Outside the store I work in there is an Illy coffee bar. I go there every lunchtime and it sells the best espresso in the centre; something that since meeting Amore I’ve realised I can’t get through the day without. Abbiocco is the marvellous Italian word for the heavy somniferous feeling we have, usually after we’ve eaten. Espresso and Maestro Sergio are the antidotes. Before I found him, I used to go to a Segafredo (literally “handjobcold”) under the stairs near the back of the centre, which serves decent coffee. A number of things drove me away from there: the sullen waitress uses a speaker on top of the coffee-machine to blast reggaeton, whose monotonous beat I cannot stand; and the proprietor, an intense little man with dark, glinting eyes and thinning hair, kept asking me to give him discounts on a new iPhone. Also he gives the shittest handjobs. There is a TV that seems mainly to screen highlights from the Russian Premier League but this on balance was not enough to keep me engaged.
I tried a place called Roma where a blonde Lithuanian woman looking like a vamp in an 80s action movie worked. There was an air of Blanche Dubois about her in that her need for male attention was apparent in the first instance. Her flirting was a little on the nose for my liking, asking me what I was reading, whilst I was reading, for example, whilst tossing her hair around before flumping her elbows down on the counter and resting her face in her hands, waiting for an answer. Whenever this happens I think of either a Bill Hicks observation about redknecks (“Whachya readin’ fur?”), or David Brent’s cancer of them old testicles, depending on my mood. She also has an obsession with reggaeton. But it was the jealous tempers of her old male colleagues and their shortness with me that was the final straw, and eventually I left this place behind too.
“Posso avere ein espresso per fav- oh, fuck.”
“No, sono Scozzese ma la mia fidanzata e Italiana.”
“Ah, si? Tu hai una fidanzata Italiana e tu vuoi un espresso?”
This is the first bungling attempt at a conversation I had with Maestro Sergio, and every other conversation we’ve had has proceeded along these multilingual lines. I practice my Italian with him every lunchtime and if that gets us nowhere he might know the English from the time he spent in London.
“Ma, Adams, I ask you in English and you answer in Italiano?”
“Scusa,” I say.
Sergio truly is a Maestro of customer service: a suave and attentive manner, instantly putting one at ease; injecting the right amount of small-talk and banter into a visit but without imposing himself on the situation; he knows when enough is enough and he lets you read if that’s really what you want. Once in a while the coffee is complimentary, for no special reason. There’s a sense of pride and style in the way that he works in a line of employment which I know first-hand can be done with extreme lack of care and interest.
Amore and I feel as though we’ve fought every step of the way against the edifice of German public and private bureaucracy to establish ourselves here. In fact, it’s often a wonder to behold her and I fall helplessly further in love with her in the moments where her anger with the outside boils over.
“But can the economy really be this strong when, the second you need to rely on another person to get something, you are fucked,” she demanded, firing every syllable from her mouth with her strong accent. She seems like a Princess of the Amazon in these moments: her wild, thick black hair an untamed entity unto its own, evocative of Greek Mythology; her nostrils flaring, her black eyebrows arched, bearing all before the window to the street (she is naked at home one hundred percent of the time).
“I don’t know, Amore mio”, I shrugged, getting up to close the curtains.
“Sergio distracts me from my troubles.” Davide
She was incazzata nera with o2 because they had sent our router to the wrong address four separate times. That is, to the same incorrect address four times, and each time after having assured us that it was, and I quote, “alles gut”, handshake, wink; nächste, bitte. We began to wonder whether the deal we had signed, which included 6 months free wifi, was in fact a commitment to live for six months wifi-free, when finally after two months and ten phone calls and four shop visits we received the router. But this was not before I had mistaken a private franchise posing as a legitimate o2 Store in the hauptbahnhof – a legit bricks-and-mortar operation with all the branding and uniforms, mind you – for an official store; made friends with Mustafa the specialist there, who, to his credit was charming and self-deprecating; given him my number; WhatsApped him a photo of my bankcard and passport upon his request in order for him to complete the contract we’d discussed; waited three days without word; told Amore offhandedly of what I’d done; had my own breathtaking stupidity break over me in a series of more powerful waves; apologised profusely to the enraged Amore; decided to commit suicide; and finally had my card replaced and gone to the real o2 store where I got the quick and easy solution to our wifi problems mentioned above. I was particularly sad about replacing my bankcard as, stunningly, it had arrived by chance with exactly the same PIN as my British bankcard. It’s not as good as winning the lottery, obviously, but still… A friend of mine who’d relocated temporarily as a student to Berlin experienced similar distress when, after moving into his room, found that the previous tenant had cleared off without cancelling his wifi contract and this meant that he was unable to replace it with his own one until it expired. He was therefore forced to go to the UBahn with his MacBook to complete his coursework using a public wifi hotspot. We both pined for the fine-mannered and courier-led efficiency of Britain’s wifi providers, especially after having expected to find Germany as simply a more efficient version of Britain.
