Extract from ‘Italian Neighbours

Am I giving the impression that I don’t like the Veneto? It’s not true. I love it. I’m going to tell you some wonderful things about it. When I’ve finished, I hope you’ll be wishing you’d been here too, at least for a little while. But like any place that’s become home, I hate it too. And, of course, you can’t separate the things you love and hate: you can’t say, let’s move to so and so where they have the cappuccini, the wines, the lasagna, the marvellous peaches, the handsome people in handsome clothes, the fine buildings, the close-knit, friendly secretiveness of village life, but not, please, the howling maltreated hunting dogs, the spoilt adolescents on their motorini, the hopeless postal service, the afa. You can’t do it. It’s a package deal. 
In any event, the morning after our unnerving arrival, we set off to find the village bar/pasticceria and console ourselves wit the pleasanter side of he arrangement, make ourselves known, see the lie of the land. And for anyone moving to Italy, this is a habit I really can’t recommend too warmly: frequent your local bar, and if possible bar/pasticceria; frequent it assiduously, decorously, even religiously. Timing is important. In general, if you want to order a cappuccino with brioche you should try to arrive before ten thirty. Of course, you could still order the same things later, but this would be a declaration of your foreignness. And while Italians usually seem to like foreigners, the foreigners they like most are the ones who know the score, the ones who have caved in and agreed that the Italian way of doing things is the best. For this is a proud and profoundly conservative people, as careful observation of ordering at the bar will confirm. And a tightly knit one too. How is it that they all instinctively sense, without even glancing at stylish watches, that such and such a time is the moment to switch to their aperitivi? How they chuckle and grin when a German orders a cappuccino rather than an espresso after lunch, pouring that milk on to an already full stomach. And here’s a curious detail: espresso is always OK, twenty-four hours a day, even corretto (i.e., with grappa), but cappuccino has a very definite time slot: 8-10.30 a.m. Trivia? No, good training. When the full complexity of these nuances becomes apparent – because the digestivo, the gingerino, the prosecco all have their right times and contexts too – you will be less surprised by the labyrinthine process of, say, switching your driving licence to an Italian one or sorting out your position vis-à-vis the health system. There is an order to all things; follow it, even when it borders on the superstitious and ritualistic. 
Warning. If the first sip of your cappuccino tells you that long-life milk is being used, change bar before you have invested too much time there. Use of UHT milk (all to frequent alas) indicates the either you are far far out in the sticks where the urbane delights of the cappuccino have never really been understood, or that this is a bar where most people (men) are ordering grappa or wine, or if they are ordering coffee are putting grappa and wine in it, not milk. A typical confirmation that you are in this variety of bar might be that the barista replies to your Italian, whether competent or hesitant, in defiantly incomprehensible dialect, quite probably revealing that dental work and oral hygiene are not high on the list of personal priorities. No matter how characteristic you may find this UHT bar, how picturesque its old wooden chairs, dusty pergola, sports trophies, sentimental paintings hung askew, and weather-beaten old characters arguing volubly over games of briscola, the fact is that, ultimately, you have no business here, you will never be accepted however many times you come. You are only making these doubtless very wholesome people feel slightly uncomfortable.

Another scene which is definitely to be avoided is the bar where you are invited first to pay at the till, then present your receipt to the, in this case, smartly dressed, even uniformed barista behind his polished pink granite bar under a row of fashionable halogen lights. Reasons? First because this is probably a bar where if you want to sit down you will have to pay for waiter service, and hence, having picked up your coffee and taken it to your seat, you will be scolded, perhaps quite severely, and invited to pay a surcharge. Payment for seating is, of course, perfectly understandable in the busy city centre, but not really on if you plan to be in that bar as frequently as I’m suggesting. But the second and more important reason is because this is not the sort of bar where the same people come and relax every day and can thus, as weeks and months pass by, be placed and identified and become part of your life. No, this is a busy bar. A business bar. A tourist bar. And we are not interested in any of those. 
