Is this seat occupied? It is a question from a frail, well dressed woman, standing next to me. I am sitting on an outside table at my local cafe (a bar, as the Italians call it). Of course I cannot say no. I am the only one sitting there. But I know all too well that the question does not only mean that I am offering her a seat at my table, but also conversation.
It is Saturday morning and I am participating in my weekly Saturday “morning” (it can begin at noon), ritual of slowing waking up to the world over an unrushed cappuccino and fresh pastry (cornetto). The quintessential Italian breakfast. As I have the quintessential foreigners breakfast every other day (rushed bowl of cereal eaten while putting on make up and getting files ready for the day), it is a particular treat to sit down and leisurely enjoy my very good coffee and indulgent pastry.
Usually I do this with my husband. We both sip and stare into space, processing the weeks frantic work experiences, occasionally speaking, but mostly not, and observing, sometimes for hours, the people traffic and antics around us. It slowly brings me into the present i.e. the weekend, and disassociates me from work, this ritual, and it is therefore particularly sacred and necessary for my recreation.
But today my husband is working and I have been forced to do it on my own, and am in danger of having to have a conversation with a stranger, which could ruin the entire ritual. Luckily I have a prop. I bring out my magazine and answer the woman at the same time. Yes of course, please sit down.
She begins. You know I could stand and take my coffee (she is all of eighty if she is a day, is thin enough for a good breeze to knock her over, and has a walking stick) but my husband always used to say that coffee should be taken with the three “c’s”. Comodo (comfortably), caldo (hot) and …… I can’t remember the last one. No, no I assure her. It is quite alright to sit down at my table.
We sip in silence for a second and I glance down at my magazine. Oh now I remember she says, the third “c” is for carico (strong). Anyway I will be gone in a minute. It only takes me a minute to drink my coffee, unlike you, it will take you hours to drink that. She is referring to my “cafe americano” which I ordered as she sat down. It is basically an Italian coffee in a large cup with some hot water to dilute it and a dash of milk. Although i have lived here for sixteen years, I have never gotten used to a thimble full of coffee in the mornings. She goes on to talk about the differences between Italians and all other nationalities when it comes to coffee, and that none of them can make coffee the way an Italian does. I have to agree with her and find myself laughing out loud when she asks me to acknowledge that the other thing Italians do more than other nationalities is talk.
But I am enjoying our conversation. Although in her eighties (she has told me by now) she is incredibly lucid, stops to listen to me, asks me questions and pauses for breath. There is no hint of rambling, ranting, bitterness over long held family feuds, mistaking me for someone else, or subjecting me to non stop diatribes about Italian politics or football. This feels like a conversation I am having with someone my own age. Somewhere in that feeble body is the heart and mind of a much younger person and I am intrigued.
She finishes her coffee and takes out her cigarettes. She offers me one and I decline. Ah she says this is another thing that Australians don’t do, along with drinking very small coffees for breakfast. I ask her about her walking stick and she tells me of her recent operation, and the fact that now she finds it hard to socialise as she can’t drive anymore. She tells me that she has a few good friends from many, many years ago but that in general she doesn’t enjoy the company of a great number of people as she finds alot of people quite negative. It’s also why she doesn’t read the news or watch TV. I am realising that I have more and more in common with this woman.
We both mention husbands in our conversation and she mentions her beloved cat. She then asks me the dreaded “do you have children” question which all Italians ask. No I reply, I don’t. No, neither do I, she says. That’s why there is just my cat and husband at home. And all at once I am no longer afraid of growing old.
I think I’ll have minestrone for lunch Signora, she addresses me, as all Italians do, as Signora, due to the fact that I am married. What will you have? I haven’t decided yet I tell her. She gets up to go and bids me a formal and warm goodbye, also in typical Italian style. She thanks me for the conversation, apologises again for sitting at my table and wishes me all my hearts desire in life (tante belle cose). Just your average goodbye greeting. She shuffles off to pay and as I must also pay, I follow her inside.
Although bent over and half hidden by the counter she shouts out to the waiter and demands attention to her questions about the fresh sandwiches on offer. Even though Italy has an ageing population, and not a great deal of services for the elderly, none of them need to worry very much. They are the most powerful group in Italian society. Due to a tradition of respect for the elderly, they are treated with reverence and given preferential treatment and they know it. At hearing the price she makes a loud exclamation of how absurd that is and immediately gets a discount from the upset owner.
I decide that I need an eggplant for lunch and go across the road to the vegetable stall to buy it and a few other vegetables. I have strained my arms from carrying heavy shopping bags for too many years so am no longer able to do so. I have to decant the eggplant from its plastic shopping bag into my shoulder bag in order to make the shopping bag lighter. As I am walking back home I contemplate the thought of some one trying to run off with my bag and seeing an unencumbered eggplant in it. Which leads me to the line of “I have an eggplant in my bag……” and i know the Saturday morning ritual has worked well, even with, and maybe particularly because of, the addition of an unscheduled conversation.