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Dio benedica l’Italia

In the small towns of eastern Tuscany—where I recently spent the better part of a week—a cappuccino can be had for €1,20. That’s $1.32 at today’s exchange rate, or a third of what we typically pay in the U.S., according to USA Today.

And that cappuccino is amazing. Honestly, I’ve never had coffee so good.

The thing is, Italians seem to have a workmanlike approach to their coffee. There’s no fuss, no fanfare, no unnecessary flourish. It’s made quickly and it’s served at the proper temperature for drinking, which means you can either toss it back and continue on to your train platform or linger over it while you enjoy a cigarette.

I know comparing America to European countries is a tedious thing, but contrast that approach with the way we do things here. At a coffee shop in Mission Viejo a couple of weeks ago, I watched as the kid behind the counter spent a good ten minutes weighing the grounds, attempting some milk foam artwork—I say “attempted” because he ultimately overfilled the cup and had to do everything over—and finally delivering a tarry-tasting concoction that cost me $4.50. And the poor guy worked so hard at it that I felt obligated to tip him.

Did I mention that tips aren’t expected—or accepted—in Italy? At least they weren’t where I was staying.

It’s funny how we Americans just can’t leave well enough alone. A cappuccino—equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam—really can’t be improved upon, yet in our zeal to differentiate ourselves or to outdo the competition or to loudly proclaim our individuality, we mess it up.

Oh, and another thing: I have no idea where the coffee beans in Italy came from. I’d see the occasional Lavazza or Illycaffé logo, but that’s about it. Walk into a coffee shop in America, though, and you’re assaulted on all sides by self-righteous messaging about how what you’re about to drink is fair trade, organic, shade-grown, responsibly farmed, and hand-crafted by Certified Oppressed Peoples™. That’s cool, I guess. But I just want a cup of joe.

Yeah, I know there’s more to Italy and America than coffee. But man, what a stark difference in how the two countries approach something so simple. And as far as cultural signifiers go, it’s a pretty big difference.



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