A travel sketch, written for my travel writing class, fall 2022
Every morning I spend at the bar, I am treated to a free ballet.
I hear music in each shot of espresso that is pulled and in each puff of the milk steamer as it cleans itself. There is an orchestral cacophony of lively conversations and clinking ceramic dishes and pulling of paper-thin napkins. At the same time, baristas dance from place to place, taking change, collecting plates, and treating each interaction like a family reunion.
I remember my first visit: the cheap metal chair screeched against the sidewalk as I removed it from underneath its matching table. I clumsily sat down, feeling like I might fall out of the poorly-designed seat that was most definitely not built for comfort. I quickly glanced around and noticed how others were sitting in them: everyone looked relaxed, as if they could take hour-long naps. Maybe I’ll get used to them, I thought to myself, as I picked up the small, single shot of espresso from its saucer.
It was my first time drinking espresso, or, at least, real espresso, in Italy. The barista gave me a tall glass of water alongside it, which I placed next to my coffee. I quickly looked up the significance of this: was I supposed to drink the water first, then the coffee? Or the other way around? Did I have to drink the water at all?
According to the internet, the water was simply a palate cleanser. I guess I could have figured that out myself. I took a few sips of it, and then drank half of the coffee. I am a pro at concealing any signs of disgust, and I used this skill immediately.
My time spent in Rome may be measured in trips to the bar. I don’t know the name of said bar, but I know it’s a bar, and so I call it just that: the bar. It sits right across the street from my apartment and the sidewalk outside of it is lined with those obnoxious chairs. I visit it multiple times a week: mostly for coffee, sometimes for alcohol, and always for a bombolone.
Soon after my first visit, I quickly learned that most Italians aren’t picky about what bar they frequent. They tend to stick to one: the one that’s closest to their place of residence. They go for coffee in the morning and aperitivo in the evening, and it’s almost like an extension of their homes. They know every barista, and every barista knows them, their daily order, and somehow every detail about their lives.
After my first few trips there, I found myself treating the bar as an extension to my apartment, too. The baristas slowly began recognizing me and making conversation, and on days I couldn’t stop for breakfast, they’d wave to me as I rushed to class. I’d avoid other bars as much as possible, even when I had a caffeine headache and wanted nothing more than a cappuccino: a visit to another bar would be a betrayal to mine.
The bar also became my favorite place for people-watching, and it started on that very first day. I’d gone after school with the intention of both caffeinating myself at four in the afternoon and of getting some reading done for a literature class. I did not complete the latter, and instead, I watched an old Italian man who sat down at the table across the sidewalk from me. He held a cigarette in one hand, and with the other hand, he itched the side of his face, which was sprinkled with snowy white stubble.
He reached for his espresso cup, taking a sip and sighing heavily. He placed the cup on the table, right next to two empty sugar packets. I eyed them and decided I’d be sweetening mine next time, since I couldn’t take a sip without instantly washing it down with water.
That day, I people-watched until the Roman sun was too hot to sit under anymore. Outside, small children walked alongside their parents, carrying backpacks much too big for them. Old women walked their dachshunds and French bulldogs, looking straight ahead in dark glasses that concealed half their faces. The street smelled slightly of smoke, and slightly of coffee: but it was a fresh smell, and one I knew I could get used to.