A caffeinated return to Florence
A barista at Cafe Riviore on Piazza della Signoria. (Richard I'Anson/LPI/Getty)
I never really understood the saying “you can’t go home again”. I go home all the time and not much has changed: I lay on my father’s couch, watch mind-numbing amounts of TV, raid the fridge at 3 am, have my aunt do my laundry and generally revert back to my teenage self.
But after returning to Florence for the first time since a four-month study abroad programme in 2006, I realised there are some places that you can’t go back to. I learned this because a loud, ringing bell told me so – but we’ll get to that later.
I arrived in Florence early in the morning for a 21-hour layover en route to Korea; the journey had taken 12 hours, and I was exhausted. But Italy is the perfect country for a weary traveller: there are beautiful churches and benches everywhere and – more importantly – coffee is never more than a few steps away.
Italians drink more coffee than almost any country on Earth, which is an impressive feat considering they drink it roughly a thimbleful at a time. Coffee culture here is pretty much the opposite of most of the rest of the coffee-drinking world. While most of us treat a cup as an excuse for hours of relaxing, conversing or using a cafe’s free wi-fi, Italians treat coffee like a drug to be enjoyed quickly but frequently. It’s why sitting with a coffee can cost you roughly three times more than drinking it while standing.
It was in Florence that my love for coffee started to blossom. It began as a relationship of convenience and necessity – the espresso machine just outside my classroom door would spit out double shots of espresso in a matter of seconds. Two of these each morning before my 8 am class became a ritual that – once I stopped getting the shakes – was solely responsible for keeping me awake during class.
Soon, my days were punctuated with trips to the bar (what Italians call a cafe), elbow to elbow with Florence’s working folks, ordering un caffé. Drinking black espresso with such purpose and speed somehow made me feel more like an Italian and less like a wretched US university student who previously relied on what Italians call acqua marrone (brown water) – weak, watery, flavourless American coffee.
During my brief return to Italy, I was determined to return to my days of espresso drinking. I was determined to feel like an Italian again.
Unfortunately, I spent the first hour of my return wandering around lost, something I normally enjoy when discovering a new city. But this time it was frustrating; I was supposed to know these streets! Eventually, I found my arms reluctantly outstretched with a ludicrously large tourist map in front of my face. Time to get some coffee and regroup I decided. Within 15 seconds I was at a bar – as is always the case in this city.
Before ordering, I stepped into the restroom. Slowly, with my memories returning, I remembered that in Italy, the flush is sometimes located on a string dangling from a wall-mounted tank behind the toilet. I pulled the string expecting the toilet to flush and instead, an intensely loud buzzer blasted throughout the bar. Thanks to my rusty Italian and general laziness, I had ignored the sign marking the box as an emergency alarm.
I panicked, trying to find a stop button before they came in, stretcher in hands, expecting to find me sprawled out on the floor after some unmentionable accident. After a never-ending minute without success, I bolted – the alarm still flooding the bar.
I should’ve legged it out of there, but for reasons still unknown, I decided to go up to the bar and order an espresso, probably to make amends for my error.