The bar was dark inside, made even more so by the ornate wood-coffered ceilings, antique doors and wall paneling, and the wooden floors darkened by the dripping umbrellas of the patrons. The place was buzzing with Fiorentini (Florentines) in their finery of heavy coats, stiletto-heeled boots, flashy watches, and gold jewelry. The liveliness of the crowd was infectious and warming for us on that first visit. No welcome was more genuine than that of the smiling Isadoro, who was to become our personal barrista. Whenever he wasn't there, the ever bella Franca, with her gaiety and perfect grooming, would regale us with stories that our fumbling Italian struggled to follow.
We found Caffe Cibreo--our favorite place in Florence--on a cold and wet December afternoon; the aroma of fresh coffee lured us there. It was a short detour from the path we trekked daily from our apartment in a 19th-century palazzo on the other side of the English cemetery, to Italian language classes at Istituto Michelangelo on via Ghibellina. I often took friends from Italian classes to Caffe Cibreo, and they fell in love with the atmosphere, too.
Giuliana, my language instructor, and Domenico, his fidanzato (life partner), have recently returned from a month in Australia, my home country. What impressed them most was the ease and speed of doing things that are next to impossible in Italy: Ten minutes to rent a car without a prior appointment, for example; or exchanging bus tickets for train tickets in Alice Springs without hassle.
Such a contrast to my life in Florence, where I've waited in line at the post office for 90 minutes to pay a gas bill. After Australia, I lived in California, and settling in to the Italian lifestyle is a continual source of frustration... and amusement.
In San Francisco, I could conduct my whole day without talking to anyone--just about everything could be ordered over the Internet and delivered to the lobby of my apartment building; I rarely saw my neighbors. Now that was boring!
For most Italians, it's what happens on the way to somewhere, or who you meet while doing something, that adds the intrigue to life. Nothing is more pleasant than to strike up a conversation with the stranger standing in front of you at the bank, or standing next to you at the post office, or munching on his morning brioche at the bar. A bond is often forged through a common gripe about the slowness of the official behind the counter, or the way every Italian was cheated when the lira was converted to euro.
I'll soon be celebrating the second anniversary of my move to Italy. I'm happy to say that I've become savvy enough to pay most of my regular bills automatically from my Italian bank account or credit card. I can even set it all up on the Internet. Not everything, mind. There's always that unexpected bollettino to pay that throws me into the thick of it with my Italian neighbors... and I can always take my daily cappuccino at the local bar and share my gripes with the lucky stranger standing next to me.