I started writing this post at the height of the summer season while I was working crazy hours and just found it again. It has been so long and I need to get back to writing! Although it is winter here now, I will finish and post this to remind us of summer.
Summer is a far cry from the winters in Lucca when the city closes down and you have to say a silent prayer that somewhere a bar is open to take shelter and drown your sorrows before Lucca’s torrential rain drowns you. Yes, my friends, even in Italy there can be rough times that not even pasta can fix.
Then the summer comes and it is mayhem in our little walled city. It’s like the gates open at Disney World and everyone rushes in with their maps trying to decide what to see first: The Tower of Terror? Or The Guinigi Tower…Bumper cars? Or as I refer to it: tourists standing in the middle of the street almost being hit by cars, bikes, and anything moving. Stop doing that, tourists. Really.
Everything is open, the city is alive, there’s music everywhere from opera to Lucca Music Festival which this year featured THE BACKSTREET BOYS. They were back. Alright. The juxtaposition of the historic medieval city and the modern summer faire makes Lucca a haven for travelers from all over the world. Summer here is what made me fall in love with Lucca. But all of the love in the world was not going to pay for my rent and my peschini. After a year of being led on with jobs on three different occasions, I was finding it difficult to feasibly see working here.
Thankfully I stumbled into the right hands at Enoteca Calasto. It is a little wine bar that was just around the corner from my first apartment. Walking by it nearly everyday, I never thought I would end up finding a job there and over the season some wonderful friends. I walked in on a whim one day and asked a woman in Italian where I could find the boss. She answered me in perfect English, “I am the boss”. Of course I would find somewhere where the owners were English, it was fate! She said she wasn’t hiring for the season, but did need an extra hand during Lucca’s four-day Comic Con, which is essentially where the city fills with 20,000 people dressed like Pokemon. She continued to stress how insane it got, but I was just so ecstatic to have found a job that I didn’t care!
And then I did care. When I showed up a few months later for the days I was working, it was just a sea of human beings with swords, maces, crowns, and as promised, Pokemon costumes all shoving their way down the streets and flooding into bars. This was the first time I had ever waitressed IN MY LIFE. After the initial fear had worn off, my adrenaline was pumping and I was like a highly functioning octopus carrying two trays over my head, throwing sodas at people, “you want tortelli? YOU GOT IT”. My first day was 9 hours I think. When I returned home that night, I was literally the walking dead. I laid down in my bed with my sneakers on and passed out. How was I going to get through 3 more days like this?
The next day, one of the waitresses who had been working in the bar during the season FLIPPED OUT in the middle of the lunch rush and literally threw her apron down and yelled in Italian, “I’m out of here!” As much as I wanted to throw tortelli at her for leaving us short while we drowned in a lake of Mario Party characters, I yelled to our boss, “Hey! I’ll take her place during the season!”
That woman walking out coupled with my newfound octopus serving skills was the combination I needed! I was hired for the season as an apprentice worker. I was absolutely thrilled!
We opened in March and things were rather slow, but steadily picked up until the unstoppable summer arrived. Amidst the insanity of summer evening aperitivi, wine tastings, and late dinners all while working in an un-air conditioned bar, I was still quite charmed by the people I met on a daily basis. It seemed like I always had an encounter that was delightful and took my mind off of sweating through my clothes and sucking down ice in the back to keep cool. For every bad incident there is a good one that erases is. And I can’t even say “bad” because nothing truly out of control ever happened. It was more just having the capacity to get everything out on time while trying not to blow of curious tourists who asked me the same questions day in and day out about what I was doing here. One of my first weeks, an American stumbled in with a half-lit cigar and sunglasses on clearly a bit lost. His two friends joined him after and I found out he was Paris Hilton’s uncle. Another time, a sweet elderly British man chatted me up and told me just how much enjoying so much traveling on his own and all of the amazing things he was seeing. He thanked me profusely for taking the time to talk with him about his travels and his favorite books one called “Bad Monkey”. The next day I came to the bar to find a new copy of that very book he had left for me.
