Coffee Culture and Italian Names

About 14 months ago, I wrote a post about coffee in Italy. Coffee is such an important part of the culture here, I thought it was worth at least a second go round.


Last night, Nick and I took part in the evening’s unofficial entertainment – passeggiata. Looking for a good description of passeggiata, I found this on Reid’s Italy – it may be specifically about Rome, but it applies everywhere in Italy:


The evening passeggiata stroll on Via del Corso is Rome’s quintessential see-and-be-seen event

Italians have a tendency to elevate every element of daily life into an art form, from the clothes they wear (Ferragamo, Fendi, Gucci, Armani) to meals they cook.

Think about it: in Italy, the very accoutrements of daily life are forms of art, from tea kettles (Alessi, Bialetti, Langostina) and automobiles (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati) to movies (Fellini, anyone?).

Heck, until prima donnas like Michelangelo happened along to change things, even the decorating of walls and painting of pictures was widely considered to be a common laborer’s task.

So leave it to the Italians to turn their daily, pre-dinner stroll into the premier social event of each day.

During the evening passeggiata (“little walk”) between 5 and 7pm, [note: in Cianciana, the passeggiata takes place later – usually after dinner] half the city turns out in their best clothes to see and be seen—but mostly to be seen fare la bella figura, (“cutting a beautiful figure”).

Via del Corso is ground zero for Rome’s most fashionable passeggiata evening stroll, awash with citizens, men and women alike, linked arm-in-arm (or, these days, arm-in-one-arm, the other arm crooked to hold a cellphone to the ear).

Each neighborhood, however, has its own main street for strolling.

Passeggiata is a babble of lively conversation as everyone window shops their way up and down the street, everyone checking out everyone else (and even more crucially, being checked out), bumping into friends and acquaintances, and perhaps making impromptu plans to head off to dinner together.

Just because there’s probably no one you know to bump into (or the fact that you left your Armani suit or Prada dress at home) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get right out there and join the throng.

It is perhaps the most Italian part of any day in Italy, and if nothing else the walk will help you work up a hearty appetite for dinner.

Now this little piece is written for tourists who would not happen across anyone they know as they wander, but for those of us who have set down roots in a particular place, it is impossible to do passeggiata without bumping into someone you know and being invited to stop a the bar for a coffee.

Last night as we made our way down Corso Vittorio Emanuele (Every town has a street called Corso Vittorio Emanuele – Vittorio Emanuele II was the first king of the unified Italy) we bumped into Gaetano the stone mason. Gaetano was the first Ciancianese we met other than the people from MyHouse who helped us buy our house. Gaetano is a mostly retired gentleman – and I do mean gentleman in the very best sense of the word – who seems to collect acquaintances with the foreign community. Gaetano insisted we stop for il caffe’ and a gelato at the Trieste Bar. While we were sitting there, he struck up a conversation with a brother and sister who were visiting from Belgium which lead to a tête-à-tête between the five of us that took place in four languages – French, Italian, Sicilian and English. This is one of the magical things about Cianciana and about passeggiata – language and cultural barriers seem to drop in the face of both the friendly nature of the Ciancianesi and the mutual love of caffeine.


Nick and Gaetano the stone mason

Nick and Gaetano the stone mason

After we said “Buona sera” to Gaetano and our new Belgique acquaintances, we slowly wandered down the road, around the corner at the Chiesa Madre (mother church) until we got to the Canadian Pizza Bar. Gaetano the barkeep (he owns Canadian Pizza with his Canadian wife) called out “Hey, Canadians! Come over here!” He poured both Nick and himself shots from some rather wicked looking bottle and tossed it back. Not to be outdone, Nick followed suit and handed back the shot glass with a nod and a comment, “Nice.” We decided to sit for a bit and watch the stream of people. From Gaetano the barkeep, I knew I could make the terrible faux-pas of ordering a cappuccino in the evening. Nick ordered il caffe’ and a croissant. Gaetano brought us our order with a laugh and the comment – “You crazy Canadians, ordering breakfast at night!” We sat there and said “Ciao” and “Buona sera!” to everyone we knew who went by, including Tony the bulldog owner, who always loves to stop and practice his English with us.


When we left Canadian Pizza, we made our way back down the main street where we were stopped by Tony the Marxist. Our relationship with Tony the Marxist is a perfect example of how I know just enough Italian to get myself into trouble, but not enough to extricate myself. Last summer at ferragosto – the biggest of the summer festivals – we were introduced to Tony for the first time. Nick asked him why he wasn’t in church along with most of the town. Tony made a dismissive hand gesture and said, “Sono socialisto”. In other words, as a socialist, he has nothing to do with religion. Now, in Italy, a socialist is much more closely aligned to communism and Marxist thinking whereas in Canada, a socialist is really more likely just a follower of the New Democrat Party, which describes both Nick and me. So, without thinking, I pipe up with, “Noi siamo anche socialisti!” “We are socialists too!” Well, from that point on we have been Tony’s best foreign friends and whenever we see him downtown, he insists we stop for coffee. So, bumping into Tony the Marxist last night meant our third coffee of the evening and a discussion of our recent trip to Sardinia (post on that to come). We sat at the Bar San Antonio and were served by – of course – Antonio, the owner. After our third coffee for the evening (and fifth coffee for the day), we nipped up a side street to head home, knowing that even one more coffee would have us up even beyond the 1am sleep-time that we knew was certainly in front of us. Now, you may wonder, why is it that we are always the invitees and not the inviters? Well, in Cianciana they say, the guest never pays. The day that we will be allowed to buy coffee for our friends, we will know that we have finally become adopted as full members of this community. Until then, in spite of trying unsuccessfully to reciprocate, we will be the grateful recipients of the very generous nature of the Ciancianesi.


Nick with Bernadette, our Irish friend, and Tony the Marxist

Nick with Bernadette, our Irish friend, and Tony the Marxist

On a side note about Italian names, you could be forgiven for thinking, after reading the start of this post, that every man in Cianciana was called either Gaetano or Tony (Antonio). That is not the case. Our neighbours to the right are Guiseppe, Anna and their son is… oh, Antonio. Down the street are our other neighbours, um… Anna and Guiseppe. Their daughter, Franca, has been a wonderful friend to us. In fact, before we went downtown last night, we sat out on the street talking with Anna and Guiseppe and Antonio, Anna and Guiseppe, Franca and her son… Antonio. Wait, I am not really clearing this up am I? Okay, in the last post, I told you about Rosario, our car dealer. He has a very helpful assistant who drove us to Sciacca to get insurance. His name is… oh, um, Gaetano. Then there is Gaetano who works for Scott, one of the founders of Passareddu. I am being a bit tongue in cheek here; we have Sicilian friends and acquaintances of all different names: Fabrizio, Silvestro, Enzo, Silvio, Onofrio, Calgero, Alfonso, Carmelo, Vincenzo, Gianfranco, Massimo, Marta, Francesca, Enza, Gina, Maria, Giulia … The repetition of names comes from a couple of practices in Italian culture. Eldest sons are named usually after the paternal grandfather and the eldest daughters after the paternal grandmother. Nick is named after his grandfather, Nicola and so he has at least 4 cousins also named Nicola. Nick’s sister is Tina and his cousin is Cettina, both of whom are named after their grandmother, Concettina. There is also a practice of naming children after the patron saint of the town. In Cianciana, the patron saint is San Antonio – thus all the Tonys. In Capizzi, where Nick’s family originates, the patron saint is San Giacomo. Nick’s Uncle Jack (Giacomo) and cousin Jackie (Giacomina) are both named for him.



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