My mornings always smelled of coffee when I was growing up. My mum had an American coffee maker in the house. Always. It was an automatic part of the morning. Downstairs, coffee on. On Christmas Eve, the coffee would be readied for the morning and needed to be in a mug before presents. My dad was a tea drinker – with more cream and sugar than tea. Coffee wasn’t in his tastebuds. I always loved the smell, though I’m sure it was more the association than the actual scent that attracted me. One year we bought coffee for my mum as a stocking stuffer and realized she’d smell it in the car so I held the bag out the window on the drive home, my dad cackling in the driver’s seat.
As much as I loved the smell and, later, wanted to be that girl with the Starbucks or Dunks cup, coffee tasted like dirt to me. I couldn’t handle the slightest hint of it, or I’d shudder. Coffee ice cream? Nope. Tiramisu? Why. It killed me in Ascoli when we had to go to a cafe to use the Wifi. Everyone would order their beautiful cappuccino, I would take a tea or a hot chocolate. The tea would be served complete with a teapot and cup, cookies and packets of sugar. It’d take up an embarrassing amount on the table and everyone else would be done with their coffee before I could steep the tea bag. The hot chocolate had the consistency of pudding, and although they are marvelous, they also were part of the reason I gained ten pounds.
I sat at the counter of Astor and put my head on the counter. It was early on in my Bus2alps career, but I was exhausted, and not making money, and exhausted. The sidewalk outside seemed to emit waves of heat that blurred the marble of the Duomo across the way. Tourists slouched by under floppy hats. It was over 100F outside. In the darker shadows of the bar, I sat with Dean, my newest roommate, and tapped my new coffee card rhythmically on the bar.
“Can I use this for tea?” I asked the bartender in English. He apologized and said it was only for coffee. I had a card that could be used to get unlimited cups of liquid dirt.
“I don’t like coffee though,” I complained. Dean snorted next to me and pushed the hair out of his eyes and looked up. He wiggled the cup in front of him – the top full of whipped cream – and motioned to the bartender and then back to me.
“Make her a silly coffee,” he mumbled. He was always mumbling to me – with a thick English accent, for the first few months of our friendship, it would normally take us three tries to communicate. Eventually, we got it, and I have him to thank for silly coffees and the start of my love of espresso. Minutes later, I was presented with what I’d now describe as an iced caramel mocha frappuccino with whipped cream. If I poured a few packets of raw sugar in that, I could successfully drink coffee for the first time in my twenty-three years – and they were free. And I was poor.
Only one bartender could make me that silly coffee, and that bartender is currently falling asleep next to me on the couch seven years later. Dean had the idea, but Rami was the first one that could overcome my coffee-dirt association. He still makes the best silly coffees around, but those were my gateway into the coffee culture of Italy. The silly coffees got easier to drink over the weeks, and my schedule called for less sleep. Soon, I was running on an average of three hours or less, and organizing busloads of students around the Amalfi Coast from Thursday through Sunday. At midnight on a Friday, after getting up at 6am, herding people through the day, sitting through dinner until 11pm and knowing that there were still at least a few more hours of work at a bar, that little after-dinner espresso that was always presented was the only thing that would keep me going – and again, it was free. I’d pour as much sugar in as I could, pray it wasn’t full of that burnt taste that I hated so much, literally plug my nose sometimes, and down it like medicine.
When Rami started hanging out with me on the other side of the counter, he’d already been practicing what is now our daily routine. I’d follow him into the coffee bars here, marvel at the dance of the men and women behind the counter, the clinking cups, the swirls of milk. The little pause of all of the patrons of the bar, just for a moment, just to sip from that little cup for a minute. He’d get his little coffee and we’d stand at the bar for a moment and be just another couple in the line. I can’t remember how many times he’d offer to include me, get me a macchiato or anything else, and I’d say no.
But one day, the silly coffees started to be a craving, even without the sugar, and the espresso at any time of the day was welcomed (still with lots of sugar though), and a cappuccino, a really good one (almost all of them from Rami), started to taste less like the ground and more like the heavens. Maybe it was the feeling of belonging at that coffee counter. Maybe it was the kick of caffeine into my life of craziness. Maybe it was desperation that turned into an attraction that led me to my current, incredible life.
All I know is today I woke up and stumbled to my coffee machine just like my mother every morning. And when I’m home in the US now, I pour myself a cup right along with her. I still have my tea occasionally (milk and sugar ratio just like my father) but coffee has turned into my norm. The only thing I’ll say is, Starbucks has nothing on a cappuccino here, so through this transformation, I’ve apparently become an Italian coffee snob. Who would have thought?