giovedì 3 aprile 2008

Cultural observations from the other side of the bar

I go to Luca’s bar around twice a week – to see him, hang out with his family, and generally make the most of the free prosecco and pizza. When it’s not too busy I tend to stand behind the till, which allows me to chat with Luca’s mum and gives me a bird’s eye view of the customers as they pay for their drinks, purchase cigarettes, or just call in to chat. The first thing that you notice when you start to frequent bars in Italy is that ‘the bar’ is so much more than a place which serves food and drink. It is a point of reference. Most Italians have more than one bar which plays an integral part in their everyday routine, and then a series of other places to serve as substitutes when they are out of range. There’s the bar where they get their morning cappuccino, the place they go for lunch, the post-work aperitivo place, and the emergency bar which sells cigarettes until late. People tend to be quite territorial about their ‘regular’ bar, and like to feel like they are more important than the next guy waiting in line for his cappuccino – they are proud of the fact that the barista knows their name, what type of coffee they drink, and their preferred cigarette brand, and are oblivious to the fact that this is the case for 90% of the people around them. Walking into Luca’s bar, I often feel like it’s Groundhog Day - there’s the couple who live upstairs and are always standing at the bar drinking crodini; the group of guys who drink large beers and destroy the buffet within 5 minutes of it being put out; the overweight lady who works in the pet shop next door and comes in for her daily brioches; the pharmacist from over the road who always has travel stories to tell….. The list is endless. And these are just the regulars that I know and who come to mind. Particularly in the smaller towns and villages, you often find that you can walk into your local bar at any time of day and always find someone you know in there. Whether or not it’s someone you like or wish to see is another matter! This was the case with me when I lived in a village in Sardinia – I always knew everyone at the bar. In fact when a ‘foreigner’ or even someone from outside of town came in, they would find themselves under observation like a patient in intensive care. Italians tend to be nosy by nature, so even here in Milan you can practically hear the cogs whirring away as they try to work out who the ‘straniera’ is, what she’s doing here and why.
The way in which people interact when making their purchases at the till makes for another interesting observation. Unlike the UK system (where you either pay the barman or you pay the waiter at the table), here in Italy you pay at the till. The idea is that first you pay, then you go to the bar and get what you’ve paid for. Those who consider themselves ‘regulars’, who know the barman, or who think they deserve special treatment do it the other way around – proudly marching to the till, empty glass in hand as if it’s some kind of trophy for being allowed to drink without having paid first. In England and North America, if you are not greeted with a smile, it’s rude. If you don’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, it’s rude. If you slam your money down on the counter, it’s rude. Likewise, if the cashier slams down your change, it’s rude. None of these rules seem to apply here in Milan – or rather they do, but people are so beaten down that they no longer notice. When Luca doesn’t greet the client with a smile, jokes around with his colleagues over the client’s head, and slams down the change, it bothers me – but it doesn’t seem to bother the client. They’re too busy hurrying on their way without saying thank you or goodbye. Interaction in its purest Milanese form….

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