Observations at a Florentine Coffee Bar

My goal was simple: find a cappuccino for less than 2 euro. This mission had eluded me since my arrival and I had been losing hope, wandering desperately behind the Piazza della Signoria and deliberately attempting to stumble upon a coffee bar that could become my “regular” place while in Florence.

I was walking along one of the many brown-brick streets near Dante Alighieri’s fake house, checking menus as I passed through, when I saw it: cappuccino … .1.40. Relief flowed through me for about two seconds before being replaced with a flood of apprehension. 

The bar was beyond intimidating. It was small and quaint, built into the brick wall of the street and only about the size of an average living room. As soon as I crossed the threshold, wafts of burnt coffee and fresh pastries overcame me. The customers eyed me from their tables and the woman working at the pastry counter greeted me with a curt, but pleasant “Good morning.” I had never felt so out of place and imposing before.

“Ciao,” I said haltingly, quiet enough for her to lean slightly forward in an effort to hear me. “Un cappuccino, per favore?” I repeated the phrase I had been practicing so militantly in my head the entire morning, attempting to perfect my accent.

“You order cappuccino over there.” She replied, pointing to the bar.

“Ah, grazie.” I slunk, embarrassed, towards the empty bar, wincing as the floorboards creaked beneath my boots. I looked around in what I hoped was an apologetic expression, certain my mere presence was ruining everyone’s morning.

I perched on a stool, hands folded in my lap, and dutifully repeated my phrase— “un cappuccino, per favore” —to the elderly man behind the counter wiping his hands on his coffee-stained apron. He simply nodded in response and grabbed a mug as the espresso machine roared to life.

I breathed normally for the first time since I had entered, finding peace in the overpowering noise and finally able to settle into my surroundings. I felt strange sitting there, as if I was stepping into someone else’s life. It seemed more like I was watching someone through a screen than playing out the actual scene myself. 

The mirror on the back wall was the only thing I could look at without feeling like I was staring at someone. In the reflection, I could watch the reality of the bar. The woman who had greeted me filled the fridge at the back of the establishment, cheerfully chatting to the family seated beside her. The man who had just served me my coffee had disappeared into the back where I could faintly hear the crackle of a soccer (of course, they call it football here) game. The entire scene had paused when I entered and immediately resumed when I sat down, my foreignness drifting to the background. I felt invisible and I liked it better this way.

I could stop thinking about myself and start paying attention. 

I noticed the elements around me. The Italian that surrounded the experience was like water over rocks, smoothly bumping its way along its path, rising and falling with every precisely pronounced vowel and unique combination of consonants. My coffee was burnt and grainy and the space tasted the same—dark and saturated in itself. The air was tinged with sweetness and the ease of a locality that wasn’t expected to be anything but exactly what it already was. 

Voices started to fill the air around me and I felt barely there once again as Italian pleasantries were exchanged around me, between strangers and friends—I couldn’t tell the difference, the tones giving nothing away. I alighted for a little while longer, doing my best to observe the nuances around me, trying to leave myself behind for a little while. 

The man beside me, the one had drawn the elderly barista out from the back, spoke animatedly as he stood, an espresso in front of him as he waved vaguely with his hands. The man behind the counter responded cheerily, an easy smile spread across his face as he attended to another order, this time from a middle-aged woman with hair tinged with auburn. I sat nestled between both standing customers and they ignored me as if I belonged there, like my presence was the most mundane and absolutely normal part of their day. 

I paid my bill of exactly one euro and 40 centesimi and slipped out quietly, feeling the lightest I had felt since I had arrived and softer than I had ever been. The last time I felt like I could be that quiet surrounded by so many people was with my family—the last place I had expected to feel that again was in a room full of strangers I couldn’t hope to communicate with.

I noted the name on the top of my receipt and decided not to take a photo of the bar, reasoning that I could easily find it again. I followed the line on my map to my apartment, unwinding myself through the streets like Theseus with Ariadne’s thread as he found his way out of the labyrinth after accomplishing his goal. 

Moving through the city with an unhurried reverence I didn’t have that morning, I noticed things, but without the desperation of searching for them like I had before. The brick buildings were more impressive and the streets seemed directly plucked from history. I took my time getting home, admiring the city’s seamless incorporation of modernity and history—that Starbucks could have been there for centuries. 

The next week, I resolved to head out and find that bar once again. I searched high and low for the receipt with the printed name and couldn’t remember where I had misplaced it. I wandered back out again, attempting to come across it as I had before, lurking by the same streets and monuments. I turned corners and remembered places I had seen before, not recalling when. I never found that bar again.