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 “Village” Of Blackadder, England

I spotted a point on my map* that said “Blackadder” near the Whiteadder river, so I went on another adventure in my car because I had to see this for myself.  It was 2012 and I was on my way back from Edinburgh heading south.

Being, of course, a huge fan of Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson’s comedy show “Blackadder” I had to take a detour and see for myself that this was a real place.  I wanted a photo of the sign that said “Welcome to Blackadder.”

I followed the route on the map (see also, my article on how to buy a good road atlas) until I reached the Whiteadder River, along with a signpost for the village of Whiteadder.

The river Whiteadder
The river Whiteadder. The green car in the shot was my first car, a Vauxhall Corsa named Bubbles.

A bridge over the River Whiteadder. Blackadder Village
A bridge over the River Whiteadder.

After driving around the open farmland of Northumberland for an hour, I spotted this handwritten signpost that said Blackadder Mains is this way (in Scots English, “Mains” isn’t part of the town/village name, it’s a short way of saying “town center” or “village center”).  I was hopeful that there’d be some shops or whatnot that I could photograph, along with the “Welcome To Blackadder” sign I wanted to see.

Signpost to Blackadder Village.
Signpost to Blackadder Village.

I turned down the road thinking it must be past the two farm buildings I could see.  Wrong.  Turns out, despite what the mapmakers must have found hilariously funny, Blackadder isn’t really a village.  It’s a hamlet at best, but probably actually a farm.  There were a couple of buildings side by side and that was it.  One of the buildings was a barn.  The best part?  When I stopped to take a picture, I discovered that visitors to Blackadder are so rare that the people here came out of their buildings to demand to know what I was doing.  And asked me to leave before I could get a photo.  There was definitely not a sign saying “Welcome to Blackadder.”

So the moral of the story is that maps are not better than Sat-Nav, despite what techno-luddites (usually trying to look good in front of old people) might tell you, they have their flaws.  One of them being that generally the cartographers haven’t visited every place on the map and can’t always guarantee that the information is correct.  I would imagine that Blackadder is only marked on the map because otherwise there would have been a big empty space, and mapmakers detest empty spaces on maps, they don’t want people thinking they didn’t do their job properly.   Google maps, on the other hand, offers you a satellite view of your destination so you can check that you’re really going where you think you are going, and if you’ve got half a brain you’re not going to mindlessly follow the “turn left” instructions on a sat-nav any more than you would with a paper map.   Maps can be useful, but sat-nav is more helpful.

I also don’t think places should have signs saying “Mains” if they don’t have at least one shop (or, y’know, three houses) because it’s misleading.  Maybe that’s why the sign was written in marker pen.  What it probably should have said was “Blackadder Farm.”  At the end of the day, however, it’s sort of funny that this is the place that bears the same name as the scheming weasel of a man from the popular comedy series.

If you want to visit a nice place in this area, go to Berwick Upon Tweed.  They have petrol stations and other modern conveniences such as shops that are closed on a Sunday and closed after 5 on a weekday, and they also have car parking.  There is a nice river and they’re not too far from Lindisfarne (which I will write about soon) which is a great day out in and of itself.

*A map is a piece of paper that behaves like the screen of a Sat-Nav. For advice on choosing sheet maps, check out this article

Juliet’s balcony in Verona | Solo Interrail as a lone female traveller

This post gets quite gloomy.  After a short break from this series (because I lost my notebook with all my notes in it) I am going to continue with my solo Interrail journey.  The previous installment can be found here.

Juliet's balcony, Casa di Giulietta, Verona, Italy.

I awoke in the Novotel Hotel Rossi in fair Verona (of “Romeo and Juliet” fame) and it was raining.  So apparently that happens in Italy from time to time, despite their best intentions.  I was quite surprised because I’d never expected it to rain south of the Alps for some reason despite the fact that I know how ecosystems and desertification work.  I guess I was having a blonde moment, which was odd because I was auburn at the time and I tend to be blonde when my hair is blonde.

So the day hadn’t started well, but I didn’t want to stay indoors because I wanted to get a better impression of Verona, given that at the time all I had seen was a) copious discarded syringes around my hotel, b) everywhere (except that one Japanese place) seemed to be closed on a Saturday night.

After deliberating about whether to go out over fresh coffee surprisingly tasty cheap wine in juice boxes that would fit in a child’s lunchbox (seriously), I wandered out into Verona.  I was glad I did.

The Roman Arena in the town centre (amphitheatre) was stunning – smaller, but more complete than the one in Rome, much more manageable to walk around and a really nice thing to find in the city centre.

After that, I went to the thing I’d wanted to see the most in all of Verona – the Casa Di Giulietta.  It’s in a little square and the house is a museum to Romeo and Juliet.  After making my way through the exhibition (which was really professional despite being in a small-ish 16th century house), I got to the piece de resistance – Juliet’s balcony.  Now I will be the first to say (as they do say at the Casa Di Giulietta) that it is highly unlikely that this is the actual house that Juliet lived in.  For starters, as far as anyone knows she was a fictional character in a play made by a man who lived 800 miles away.  Regardless of that, it was nice, just for a little moment, to forget the reality and just imagine that it *was* real, that Romeo somehow scaled the sheer walls and got up to this balcony… after all, isn’t the whole point of fictional and theatrical narrative that we get to imagine realities other than the one we occupy??

Afterwards, I found coffee at McDonalds because it was lunchtime and all the restaurants wanted meal-buying customers not coffee drinkers.  The girl behind the counter who served me was so skinny that she looked consumptive.  She will always haunt me.  I have never seen anyone that thin before for their skeleton size (if you see what I mean).  I still have nightmares about her.  There was literally no muscle mass on her arms just an unnatural and mesmerizing consumptiveness.  I wanted to know why.  Did she have an illness such as AIDS or TB that she was fighting through?  Was she not making enough money to afford to buy food?  I have obviously seen underweight people before, myself being one of them (chronically) but I have never seen anyone as malnourished as this woman.  She looked like she was in her mid twenties, and at death’s door with her gaunt, grey face and her neck silhouetting the rings of her windpipe and the hollows either side of it.  If I’m a size US 2-4, she was like a size -2, and she was taller than me and I’m 5’6. When I returned the next day, she was on the counter again.

I think about her from time to time, even all these years later, and I always wondered what became of her, whether she got the medical treatment she so obviously needed or if she faded away.  Healthcare is not free in Italy – and it shows in so many places.

She was extremely rude to me, but I just got my coffee and moved on, resisting the urge to wrap her up in a blanket, bring her home and feed her soup until she looked alive again.

It made me feel morose – then I got mad at myself because there I was, on an incredible once in a lifetime trip to Verona on Interrail, and I still wasn’t happy.  And I realized it went deeper than my day-to-day mood, there was a cavernous, all-encompassing melancholy that had ensconced my soul so thickly that I had no idea what would make me happy.  I should have been reveling in how wonderful everything was.  Instead I felt like there was something missing, and I didn’t know what it was.

I think this was the first time I asked the question (to myself, in bed where nobody could hear me); ‘am I depressed?’  I quickly stifled it with a boatload of excuses.

The gloom gave way to a cracking migraine, so instead of going onwards to Venice as I’d planned, I extended my stay in Verona to 2 more nights and I went back to the hotel, where I sat in the dark wearing earplugs and downed a few co-codamol (Vicodin) with some wine to try and get the pain to stop.

I passed out, and when I awoke it was a bright new day.