped warm me through my first real four months of winter. Everyone I knew was united by a strong passion for coffee. Even the young Italian children I taught English to at both a private Catholic and public elementary school drank a substitute for coffee, caffè’ d’orzo.
Coffee revived me on overnight class trips to places like Perugia and Bologna, and allowed me to appreciate the artistic and cultural differences between the dark, bitingly sweetened Sicilian espresso shots and thick, creamy caffe lattes of Milan.
The coffee bar culture of Italy helped my American friends and I assimilate to the world around us. It literally and figuratively opened my eyes to the rich, evocative Italian culture. Studying abroad and learning to live in another part of the world helped me to develop the perspective of a global citizen. It also compelled me to grow as a person as I became part of a different culture.
In Italy, the coffee was potent enough to help me connect across cultural boundaries.