Coffee Rules – Italy


cappuccinoHere’s a link to The Rules of Coffee Ordering and Drinking in Italy. Saw it on a Twitter and think it says it all. Italians take coffee so rightly seriously. And of course if you want a cappuccino after lunch or dinner, and it makes you happy, by all means I say, Do It. If your barista was to give you a look, which they won’t, just shrug and say “Scusi, sono straniero.” That covers oh so much ground. Use it freely in almost any situation. Italians will happily accept our money. Along with our foreign idiosyncrasies. Goes with the territory?

Except maybe for Daniela.

Reminds me of a late night, coffee-like story:


We’d had a fine mid-day eatathon that day. And how we could even consider eating again, I do not know, but after an extended siesta/nap/fall-down-and-be-quiet thing, we did a walking tour of Panicale and then had a most excellent but light dinner at Masolino’s. Sans wine. But, then, to make up for that momentary lapse into the dark world of abstemiousness I found my lips forming the words “Nightcap, anyone?” All hands were raised and we wandered post-dolce to Aldo’s next door and had the Wiley Traveler’s Special. It tastes like a nice, late night coffee would. But it is coffee imposter, caffeine-free Orzo, brewed up like a cappuccino and topped off with Bailey’s. How easy was that to say? Orzo with Bailey’s. You might think so. But you’d be wrong. At least in Panicale’s Bar Gallo with Daniela in charge on a busy night. Elegant Daniela, who suffers fools hardly at all, decided I needed to be taught how not to drive her crazy. After a couple false starts over a week’s time, (practice, practice) we got me to parrot these words back to her:

“Orzo corretto con baaay-lees in una tazza grande”. Say that, like that, and you’ll get your foamed and frothed up Orzo in a cappuccino-sized cup with good shot of Bailey’s. At least from Daniela. I’d think in a place we didn’t know we’d have to specify. Maybe add “fatto come un cappuccino” or such. Be that as it may, we had to go around the horn a bit to get to this Daniel accepted version of ordering as I thought the “corretto” part would mean Grappa would be added. Turns out coffee can be “corrected” with any liquor of choice. I dare say if you don’t specify you will Get Grappa’d.

Regardless, it is as fine a sleep potion as I’ve ever come across. And a marvelous way to end a marvelous day. About a euro in your local bar. Sogni d’Oro/Orzo to all and to all a good night.



Red Ferarri teaches me a thing or two about Italian.

UMBRIA, Italy–In the right circumstances any one can learn anything. Expensive math software and games to make math “fun” for kids? Be serious. Get the a deck of cards and teach them to play Blackjack. As a kid growing up in the heart of the Bible Belt we daily rode the big yellow buses down country roads, hogs lots and amber waves of grain as far as you could see any direction. And we never looked up. We were slapping cards on those hard green seats as fast as we could. What did you think was going on in those buses? No, we were not studying or reading back issues of Amish Living.

Every year, it would surprise and amaze me to watch the tiny innocent kendy-garters timidly mount those steps to Vegas on Wheels. Clueless Day One. Cold-eyed and world-wise Day Two. Knowing their numbers and doing addition and subtraction at warp speed so they could Get in The Game. Sad, really looking back on it.
Ferraris and school buses
And yet, I’m like that with studying and/or learning Italian. If the subject, noun, predicate, has a car or food-like connotation attached to it, I will go to any length to understand it. Case in point is a note I just found scribbled to myself on my computer sticky notes. About the red Ferarri in the previous blog. We’ve got one very spiffy friend who lives in a boffo, art-filled penthouse and dresses better when he’s slumming than I do when I’m say getting married. He’s funny as a crutch and yet his Italian is so hyper educated, eloquent and refined. I always feel I understand every word his says. So, I was thrown when he bopped out of a car as I was gawking at the Ferarri and without slowing down, pointed at it and said “una figata, pure” – wagging his eyebrows like Grocho as he delivered his line.

Well, I thought. And thought about it some more. And when I got done looking through my limited mental banks and dictionaries I wrote our friend Steve. He knows everything. And for a guy of non-italian persuasion he’s an aberrant freak of nature. He claims he’s from California – but I’ve had Italians tell me HIS Italian is so good they assume he is a native born Italian. And then they give me The Look. (Implying of course, “If HE can speak Italian without murdering it, what IS wrong with you, Stew?”) Steve could care less about cars but he hadn’t heard this particular word used this way. But he dug in. And here, courtesy of Steve, is your mini Italian language lesson for the day.

Hey Styoo

So, figo/figa is slang for “cool” – so una figata is a cool thing. Attenzione, pero, because figa is ALSO SLANG FOR A FEMALE PART!! The opposite, sfigato is also a useful word, meaning pathetic, loser-ly. Che sfiga, means what bad luck or how pathetic. Quello sfigato di tuo fratello = that loser brother of yours.

Don’t quote me on this, (oops, sorry Steve, too late) but I think the original word was fico – same as the word for a fig tree, and the slang word meaning cool grew out of the southern pronunciation of fico – you know how they “vocalize” consonants, like p turns to b, c turns to g, etc.

