Sorry, Italy, I disagree about coffee

In Italy, they are very particular about their coffee. It stands to reason, since they’re famous for coffee. Half our coffee words are direct loan-words from Italian. Latte, cappuccino, espresso, doppio espresso, to name a few.

Many successful coffee shop chains have given themselves Italian names and the main coffee machines used in those coffee shops come from Italy. The Gaggia machine is made in Milan, and that is the industry standard for professional coffee-making equipment.

So it’s generally acknowledged that Italy knows a thing or two about coffee. But I’m not so sure. When I went to Verona more than a few years ago, I wandered across a huge piazza to a cafe with dozens of seats outside. Wanting to experience some local culture, I sat down and a waiter came out.

– What would you like to drink? he asked.

– A cappuccino, please, I replied.

– No. We do not serve those after 11am.

– Could I have a latte instead? I wondered.

– We do not serve those, now, either.

– Americano? I (out of desperation) asked. I was starting to feel as if I’d landed in Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch.

– We don’t make those, he replied.

I couldn’t think of any other types of coffee right then. It seemed so weird that an Italian cafe wouldn’t sell coffee. I could see people drinking around me. I blinked once. Twice. Three times. My brain had to reboot. Then it gave up. So did I. I thanked him, left the table, and headed back across the square to the McDonald’s where they were not so strange about their coffee.

I only found out later that the waiter was being a coffee snob. The thing is, in Italy, you are not supposed to drink cappuccino or latte except with your breakfast. The rest of the time, you must only drink espresso.

I find this bizarre. Milky coffees are extremely high in calories and, due to a hormonal issue, I struggle to keep weight on. On top of that, I have abominable stomach acid and, because I overcaffeinated when I worked eighteen-hour days as an inner-city high school teacher, I now get jittery if I have more than 2 real coffees within an eight-hour stretch. I used to be well-known for being able to drink coffee at 2am and fall asleep at 2:20am, but these days, coffee really affects me if I have too much.

I don’t think I’m the only one. I know loads of people who have cut out caffeine in an attempt to cull mood swings, anxiety, or jitters.

Largely, I drink decaf. But a decaf espresso is the most pointless drink known to humanity. The 50ml shot of decaf neither hydrates you nor wakes you up. Actually, they’ve invented non-alcoholic shots of “spirits”, these days, so that’s up there as pointless, too. Not drunk. Still thirsty. Pointless.

A long drink with a ton of extra calories and some protein, like a soy latte or cappuccino, has a purpose. It gives me energy, from the calories, and stabilizes my weight, so I don’t waste away from breastfeeding. While I was pregnant with Jellyfish, I drank two or three decaf iced lattes every day to keep my calories up, to make up for the hell of hyperemesis (extreme pregnancy sickness) which had made me lose 5kg (10lb) of weight in the first trimester.

When you think about it, this whole obsession with Italian coffee makes no sense. None. Coffee came to Europe from South America. There are not many Italians in South America. People were drinking it over there for a very long time. And North America has some of the best-known coffee outlets, too. Starbucks. Seattle’s Best Coffee (which, BTW, was my favorite haunt in Osaka). Tim Horton’s (which is in my top ten eateries in Belfast). Need I continue? Italian coffee is like fancy shoes. Great to make you feel special, but day-to-day I’d reach for my Skechers or sandals. America knows coffee better than anyone, and I think they’re the ones getting it right.

So I’m sorry, Italy. You’re wrong about coffee. It doesn’t need to be strong. And it’s okay to put milk in it after 11am. It won’t catch fire.

The Swiss Alpine Route to Verona: Solo Interrail Part 5

New to my Solo Interrail series? Start here

I’m going to pick up where I left off last time, after I had just made it back to Zurich station and was now feeling like I was back in civilization having just spent the morning lost in the alps.  I sat down over a coffee and wrote postcards to my Grandma and Aunt.  This was 2008, a year after the EU smoking ban, which Switzerland was exempt from, so smoking indoors was a bit of a novelty and I did make the most of it (I don’t smoke now so I think I would hate to return to any country without an indoor ban on smoking).  I asked two nice backbackers to take my photo with one of my disposable cameras.

Zurich station Switzerland
Me in a coffee shop in Zurich Station, Switzerland holding a postcard of Switzerland, having just had a mini adventure in the Alps. My backpack is on the left and my handbag is on the right. In front of me were a well-earned coffee and a book by Anne Mustoe, as well as another postcard. I remember strategically moving the ashtray out of the shot because I didn’t want to get into trouble for smoking.