I started to profile people. You can’t not start doing that when you have people from all over the world stopping by day in and day out. On a normal day I would hear Italian, American English, British English, Australian English, German, French, and Russian. Occasionally Norwegian, Chinese, and Danish peppered the garden outside offering different tones and mannerisms. I could tell who was American by how they laughed- this rich warm guffaw that made me nostalgic for home. Surprisingly, the Norwegians were very loud! One of them explained to me that it is because everything in Norway is so expensive that when people go out they do not drink that much and instead for them here alcohol is so cheap so they have a really great time! The English were delightfully witty and charming and very happy to be in a culture when it is acceptable to day drink. The Germans were very demanding, but once everything was in front of them they were super appreciative and often handed you tips directly while thanking you. There were two types of Russian: the Russians who had extreme wealth like two middle-aged beautiful Russian men I served. They were dressed like royalty with gorgeous colored suits and jewels and spent over 200 euro between them. And then the Russians who came in large families and asked how much everything was and then asked for separate checks.
There was one day that my shift finished at 5:00 and it had been an incredibly busy and hot day. The other staff and I were dead tired and were counting down the minutes until we could go. And then at 4:45, 10 Russians showed up and wanted a bunch of lasagna. I nearly wept. It became an ongoing joke for the rest of the season to not get ready to leave until it was literally your time to leave because there was always the possibility of 10 Russians showing up at the last minute and asking for hot lasagna and cappuccino in 95 degree weather.
The Italians are great for the most part. They love to joke and make fun of you and pretend you messed their order up until the see the fear in your eyes and then throw their heads back laughing making the hand gesture for, “did I scare ya?!” Sometimes you get the ones who are never happy with what you bring them. When you ask them how everything was they tell you truthfully if they didn’t like it. And yet you can’t fault them. It is part of their culture to be honest about how they feel about food and wine and rightfully so. Most loved that I was American and spoke Italian. They really appreciated it and were always curious why I was here
I will say that making coffee for Italians is to this day one of the most stress-inducing things I have ever done. ALL THE COFFEE RULES. But for other people I really enjoyed getting
into a rhythm of making the coffee. I always kind of felt like a rock star and would smile to myself as I banged the old coffee out, flipped a few switches, and then set the plate, spoon, and chocolate up all in time to spin around and stop the machine. It was like a little dance. And there was something romantic about setting up in the morning. Laying the tables outside in the little garden in the piazza seemed like a quintessential Italian image to me- just setting up for the day, watching people pass by, having coffee. And for closing snuffing out the candles in the windows, bringing everything in, hurling garbage bags at each other, hitting one another with the broom, loving inflicting physical and emotional pain on each other.
I was nicknamed The Little Turkey by one of the Italian waiters near the beginning of the season because they couldn’t understand what I was saying when I spoke quickly in English and I talked all the time. If I started asking for things, one of them would let me finish talking and then go, “GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE!!!”. We always joked. Even our bosses were amazingly funny and always up for a good prank. It was a daily goal to offend each other to the point of no return: they made fun of my speaking Italian, I made fun of them speaking English (think of the most stereotypical Italian accent), we would write horrible things on each other’s water bottles. More often than not I would get a drawing of a turkey or “gobble” on mine. We would try to scare the living shit out of each other while closing the bar: standing outside the bathroom door, throwing the door open and screaming, hiding behind the bar and popping out, pretending our boss had called and was mad at someone. It was just too easy to freak each other out. There was more than once I had to duck down behind the bar to cover my mouth from spitting water everywhere after a well-timed joke.
An especially amazing thing though was bringing music to the bar. Shortly after I started, the owners asked me to do an opera night. They had never heard me sing before and the week leading up to it nervously asked me on a daily basis how I was doing and if I was ready. I kept telling them everything was fine because it was. I have been singing since I was 15. Singing in a bar wasn’t going to be something I would lose sleep over. The first night was a great success and for some reason our owners were shocked that I pulled it off! They said, “We didn’t know you could sing so well!” I said, “Why would you have taken such a huge risk?!” They had advertised that I would be singing and gave me a two-hour slot! It was hysterical. We were all cracking up because they really could not believe it. How silly! So it became a bi-weekly engagement for the rest of the year. Once it was summer, we set up a piano outside, added 15 extra tables, and I got to walk around the piazza that houses not only our bar, but the church where Puccini was baptized, and sing to almost 100 people who were either customers, or people passing through, stopping, and sitting on the church steps to listen for a bit. This was the Italy I imagined! Wine barista by day, opera diva by night.
It was a really amazing experience. I could honestly write a book about the customers I met whether I was wearing an apron serving glasses of wine or wearing diamond earrings and singing Puccini. It is so difficult to try and cram a whole year into a blog post. The people I worked with and for were amazing. We laughed a lot, fought a little, and danced to The Backstreet Boys daily. I will really miss having a job that made me feel like I was traveling to different countries every day. I still cannot get over the amount of people you meet just staying in one place and serving them local wine.