Just looked up “figata” online, and it turns out, per several sites, that it also means “it’s a deal.”
That must have been what our friend meant by “è una figata pure.” “And it was a great deal, too.” Meaning he got the Ferarri cheap?

Ciao, ragazzi,


Thanks, Steve. So, the next time you hear someone say figata it could be they are talking about something cool or a cool deal.

OK, there’s the bell. That’s all for today. Class dismissed

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Learning the language of Dante in the land of Ben & Jerry

Some of my favorite memories are Jenn and I, together, being able to hold a single conversation with some unsuspecting Italian.

culture vultures decend on Perugia, umbriaCiao, Ciao, Amici,

As the Wiley Traveler I have had the good fortune to collect a bunch of Wiley Friends over the years, from Maine to Switzerland to Italy and London. One of my oldest and dearest friends, Jenn Corey, is also one of the best travel buddies I have yet to find. From drives-across-America, to giggle-fits on the Cutty Sark in London, to Panicale on its Umbrian hilltop, Life is always an adventure with Jenn.

I remember returning to Panicale after a long weekend in Florence with Jenn and it felt like: A) three days had been turned into three jammed packed weeks and that: B) That the Rapido I had just gotten off of had run me over – yes, always an adventure.

I was spending a year in Umbria when Jenn was in Florence doing a pre-architecture term through Colby College by way of a Syracuse program. Every day that I was there visiting her she would (literally) drag me out of bed as soon as the sun peeked over the stone window sills and then she would proceed to walk me miles and miles from this cheese stall to that mountaintop monastery, to those Bobolli gardens, to that secret hole in the wall restaurant, to God-knows–where. And back.

At night we would go to members-only jazz clubs or funny kitchy disco-teques. And between the two of us we would stumble merrily through conversations with just about everyone we would meet. And we met a lot. From Sicilian boys (and their sisters!) to the lovely Valentina who rescued us from a lecherous Aussie by spilling beer on us and swooping us away to the ‘bathroom’ which was really the free drinks and good conversation end of the bar that she and 20 other Fab Florentines were inhabiting. Yes we can get ourselves good into trouble.

We got A for effort, but Language was always an issue. Some of my favorite memories are Jenn and I, together, being able to hold a single conversation with some unsuspecting Italian. My half of this two headed being had a better vocabulary (at the time) and Jenn’s half had the grammar; so I would start shooting out five or ten words that made some sort of descriptive sense and she would rearrange them and interjecting prepositions. Maybe two heads actually are better than one. Maybe it only works with a certain amount of wine.

cgelatiagogo.jpgHopefully, now, a few years later, I have gotten better at Italian. But with Jenn, there is no question. After graduating from Colby with an Art history/English double major she decided that perhaps architecture wasn’t her bag after all and that English might well be. And to go to grad school for English – you have to know two foreign languages- oh the irony!

Well, between getting ready for grad school and planning to teach abroad, Jenn found the Middlebury Language Immersion program. This is the poorly kept secret of all college language professors- the ultimate quick fix set against the backdrop of a Vermont summer- go figure.
It is a non linear and maybe completely unexpected way to become fluent in Italian. But is there really a bad way? Regardless, Jenn’s Italian has come out- dare I say it- better than mine, and in very short order. This fantastic program, replete with its exciting/daunting absolutely No-English Policy is rightly famous. And Jenn was nice enough to share her insider’s view and we thought we just had to pass it along.

Ciao, a tutti,

Wiley Vreeland


MIDDLEBURY, Vermont — Aspetta! Unhand that mouse! Credi sulla parola, you are in the right place. My cursor is taking us back to the states, but—as I discovered this past summer—really not so very far from Italy. In fact, given the rolling hills and aggressive pastoral pride a Tuscan could feel almost at home in rural Vermont (trade pecorino for cheddar). And, as it turns out, on Middlebury College’s small liberal-arts campus, could carry on a conversation quite nicely.
italy goes to vermont. italian immersion classes
It may seem counterintuitive to look for Italian immersion in perhaps the only state to rival Maine in cultural diversity—we can’t count the cows—but every summer for two months Middlebury works to convert a collegiate bubble into a small international globe: something akin to Disney’s Epcot for the academically-inclined. The much lauded program enrolls around thirteen-hundred students from a mélange of backgrounds, a sprawl of future hopes and dreams. And by week seven—waking in bed with your textbook from the night before (come si dice: osmosis?)—more often than not those dreams are coming through on an Italian frequency.