From my travel journal:

“Next, I went to the station newsagent and negotiated stamps in German (all credit went to the pan-European phrasebook I’d packed).  Next I searched for a post-box.
“Excuse me?” I flagged down a passing man.
“Hey there!”  The friendly American accent warmed my soul.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen the nearest post box, have you?”
“Sure!  It’s just out there, on the left.  It’s yellow.”  He said.
“Thank you very VERY much.”  I replied.
“No problem.” He said.
I followed the directions and found the post box just outside the station, then posted my post cards and hoped that was actually a post box (that, or I’d just put them in a used ticket disposal box, but I hoped not because they were nice postcards).

Then I got the 9:00am train to Milan, which terminated at Venice.  Depending on what time it gets in, I may just stay on the train rather than aiming for Verona.  However, I would prefer to stay in Verona as from there it would be easier to get back to Calais.
What followed was a wonderful train ride through the Swiss alps.

Swiss alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.

The Swiss Alps
The Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.

The Swiss alps lake
A giant lake in the Swiss Alps, taken through the window of a train at high speed, using a disposable camera. Under the circumstances I’m pleased with how these pics came out.

The scenery is beautiful, especially around Zug station – if I ever get a chance to go to Switzerland again, Zug is the place to go!  Unfortunately, it also means I have already began using up my 3rd disposable camera – I’ll have to get another couple in Italy.  The scenery of grassy fells, snowy mountains and powder-sprinkled pine trees is absolutely breathtaking.  It’s much nicer to see the Alps from the ground than in an aeroplane!  I’m glad not to have tried travelling onwards in the dark otherwise I would have missed this, which would have been unforgivable.

…I think I’ve just done my bit to ensure the continental opinion of English eccentricity; I took a photo of my compartment (because I’ve never been on a train with compartments before, this is like being on the Hogwarts Goddamn Express), but I waited until the other occupants had moved because it’s perhaps a bit over-zealous even for a tourist.

(a little bit later) As we emerge from the Alps, the architectural style has become markedly Italian, with the arched windows and straight-pitched, less high roofs.  We are still in Switzerland, but signs for “ristorante touristes” are at the side of the road which runs parallel with the train track.  There is also significantly less snow, but the sky is still that clear, brilliant blue, and the sun feels warm now.  I feel less close to the sky again – being on the German side of Switzerland was like standing on a very high plateau, and it’s nice, but I’m glad to be at my normal altitude again.  Hopefully it will be sunny in Verona and even more I hope that the tourist office is open so I can find accommodation between now and Tuesday (the Easter weekend is now upon us).”

Changing trains in Milan, I was profoundly disappointed.  It was standard tall buildings type of architecture, nothing particularly chic or attractive about the place, it could have been absolutely anywhere.  I decided to continue onwards.  The next train was, now that I was in Italy, run by Trenitalia.  It had dents all over the outside of the carriages and inside, there was no air conditioning, people were just crammed on top of each other.  Opposite me, a woman sat down with a chicken in a cage.  An actual chicken.  It was squawking up a fuss and flapping its feathers everywhere, and she insisted, on this full-to-bursting train, that the chicken needed its own seat, even when a man tried to sit down.  This tiny old woman clung to the chicken cage with a death grip and started shouting at him until he left the carriage.  I was too timid to get a photo of the ridiculous chicken.

Later that evening, I disembarked at Verona train station and booked 3 nights in a hotel (Novo Hotel Rossi) in Verona, where I decided to remain for the rest of the Easter weekend.  Annoyingly, despite it being the Easter Saturday, when everything is usually business as usual in the UK, in Verona, literally everything (apart from one Sushi restaurant) was closed and since I didn’t speak Italian (I do now, this trip is what prompted me to learn when I got back), I couldn’t understand the signs in the shop doors.

I found the aforementioned Sushi restaurant, only to discover that the staff didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Italian, so I ended up trying to order in Japanese.  Turns out, only the elderly grandmother could actually speak Japanese but she invited me to share a pot of tea with her after I’d eaten, apparently she’d never met a gaijin who could speak Japanese before.  I guess you wouldn’t, living in Verona.  I don’t speak very much though (and I sure as hell can’t read it), so she probably found my conversation lacklustre.  I’d like to learn more at some point so I can navigate Japanese cosmetics but that’s a bit off topic for a travel post!

Anyway, that was my first day in Verona, and I’d used up over half of my Interrail pass (any 5 days of travel valid for 10 days of travel and non travel), but I decided not to worry about that.

I will continue with my Solo Interrail journey here.

As a side-note, if you are wondering why my posts/response times are erratic, it’s because I’m back to work, now teaching at a facility for children who have been expelled from school, mostly young offenders, which is a very intense job, as well as being quite a drive from my house, and I’m a bit exhausted, but I am interested in everything people have to say still!!