I cannot claim to be widely travelled, but I have lived in London, Cambridge, Boston, spent fairly long periods in Switzerland, in New York, holidayed in most of Western Europe. You can draw your own conclusions. In any event, I’m now going to stick my neck out and say that I honestly know of nowhere, nowhere, where the whole experience of ordering and consuming coffee and a pastry is, or could be, more pleasant than in Pasticceria Maggia, Piazza Buccari, Montecchio. And we selected it from five or six other candidates that very first Sunday. Obviously, we had a nose for these things by now… 
You enter through a glass door polished only seconds before you arrived, display windows to either side frothing with colourful goodies, since Italians will always favour the most extravagant packages, however miserly the contents, and are always ready renew their long love affair with crinkly Cellophane and foil, ribbons, bows and tinsel flourishes of every kind. Opposite you, as you adjust to a pleasant but not excessive dimming of light, is a long bar with attractive curved corner, polished wood to the front and yellow travertine on top. Behind and above is the typical array of bottles, mainly amari, digestivi, distillations of this and that (artichokes, rhubarb), things you have never heard of and most probably will never learn to like; to the left is the seating area, just a handful of tables, to the right a great glass counter with four tiers of small and dainty biscuits, cakes and pastries. 
Needless to say, the whole arrangement has a cleanliness, smoothness of line, sureness of touch unthinkable in England, but without the antiseptic feel of the same thing in Switzerland, the self-consciousness of anything that is not a fast-food chain in the States. Tense as you may well be after negotiating that main street where the zebra faded years ago, depressed perhaps by a broken fountain full of litter, you can hardly help wondering, as you push in through the door, at the way this same people so infallibly reproduces these two starkly contrasting environments: anarchy without, ceremony within.

But now we’re here, by all means let the ceremony commence. You close the door on the busy, dangerous world outside, glance around. The girl serving is small, dark, pixily attractive, and loves to be looked at. So look. And take a seat. The first times we went to Pasticceria Maggia I remember experiencing a sniff of anxiety over the question of seating: was there space for us? Later one realises that part of the civilisation, the magic of the place is that there always seems to be just enough space for everyone who wants to sit. Good. You settle into a comfortably cushioned chair. The simple red tablecloths are pleasant without creating the impression that you must be paying for them in some way or other. The cappuccino (and this is so important) is absolutely right: dark strong coffee at the bottom, thick creamy foam above, with, on request, the cappuccio, or hat of bitter cocoa sprinkled on top. Add just a dusting of sugar, use your spoon to draw up a little coffee and mix it with the foam. Now spoon up the frothy sweetened milk between bites of brioche and relax. 
To spin things out, it’s a good idea to try and get hold of one of the newspapers the bar buys for its customers. Don’t worry if the thick pink Gazzetta dello Sport, by far the most widely sold daily in Italy, seems a little daunting at first. Sports writing is almost the only journalism with any verve to it here (and in lots of other places for that matter) and the Sunday edition will have the first division results from England even if it never quite stretches to cricket. After a while you learn not to be ashamed of a residual interest in the home country. 
On another table – wait until somebody kindly passes it to you – is L’Arena, Verona’s local newspaper. Since they are talking about the agricultural fair, a headline proudly announces that the city is L’omebelico verde d’Europa – the Green Belly Button of the EC. Well, there are the two scrubby patches of green outside the window in Piazza Buccari… The fact that a member of the local government is under investigation for corruption barely gets ten column centimetres, for this is his party’s newspaper. Turning a page, yesterday’s dead stare at you from identity-card photographs – you can look for the features of some hated employer – while advertisements opposite offer tickets for tonight’s Aida at the Arena, Shakespeare at the Teatro Romano, ten or twelve channels of TV viewing. 