But many conjugations before you start dreaming in translation, there is much work to be done. Living the everyday in a foreign language can make even reality seem somewhat less than lucid; it’s amazing what the inability to name things does to the mind. However, when I got desperate enough, I found myself a regular Petrarchan poet—reeling off fourteen lines just to court one elusive word (I can picture it on the vocab list: it was between the Italian for “to do aerobics” and “fishmonger”), and after dealing with my problem for about eight phrases, I usually probed a creative solution. But, as a beginner speaker with a severely limited verbal toolbox, sadly, sometimes the mot juste just would not come—usually because I was working in literal translation. But how to purge all those lovely, native, idiomatic phrases that made my writing—for instance—so blog-worthy? It was a genuine, if incomplete, process of deconstruction. And eventually I got my stubborn English self out of my own way and did my best to tinker with the Italian I knew I must have…somewhere.
more italian immersion. learning the language of dante in the land of ben and jerry
Philosopher and sometimes lingual theorist John D. Caputo said, “Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell—a secure axiom or a pithy maxim—the very idea is to crack it open and disturb it.” And what better way to take apart your own language than to chink away at it with another? Right? Unfortunately, I am allergic to nuts. But when in doubt in life, food is (almost) always an good place to start. What goes into your mouth may be the single thing more important than what comes out of it. Hence, I found out how to get back to basics at the language school dining hall. Everyone always has something to say about food, particularly—you may have heard—Italians. And the constructions are usually simple. The Pizza Regina pleases me. The gamberetti with the faces still on them do not. I would really prefer a Florentine bistec. Even the occasional idiom from the other side of the isle: the pasta was usually way past al dente—count yourself lucky if it stayed firm to the fork. So while even the mensa had the best of intentions (replete with green roof, in fact…oh, Vermont), sometimes the better classroom was the mondo vero.

And it was in the spirited moments outside classroom walls that my Italian came forward to realize itself—Middlebury knows what it’s up to. The program offered a host of extracurricular distractions: movie nights, theatrics, tango lessons, soccer games, our very own Sistine facsimile from the resident fresco expert. No doubt many students found their Italian between their toes on the tango floor. However, I have two left feet….or, case in point, ho due piedi nello scarpa (two feet, one shoe).

italy goes to vermont. italian immersion classesFor me, all it took was an improvisational step outside into the verdant Vermont summer and you couldn’t help but comment. Italy has its own graces, but here the sights (green, heaving mountains), the smells (manure that makes you remember where dinner comes from), the sounds (OK, maybe bocce practice, maybe birds) gave you a sense of immediacy that I couldn’t help but think of as Italian.

In a childlike embrace of experience the passato remoto tense felt a little bit less important, and, thus, left you more free to remember it. With good company and a good picnic blanket I was able to say all that I needed, without stress or urgency. The word sentire issued in full force: to taste, to smell, to hear, to touch—to feel.

So many more words in English than in Italian. Striking that a single verb could mark the spot where such distinct, refined senses coalesce; deliverance from a muddled mind back to the world that makes those thoughts worth thinking. Complex categorization simplified by basic need. Watching La Dolce Vita (1960) to suss out the Fellini of Amarcord (1973). Looking for Italy in Vermont and, on some level, actually finding it.

Jenn Corey, 2007


Thanks Wiley, thanks Jenn! And now that you are all so fluent, lets get you all on a plane to Italy already! Think of the times you will have!

Ci vediamo, a presto

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

Tunnel! Light at end of!

Airline tickets to Italy. Check. Maps. Check. Camera. Trip diary. Check. Check. Oh, yeah, we’re counting the days now. 56 to be exact. Then blast off. May May 25th come early this year. Please. Isn’t it based on the first full moon after the high tide or something? You know, like Easter?

Airline tickets. Check. Maps. Check. Camera. Trip diary. Check. Check. Oh, yeah, we’re counting the days now. 56 to be exact. Then blast off. May May 25th come early this year. Please. Isn’t it based on the first full moon after the high tide or something? You know, like Easter?

Non vedo l’ora as they say. That DOES actually translate as “Can’t see the hour” But it certainly means to imply “I can’t wait“. And, you know, I HAVE tried clicking my heels together three times. Huh. Funny. Worked in the movie.

Can not wait. Non vedo l’ora!

What to do, what to do? Dinner at Masolino’s first? Or coffee and hot gossip at Aldo’s? It is like the old Seinfeld program. A show about nothing. We never know what a trip to Umbria will have in store for us.

Finally. It is my turn to pack up the laptop and head off to the airport. Pilot, head this rig east to Italy! Can’t wait to see daughter, Wiley. She is the legendary Wiley Traveler. Anxious to see what adventures she has had. And together see all our old friends and new property listings! What to do, what to do? Dinner at Masolino’s first? Or coffee and hot gossip at Aldo’s? It is like the old Seinfeld program. A show about nothing. We never know what a trip to Umbria will have in store for us. I always try to stay open and flexible but things always flood in from all sides, time evaporates and I will be back on a plane headed west long, long before I will want to be. But, in the meantime, I fully expect to enjoy every moment to the max.

Oh, I have to share this. No, this is not a photo taken on a back road of Umbria. But just something designed to give me quantum nostalgia for the back roads of Umbria. A perfect little purple Ape, separated at birth from its homeland and somehow, someway transported to an apple orchard in northern Maine? I slowed down, shook my head and turned right around on a side street in Portland, Maine when I saw this beauty. Vintage 1969. And who knows why they call these Apes and their cousins, the motor scooters, Vespas? You in the back. That is correct. It is because of the sound they make. Like Bees and Wasps, those Apes and Vespas buzz up and down the streets of Italy. And at least one street in Portland.

Allora, if you will be in Panicale in October, we will wave madly, and say . . .

See you in Italy!