I couldn’t see why not. It’s right there on the menu. And it’s also the cheapest beverage listed: Just under $2 if you get a single, a little over $2 for the double. That’s the same price as Starbucks charges for a regular doppio,meaning the dollop of whipped cream on top is free. Free happens to be one of my all-time favourite words. But that’s not the only reason I pony up to the coffee bar to order this particular brew. It might be low in price but to me it is also highly evocative of a beautiful time in my life: Espresso con panna is my Proustian madeleine.
It conjures up sweet memories of the time when I lived in Siena studying art history as a University of Toronto summer student in Italy.
My subject was trecento and quattrocentosculpture, with a focus on Giovanni Pisano, son of Nicolo, and progenitor of what might be called the narrative style in sculpted stone.
Some of Pisano’s best work lies outside Siena, and so I was regularly compelled to travel throughout Tuscany to visit some of the region’s Gothic churches, almost daily journeying by public bus through fields of poppies and sunflowers bowing to the sun, in order to get a first-hand view of his expressive friezes that he had hand-carved into centuries old pulpits, gorgeously preserved despite the years.
I love nature to begin with, and so these encounters with beauty both in art and in the outdoors enriched me and made me feel grateful for being alive. I wanted to partake in all this gorgeousness of being, and so didn’t hesitate the day some of my classmates asked me to join them on a trip to a local swimming hole, located in the countryside beyond the town’s stone wall limits.
The locals referred to it simply as il fiume, the Italian word for river. We had to take a bus to reach it. When we got to the ticket counter, we simply said, “L’autobus per il fiume per favore,” and were promptly understood.
After paying for our tickets, we boarded the rickety old bus, settling into seats at the back.
It was a hot August day, and the bus was only half full. I could see two young women toward the front of the bus, speaking German. I kept my eye on them as the bus trudged up and down hillsides lined with cypress trees. The river in question soon came into view. But the German girls didn’t budge, and neither did we.
I told my friends to hang on, not to disembark until the German girls did.
“They’ll know where to go,” I said.
I was guilty at that moment of racial profiling. But I knew from experience that Germans had a keen love of nature and were great adventurers when it came to travel.
When I travelled through Greece and Turkey in search of the ruined remains of the Greek and Roman myths that had so dominated my youthful imagination it was almost always Germans I saw around me on windswept plains baking beneath under a unrelenting sun.
In these harsh conditions, the pale-skinned English women in our group typically wilted. I remember one even going half mad from the heat at Bodrum; the tour guide had to slap her face to calm her down.
But the Germans seemed never to even break a sweat.
They’d be 70 years old, and still be climbing (and half yodeling) up the steep stairs at Delphi, or hiking happily across the sand at the desolate place said to be the site of ancient Pergamon. I admired their zeal, the enthusiasm with which they embraced their surroundings.
They were also the ones who seemed more in awe of natural beauty than the rest of us on those trips.
It is why my eyes were now fixed on the girls in their tight shorts ahead of us on the bus. I was positive they had the situation well mapped out in advance. Their nature-loving inner German radar enabled them to predict, precisely, where the best watering hole would be.
But as the bus stopped and started along the riverbank, letting off people who rushed to stake their claim on a patch of grass for their afternoon picnic, my Canadian friends nudged me, asking me if I were sure I knew what I was doing.
I nodded my head and held on for the remainder of the ride.
Soon it was just us and them on the bus.
When they got off in the middle of a small square lined by three or four houses, we rushed to follow them.
We passed a cafe with its doors invitingly open wide that the German girls blithely ignored, despite the heat. They exited that sleepy town on the edge of paradise, finding a dirt path that they gamely walked, chatting all along to each other, rolled towels under each arm.
It was obvious that we were following them.
There were no other people around and the path we were all walking wasn’t a well marked route. But I told my friends to look as if we also knew this was the right way. I told them not to hesitate. And so we kept on behind them, walking through tall grasses and feeling our throats constrict from the heat, and the effort.
It was long walk, maybe 10 minutes. There was no sign of the river, only a thick wall of trees that the German girls were clearly headed for. After some time, they disappeared through the foliage. We aimed for the spot in the trees into which they had entered, holding our breaths, not sure what we would find on the other side.
And then, lo!, the river at its emerald best.
The waters were so deep and transparent we could see large trout swimming lazily beneath the glass-like surface. Nearby was a waterfall, as well as a lithe Italian in thigh-high wading boots who was on his own, serenely fly fishing where the waters grew dark in the shadows of branches hanging heavily overhead.
We heard the the German girls call out, and looked up. One had already scaled a cliff and was poised on the edge of the very top, preparing to dive into the waters below. The other was in the midst of climbing the cliff wall to join her.
One by one they sailed like swans through the azure sky, with no fear, no feeling of limitations.
We threw our swim bags onto the sandy river bank to prepare to swim.
The German girls went their way and we went ours, locating some shallow rapids that we called the jacuzzi. We lay in them for hours, luxuriating in the waters carving around our bodies.
The sun was setting and it was time to leave.
We found the dirt path and trudged back to the town square, hoping the bus would know to come back to fetch us.
The cafe doors were still open when we arrived. We were so thirsty after our long day of swimming and sunning. We entered to order some aqua minerale. But no one there.
An overhead television was on, showing a soccer game. All the lights were off. It took some seconds for our eyes to adjust to the darkness after the glare of the outdoors. We soon focused on a large metal bowl in an open low-lying refrigerator that seemed to glow in the dark. The bowl was filled with swirls of freshly whipped cream. Looking at it, we realized how hungry we were.
“Bona sera, signorini!”
Just in time, a man entered behind the bar and greeted us. He noticed how big our eyes had become just from looking at all that whipped cream.
“Espresso con panna?” he asked us. Coffee with whipped cream?
“Si, si!” we shouted, lustily, in unison.
He made us each a demitasse of inky black coffee and then artfully spooned the cream on top.
I remember it being a delectable experience, both hot and cold, tart and sweet. It instantly satisfied all my cravings, for food, drink, beauty in faraway, haphazardly found places.
I vowed to myself on the spot to always remember that moment in that strange little riverside town: the smiling daredevil German girls who had lead me there, the courtesy of the stranger behind the bar, the fisherman with his eyes flitting over my tanning body, the taste of sweetened coffee on my tongue. My taste of heaven.
Even when the drink is served up in Toronto at Starbucks.