In an effort to relive his days as a university student in Italy, the Thirsty Explorer finds that the land of espresso is not as familiar as it once was.

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.

But no one took my order. No one even looked at me, save for one barista who gave me a quick smile (which may or may not have been related to the fact that I was the idiot who had just set off an alarm loud enough to disrupt any and all conversation). They were all busy making coffee. These baristas were not apathetic students trying to earn beer money; these were true professionals. Only after they were done making their espressos and cappuccinos did they stop to turn off the alarm and take my order. Good thing nobody had actually had a serious accident in the bathroom.

Of course, it wasn’t until after ordering that I realised I had broken multiple unspoken rules of Italian coffee drinking. I didn’t need to wait until the barista was finished with the current cup – shouting your order to a barista with her back turned is perfectly acceptable, expected even. Oh, and you don’t call it an espresso. You call it un caffé. But my Italian was beyond rusty and my confidence gone.

Thankfully, coffee in Italy is always served at a temperature cool enough to drink immediately. So I quickly loaded a map on my phone, downed my coffee in one smooth motion and – fully embarrassed at this point – made my way back out into the city for a fresh start.

I used to know which narrow streets to take to get shelter from the sun, which alleys to walk to take advantage of cool breezes. I could still taste the flavours of my favourite gelato shop and was dying for my first bite of a panini from Salumeria Verdi after six years of it haunting my dreams. But now I found myself looking at a map, standing on a wide road, baking in the sun like the rest of the tourists. My favourite gelateria, La Carraia now had a second location; and Salumeria Verdi now had a full English menu and even a second, English name.

After lunch, I popped into another of the countless bars and ordered an afternoon cappuccino – a faux pas in Italy, where you’re not supposed to drink anything with milk after your afternoon meal. I was tired and disenchanted from reliving cherished memories with the ghosts of old friends. I was in the mood for a cappuccino and I broke the rule knowingly. I was a tourist here, anyway; it’s not like I was returning home.