“I did not like the UK, Maestro Adams,” Sergio told me one day, whilst towelling dry an espresso cup, staring into the distance as he reflected.
“No?” I said. “Why not?” I was still in my fit of hitherto unfelt love for the corporations and civil structures of Britannia in light of our struggles here, but I heard him out.
“When I lived in London, once I went to a club, and there were people doing bunga-bunga in the toilet. This is too much for Maestro Sergio.”
“I don’t struggle to believe it, Sergio… I’ve seen it too. I apologise on behalf of my country.” It’s easy to forget with the extreme sexual indiscretions at the very top of the Italian government that Italy is actually a rather reserved and conservative nation despite its sexy reputation, and, by the way, isn’t it funny that every young person in Britain has gonorrhoea despite our reputation for fustiness?
“You are like Berlusconi, Maestro Adams, as you are young. I was like Berlusconi when I was your age but now, no.”
I laughed and thanked him at these words and, despite their implication that I’m a sex-addict who sleeps with underage women, I took them as a compliment. To be fair to Sergio, I often solicit his opinion on the attractiveness of the women that pass by his stand, but he is indefatigable in his refusal to engage in such talk; sometimes he laughs it off and, sometimes he is more direct and insistent: once, when I asked him to rate the attractiveness of a passing female out of ten, as is the British way, he countered with a blatant attempt to convert me to Catholicism. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that, if you are Sergio’s Amore, and you are reading this, you should know that he is abstinent and transactional with his female clientele and masculine, virtuous and dignified with his male one.
To compare me to Berlusconi, who once described Merkel as an “unfuckable lard-arse” as it goes, is the kind of compliment that Italian men are comfortable paying to one another. It’s not reggaeton but Queen that plays at the behest of Maestro Sergio, though at a respectful volume. I’m not much of a Queen fan as the guitar solos of Brian May have always put me in mind of Jeremy Clarkson, but I can have it wash over me without too much harm done.
“Ah, you like Freddy Mercury, do you Sergio?” I asked him, over the blasts of steam from the coffee-machine.
“No, I only like signore, Maestro Adams” he responded. “Freddy Mercury liked…” and then he tailed off with a laugh and a wry flash of the side-eye.
Another time I came to visit him when I had just had a haircut.
“Your hair is gone,” he said. “You look much younger.”
“Ah, grazie! Ti piace?”
“I only like signore, Adams.”
Our linguistic difficulties are sometimes such that it could well be I’ve accidentally asked him if he wants to have sex with me numerous times, which I suppose would explain his responses.
Once a man came by the bar with his dog freely roaming at his side. He has a bald grimy head and a worn, friendly face with a bulbous red nose. He wears an orange boiler-suit which seems to drown him, as he is small. He works somewhere in the bowels of the mall, as far as I can tell, or perhaps on a sight nearby, but I am not sure, though I’ve seen him a few times.
“Maestro Jaikey!”, said Sergio, extending his hand.
“Servus, hey!” the man yodels back in Bavarian dialect, leash limp at his side. Incidentally, if you ever want to say ‘hello’ in Hungarian that’s how to do it. His two yellowing front teeth perch on his bottom-lip as Sergio talks to him in German for a short while. Jaikey leaves, waving without turning back, limping down the gleaming avenue of the mall as though he were ambling through a junkyard, his dog trotting a few paces ahead of him.
“He likes to drink,” Sergio says to me, in a hushed voice.
“Si… I call him Jaikey because…” then Sergio turns and points to the bottle of Jack on the shelf behind him. “… because he sometimes asks me for… this… whilst he is working” leaning in, he told me this as though he was telling me a secret, with a concerned expression on his begoateed face.
“Jaikey in dialetto di Scozzia means “zingaro,” I told him.
