In blog

Coffee Counter Convos, Italiano Style

A blog written by Nicole Pace-Addeo, M.A.

During my recent trip to Italy, Google Translate saved me from embarrassment. I start every day with a big cup of light and sweet cold brew iced coffee. The clinking of the ice cubes in my 49ers tumbler, 365 days a year, help me to get prepared for whatever lies ahead that day. However, on my recent trip to Italy and Malta, I found myself feeling like a weird foreigner, completely out of my element each morning.

Most Italians drink very strong coffee, usually black espresso or with a little sugar, and repeat the process a few times per day. There were no Starbucks, no Dunkin Donuts, and no fancy flavors or specialty drinks. No, the Italians don’t even use ice in their water or other beverages, so for me to find a way to adjust to their caffeinating habits – and make my mornings tolerable – was more than a challenge.

Another predicament I found myself in during my trip was of course the language barrier. Thankfully, most Italians and Maltese spoke English and were helpful to the many American travelers on our tour. They laughed when I explained to them how I prepared my coffee back home in the US and explained that the closest drink they had was a caffè Americano with milk – espresso diluted with hot water and mainly ordered by tourists. The Italian version of “iced coffee” was made with ice cream, topped with whipped cream – delicious, but not practical for daily morning consumption. Despite my frustrations I continued to try to communicate my coffee preferences in the hopes that someone would be able to make it the way I liked.

In transit to Florence (my favorite city in the world) our tour bus stopped at an Autogrill, Italy’s rest stops where travelers can grab a quick bite to eat off the highway. My husband went to order a sandwich, so I courageously approached the coffee counter alone and asked the barista if she could make me a caffè Americano with ice, sugar and cream (panna.) She looked confused and mumbled something in broken English. The gentleman standing next to me started talking to her in Italian, so I thought maybe he was translating for me, but he wasn’t. Next came some laughter and I started to feel like an idiot as I let out a little sigh. I pondered walking away but instead grabbed my phone and opened Google Translate, which I downloaded before I left. I spoke into it exactly what I wanted and suddenly the barista and gentleman to my left heard what I said in Italian. Their eyes lit up as if it were an “A-HA” moment. What happened next was even better.

The barista began making my coffee while the gentleman approached me to see what I had used to speak to them in Italian. He asked me something in Italian and I signaled to him to press the button and speak again so the phone could detect what he said. Google Translate then said to me in English, “What is this? How do I get this on my phone?” We went back and forth for a few minutes discussing the app and how it was a great communication tool for people who didn’t speak the same language. I didn’t need the app to say “Grazie” and “Ciao” and returned to find my husband and tell him about my coffee counter conversation.

Here are a couple of my own “A-HA” take-aways from the experience:

  • It surprised me that the gentleman didn’t know about Google Translate. Knowing that this communication tool exists, if you’re planning on traveling to a foreign country – where they may not speak English – do yourself a favor and download it.
  • It’s important to remember to leave your own cultural norms and expectations at the door when you go into a foreign situation – you’re out of your element so adjustments (and flexibility) are necessary.

Thanks for reading and remember when in Rome (or Florence) a little technology can save you from embarrassment, save your coffee and even help you make a new friend!



PS: Please enjoy the following select photos from my trip!