Morning. Siena, July 2010.
Even though I hadn’t been out late the night before, I’m largely in need of coffee before I trot off to work. I go into the bar around the corner from my house and am greeted warmly by the proprietor, Michele, who strikes me as an Italian version of the character Chandler Bing, from Friends.
“Buongiorno Sarah! Prendi il solito?” Your usual? Michele asked me. I love the fact that he knows what “my usual” is – it takes a bit of the early-morning strain off of my not-quite-working-yet brain.
“Ciao Michele, sì, un cappuccino, per favore,” I confirm and lean against the bar.
Now, please note, the Word of the Day is “cappuccio” not “cappuccino“, (there’s a syllable of difference, look closely) but I did just ask for a “cappuccino“. All will become clear in a moment.
I wait for a few minutes as he serves a few others who had arrived before me, happily chatting to them, asking after their families and wishing them a good day at work. Finally he gets around to working on my two-part beverage.
“Ecco!” He smiles as he sets a little cup and saucer on the bar in front of me and pours the espresso base for my drink. “Just wait one second and I’ll make the cappuccio for you,” he says and I loose sight of him as he squats down to get something from below the counter.
“Sì sì,” I agree, without really having listened to what he was saying. Like I alluded to before – without that first sip of coffee in the morning, there aren’t too many sparks flying around in my noggin. But then I actually did think about it, and shook my head a bit, like you see in the movies, when someone is trying to make sense of something. Michele pops back up to bar-height.
“A cappuccio?” I question, trying out the feeling of the unfamiliar word on my tongue. “Isn’t that a hood?” I mime putting a big hood over my head. I had asked for a “cappuccino“, which in my mind had nothing to do with outerwear and everything to do with coffee.
“A cappuccio is a hood, but it’s also the milky part of this drink. A cappuccino is a little hood, because it has the “-ino” ending. But only tourists ask for a cappuccino. Locals here ask for a cappuccio. Remember that for next time, because I won’t serve you a cappuccino again!” He laughs and pours the frothy milk into my cup on top of the waiting espresso. A split second after he’s finished pouring, I promptly snatch up the cup and start to savour my little “cappuccio“.
“I promise, Michele.” I try to sound solemn and serious but I’m a little miffed at myself, a student of Italian, that I hadn’t figured it out before. I knew that a cappuccio was a hood. And that adding “-ino” to anything made it a little whatever-ino. I should have known that the world-famous drink was called a “cappuccino” because it was a base of espresso with a hood of milk.
I quickly finish my drink (Italians don’t really linger over coffee), paid my euro to Michele and headed out to work, all the while thinking about some of the more delicate points of the Italian language, and feeling grateful that I had come to Italy and could actually learn these things through firsthand experience.