Zingaro means ‘gypsy’ in Italian, and the knowledge seemed to ruminate within Sergio as he learned this new word. Once I tried to tell him a joke in Doric Scots dialect about a man from Kincardine O’ Neil (abbreviated brilliantly to ‘Kinker’) who goes to France and tries skiing for the first time and doesn’t know how to put on his skis. He asks the Frenchman instructing him, “Fit fit fits fit fit?”. This after I told him a joke I’d concocted myself about the town of Echt also near where I’m from in the north east which happens to share its name with the German word for “really”: “Where the hell’ve you been? Echt! Echt? Aye, Echt!”, etc. He seemed confused by both jokes. You may also have noticed that he calls me “Maestro Adams” in the plural. This error I noticed only after a few days of him greeting me as such and therefore it was already far too late to correct him. To begin with I felt embarrassed by my inability to summon the will to explain but then I started to quite like it so I just decided to let him get on with it. I thought that a man who tried to convert me to Catholicism would have recognised the name ‘Adam’ when he saw it, but maybe the Adams Family is more influential in the end…
One evening after work I met Amore and her colleagues at a biergarten in the Viktualienmarkt just round the back of Marienplatz. We were served by a tall heavy man whose face reminded me of the man-child who says “Yaaaaarp” in Hot Fuzz. He was wearing the traditional Bavarian garb of the waistcoat, leg-warmers, lederhosen and hot-pink Nike running shoes. He was putting in a fair shift, back and forth over the cobbles to big long benches groaning under the weight of the drinkers, porting great clutches of bier-steins in his hands like he was bearing an amber accordion. He came to our table and took an order. I still had a fair slug left but I’d drained it by the time he returned with the bier for my friends which was when I asked for a refill. He then turned to me and sprayed me straight from his mouth with a torrent of German shit, turned on his heel, and clumped off. “What did he say?” I asked the table. The Germans around it shifted in their seats before someone told me “he said why couldn’t you have asked him before – now he has to go all the way back just for you.”
Sergio takes pride in his work, focussing on the aesthetics of the foam of his cappuccini, slowly tracing the small metal milk jug over and across the cup to guide it into pleasing shapes, almost as though he were a chef icing a cake. He doesn’t even appear to judge those who order cappuccinos after lunch, which is normally when I see him, despite the fact that it’s a choice which truly baffles the Italians. Don’t get Amore started on this topic, for the love of Christ. I once had to stop her from battering to death an elderly American lady whom she’d overheard ordering one at an Indian restaurant we went to in the summer. And for that matter don’t get her started on the bidet either, but, that’s another story… You see, Sergio wants you to experience something. He introduced me, as he does to all regulars who come passed his bar (of which there are a great many, so that it is often hard to get a seat), to a man named Davide. In these moments Sergio seems to me more like a doctor or a therapist than a man of the coffee-grinder, providing counsel and an ear to all those who’ve grown accustomed to his company. Davide sat for a while, talking in Italian with Sergio and with me in English.
“Sergio distracts me from my troubles. “He’s a good man,” he added, with a shrewd incline of the head.
After drinking his coffee he waved goodbye to Sergio and left.
“He is always trying to get tips from Maestro Sergio,” he said, leaning in, as he does. “I want to be the best. He spies when I make the foam, looking to see what I do but he doesn’t put into it what I do.”
And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s all it takes to make a difference to someone’s day, and, like it or not these little conversations make a bigger impact on our happiness than we are all willing to admit. To visit Sergio has been one of the highlights of my day since I met him and the effort he makes, not just in his work, but in his willingness to humour my foul Italian is truly heartening. He seems genuinely glad to see me when I appear and that’s comforting to say the least in a land where I bet we’ve both felt like strangers at one time or another. I am glad to see him too. He’s the first friend I’ve independently made in Italian and I won’t forget him. With the excitement he felt when I told him I would write about him (when he sees that I’m read by five people a month he maybe won’t be quite so fussed…) I knew I wanted to make him the star of something and he’d already thanked me many times in advance telling me that for him it was a great pleasure. He’s checked my blog every day since I said I would write about him and whenever I saw him after that he’d ask me if I’d written anything more yet.
“A little, but I’m not finished yet,” I’d say. “I’m slow.”
“It’s better to take your time and get it right.” He’d nod, hiding his disappointment well.
Sometimes I go and I only have five minutes to spare, which raises a complaint from him; and sometimes I go and he’s in the middle of a phone call or deep in conversation with another one of his patients, and I leave before getting to speak to him. But that’s alright, we both have our own lives after all. If you want to meet him and drink the best coffee around then you need to take the U3 or U1/7 to Olympia-Einkaufszentrum and head to the Apple Store. Outside it you’ll see a little Illy sign opposite the Thai Restaurant and you’ll find him behind the bar there Monday-Saturday, 12:00-20:00. When you see him tell him Maestro Adams says “Ciao”.