Suffered a trauma, had a bad day at work or simply dragged yourself out of bed in the morning? For Brits, all these occasions and many more call for one thing and one thing only – a nice cup of tea. For someone whose most common household utterance is ‘I’ll put the kettle on’, imagine my horror at discovering my flat in Italy had no kettle. Not only that, but when asked about the prospect of acquiring one, my landlady gave her familiar quizzical look – meaning she can think of nothing more ridiculous than whatever it is I’m saying. I had no choice but to learn to live with the unwieldy pan. Just one of the details that knit together to make daily life and which remind me that I am in Italy and, yes, they do things differently here.
Compared to tea, coffee is relatively new to Britain’s masses. Against Italy’s whopping 5.6kgs of coffee consumed per person in 2004, Britons consumed a modest 2.3kgs. I remember as a 13-year-old discovering the decadent joy of cappuccinos; as a student that vital coffee break between marathon library sessions; and later the ritual dinner party caffetière-plunging. Nowadays, as a member of the decaff-skinnymocha- chocca-latte-to-go generation, coffee comes voluminously and wrapped in corrugated card, or with a gooey chocolate treat on a weekend outing with a girlfriend. Real coffee – as opposed to instant – is still something of a dark, mysterious luxury. Having long known about the Italians’ love of coffee, I had expected more of the same here, only somehow more ‘authentic’. But what gives Italy away as a true coffee-drinkers’ domain is the genuine lack of fuss about it. It’s not treated as something exotic or special. After all, why would you make a performance out of something as commonplace as, say, brushing your teeth?
Italians take a no-nonsense approach to coffee – standing up, swigging, leaving. Even the measures get straight to the point, with espresso being the norm and larger, watered-down coffee showing its outsider status by its name – the Americano. Italian coffee is like Italian style: effortless, classy, utterly superior and it knows it. I love Italian cafés and bars and always pay the extra to sit there awhile. The regulars do no such thing – a stream of solitary customers knock it back, exchange a few words then are on their way. The bar is a kind of caffeine shooting gallery. Bizarrely, even decaff comes espresso-sized – big drinks are just not the done thing. As for a cappuccino after lunchtime, why humiliate yourself?
On the other hand – unless from a flask on a country walk or from polystyrene on a building site – tea has to be drunk sitting down. In Britain, tea’s role in the national psyche cannot be underestimated. It’s the first thing you get when admitted to hospital or are given some bad news. A cuppa at a friend’s table is an instant salve to the pain of a lovers’ tiff. In 2003 Brits consumed a swimming-pool sized 198.8 litres of tea per capita, compared to Italy’s 10.5lt puddle. Sometimes with sugar, unfailingly with milk, alongside a fried breakfast, dunked with a biscuit or simply as an excuse to chat: strong sturdy tea, the colour of toffee and served up in big-handled, bottomless mugs,is the epitome of comfort.
I’ve started to notice a few local Tea Houses around. When urbane Italians want to sit and chat instead of gulp and run, it seems tea is increasingly the hot drink of choice. Whereas I’m struggling with the apparatus of coffee-making at home, trendy teens are nervously pouring from teapots in chic cafés. Has it brewed long enough? How strong should it be? In fact, there seems to be exactly the same fetishising process going on here as in Britain, only in Italy it’s with tea. The lifestyle being sold is not of transport cafés and gloomy Tuesdays, but a sunny and sanitised, splendidly Italianised version of British living. In one advert, twenty-somethings enjoy a delicate milk-free lemon tea round an outside table at a quintessential street-corner pub.
I like the cosmopolitan ideal it presents but it’s as fantastical as my view of Italy was before I lived here. For a start, only the brave would order tea instead of alcohol in most pubs; outside seating usually stretches only to picnic benches and, besides, it rains all year round anyhow. There are about as many Brits drinking lemon tea as Italians queuing up for ‘frappuccinos’.
Whichever way we take them, there’s no denying the grip tea and coffee has on us all. The differences in customs are fascinating and plentiful but tea and coffee drinkers have much in common. Our time-honoured traditions remain, yet it seems we each have an eye towards what the other is doing. Whether it’s a sign that we’re increasingly consumers of desirable lifestyles or simply open to greater diversity is ripe for debate. just let me put the kettle on first.