THE ITALIAN “BAR” – Leave Your Laptop At Home

We would’ve missed so much if our faces had been glued to computer screens. But I’ll get back to that. First, let’s begin with some terminology.

BAR: your one stop shop for everything pick-me-up in Italy.

In Italy, there is no such thing as a café. That’s a French idea, adopted by the Americans (who-knows-when). A bar in Italy, though—that’s where you want to go. Where they serve coffee beverages and all kinds of alcohol. Where there’s sometimes food*. Or live music (er, ummm…bad English hits). And pastries. Where people chat and mingle and catch up…

All in one place.

Our friend, Dave, and his son, Finn, at a bar outside Naples. (Campagna)
Our friend, Dave, and his son, Finn, at a bar outside Naples. (Campagna)

Throughout the country, in every town big or small, there’s always a high-counter “bartop” where people stand on their feet and throw back tiny espressos in haste. Or where you can sip a slow Prosecco after work. Or nurse a cappuccino, but always in the morning (never in the afternoon). Kids are welcome, too, and once you’re 18, you’re free to drink alcohol like the militarily-eligible adult that you are.

In Italy, however, bars don’t operate the way they do in the US—where, for a lot of people, they’ve become a second office (free Wi-Fi and all). In fact, working on a laptop in a bar (café) is so uncommon in Italy that you may feel awkwardly out of place, as if you’d just landed at the G8 Summit in go-go boots and a hula skirt.

Bars in Italy are for doing bar/café things (who knew?), like: eating cream-filled desserts, socializing with your friends, catching up on gossip, reading the newspaper, and (shocker!) drinking alcoholic and/or coffee bev’s. Bars and work things simply do not mix.

Outdoor bar sittin' in Umbria. (Italy)
Outdoor bar sittin’ in Umbria. (Italy)

But we come from Seattle. Where you are a freak of animal-cloning proportions if all you do in a café is lounge and enjoy your coffee with nothing else to do. You might as well eat babies.

Admittedly, bars in Italy have taken some getting used to. Just sitting there, staring out, happily imbibing and chatting and spinning thoughts. At first, I felt a little…idle. Like I should be doing more with my hands. Like my eyes are nervously waiting for a job interview to begin.

I felt un-adult.

By now, I’ve grown so used to this separation of activities. If someone walks into a bar and flips open a laptop, I know one thing: they’re a foreigner. And Jason and look at each other with a remember when? look in our eyes, throwing back sips of liquid brown and wondering if that guy really knows how to enjoy himself. Considering it a possibly he doesn’t have any fun at all.

Jason. In a bar (Parma, Italy)
Jason. In a bar (Parma, Italy)

But no one ever really gets that far from their comfort zone.

Jason normally works from home, but to get a change of scenery one day, he took his laptop to a café in Cles (which, at 7-8,000 inhabitants, is the “city” closest to Cavareno). He sat in a bar that was part of a posh a hotel, where you’d think he’d be among a few other business-ey, work-savvy clientelle—but no. He was the only person with a laptop.

When a second person walked in and opened a computer, joining Jason in his out-of-the-house work pursuits, he admitted to me later that day, “Suddenly, I didn’t feel like such a monster!” As much as we enjoy the slowness of a bar visit these days, there’s still a part of us that will always consider them places to get stuff done.

Here in Perugia, things are a little more modern world (Seattle is, after all, Perugia’s sister city). There are a few bar/cafés with Wi-Fi, but you often have to pay to use it, and you’ll still be stare-worthy working on a laptop. It may feel awkward, but at least it’s an option here, offering a taste of the familiar, now and again.

Bar drinks with a view. (Perugia)
Bar drinks with a view. (Perugia)

I’ve grown to appreciate Italy’s bar culture. Reminding myself that if we’d had our faces glued to screens every time we sat in Italian bars, we’d have missed so many things. Things like:

  • the men in Alto-Adige playing cards for cash
  • the fur-clad Milanese women with their tiny dogs swapping stories about their house help
  • the group of farm workers in Val di Non celebrating the finish of the apple harvest, with Romanian music and Forst beer

And of course there’s the one I remember most clearly: in Fondo in the middle of July. Sitting in the piazza at a seasonal bar, listening to an old timey Tirolese brass band blow on flutes and French horns and trumpets. An actual choir singing in the background, under the stars on a summer night.

All the high-powered mbps in the world couldn’t have pulled me away from that one. They wouldn’t have tasted so good.

*Food options vary from bar to bar—ranging from bar snacks and pastries, to sandwiches and sit down meals. I’ve even been in bars that serve fresh baked bread.

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