Why am I advising you to do all this? Because, quite apart from its simply seeming the height of relaxation and civilisation, it is impossible to be a regular customer here at Pasticceria Maggia, to soak up the chit-chat around you, to be sweetly served and smiled at by that pretty barista, to browse through the local scandals in the paper, watch bicycle races passing by amidst honking and cheers across the street, without gradually beginning to feel that you are getting into the spirit of things. 
People start to nod to you, beginning disconcertingly with the child-size village idiot in his deerstalker cap. But you will gain respect by putting up with his badgering. Smile, show no embarrassment. Say: Salve, Moreno, tutto bene? He’s a nice boy in the end. And here’s an invitation to teach your doctor’s struggling daughter English, a request that can be politely turned down having discussed at length the inadequacies of the education system (the Arena will keep you informed). On weekday mornings around ten you can score points by greeting the post-office workers coming in for their long coffee break. These are not your favourite people when they refuse to look up at you from behind their murky little windows and then start weighing your postcards and forgetting whether Britain is part of the EC. Now you can enjoy perhaps glancing at your watch and smiling too brightly as they lean on the bar and discuss what shopping they have to do. Frustratingly, they are unperturbed. They even seem friendly, as if the bar were a place of truce. Perhaps they will serve you faster if they see you here a lot. Or, when those British football oo-lee-gans commit one of their regular atrocities, you can agree with local youngsters poring over the strident Gazzetta that your fellow countrymen are a degenerate lot, although point out in their defence that the performance of the national team has often been almost an incitement to insurrection (nothing more welcome to Italians than gently running down La perfida Albione, they feel extraordinarily competitive in our regard). 
As the months pass and you continue to sit and sup, you will doubtless be approached by the ex-priest, Lorenzo, now converted to ecology and admirably determined to save Montecchio’s famous ditches. He will ask you to sign something and you will sign it. In the corner, old men are muttering over Verona’s relegation prospects; soon you will be able to talk about that too. After Mass on Sunday mornings (did I mention the tiny crucifix on the wall above the liquor?) it will be the eight widows who put two tables together and confabulate in low voices, forming, in winter, a wall of fur coats. Even they will begin to smile at you after a year or so, perhaps wondering how long you own wife will outlast you.

Maybe you spot your butcher, your greengrocer, your dentist. Somebody asks you if you can do a translation for them. They run a picture-frame company. No invoice required. For heaven’s sake. Somebody walks over to mention a friend who has failed his exam at the university a couple of times and needs a helping hand. ‘Perhaps you’ll remember the name if it’s you doing his oral.’ ‘Well, I’m afraid I shouldn’t really…’ ‘Virgilio, he’s called. Virgilio Gandini.’ Somebody else is having trouble with the American instruction manual to the sprinkler system for his lawn. And that somebody knows another somebody who could fix the wobbly bearings on your car… 
It would be a foolish resident of Montecchio who did not at least occasionally pop into Pasticceria Maggia, a short-sighted newcomer who did not invest in at least a couple of years’ worth of cappuccini… 
Coming out on that first occasion, I remember we almost ran into two grinning young carabinieri sauntering in in their beautifully uniforms with the scarlet-striped trousers and white breast straps. Something that might have been an elongated black beer-can swung from a handsome belt, complete with trigger. A tall, dark girl appeared from the kitchen holding high two trays of cannoli and various other pastries; there were smiles, some relaxed flirtation. The barista minced. They ordered their cappuccini. Cigarettes were lit. One crouched down to chat to a little child, asked predictably: What is your name, where do you live? Nobody seemed at all concerned by the submachine-gun the other was fingering as he spooned sugar over his foam. 
Outside, we found their small, dark blue 850cc Fiat van parked in the middle of the small road, blocking anyone who wanted to get by. A radio could be heard calling them with some urgency. Should we go back in to tell them? But no. They are having their cappuccino. They only have a few minutes before it’s aperitivo time. They wouldn’t want to be disturbed.