I never learned their names, but it really didn’t matter. Maybe sometimes it’s the people who hover between strangers and friends who make us feel less alone in the world, as I experienced recently in Florence, Italy.

Life is made up of those nameless relationships. The doorman who smiles at you on your way to work everyday. The grocery store clerk who chats with you when you bump into him in the frozen section. The cashier who takes your change like it’s his greatest honor.

The barista who knows your order before you do. It took exactly four visits before it happened. I stood there in the middle of the hardwood floor, patiently waiting my turn, while the locals sipped their espressos, had a chat, and sauntered out into the mid-morning sun. I clutched my euro and thirty cents in a sweaty palm, praying for a gust of cool air to burst through the permanently propped-open doors. It was 10 a.m. in late May, and already the humidity was unbearable.

Finally, a space cleared at the wooden bar, and I stepped up, clearing my throat in the hopes of sounding as Italian as possible. Before I got the chance, the one I called Beardie pointed to me.

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“Cappuccino?” he asked, his dark eyebrows rising along with his intonation.

I looked at him, bewildered.

“Sì, per favore.”

I restrained the urge to laugh out loud, but surely my cheesy grin gave me away. I glanced around to see if anyone else had witnessed my integration into the café family while Beardie did the cranky thing and the swirly thing, plopping a steaming cup in front of me.


Beardie had just confirmed that I was becoming a regular. A regular! He saw my face and knew my order. I was so happy it didn’t matter what happened to me for the rest of the day. I could’ve been struck by a taxi, and I would have smiled up at the paramedics, telling them that I, I, was a regular in an Italian café. Beardie knows me. Go ask him.

I slid my cup and saucer down the bar to pay, feeling lighter than my cappuccino foam. Then, I handed my change to the one I called Blondie before he could say “uno trenta.”

He smiled appreciatively. “Perfetto.”

I took my coffee to the rickety table against the back wall and settled in for my morning routine. I always brought a book to read, a firm believer that caffeine goes best with a side of literature. It often happened, though, that the café commotion drew my attention away from the fictional characters and directed it toward the ones around me.

There were the sippers. The gulpers. The gossipers. The daily paper palmers. Some were business professionals getting a late start. Some were laborers who’d already been at it for hours. The occasional group of tourists would straggle in, asking to hear a list of all the pastry flavors before selecting the first option.

In the corner there was an outlier: me. And at the center of it all were my two favorite characters.

Enter: Beardie and Blondie.

Beardie had shaggy hair, the color of black coffee, which he was constantly flipping out of his eyes with a sudden jerk of his neck. A thick beard hid most of his face, tapering off before his collarbone. He was tall and lanky, with clumsily long limbs, yet he doled out orders with precision accuracy.

I suspected he was in his late twenties and pegged him to be the sensitive artist type. He seemed sullen, brooding, as if there were always something troubling him.

After a few weeks, I entered the café to find his beard had been snipped, and the hindering hair-flip had been chopped. A suggestion by his chiropractor perhaps. I had the urge to seal our caffeine-induced relationship by commenting on his haircut, but my Italian vocabulary was limited. All I could scrounge up would have roughly translated to, “New hairs? I like them.”

Then there was the slightly younger Blondie, who seemed to be the antithesis of his coworker. Blondie was fair and happy-go-lucky with short, spiky hair and dancing aqua eyes. He seemed to be perpetually humming and often joked genially with the neighborhood natives who slipped in for a quick sip.

Once I walked in to find Blondie in Beardie’s role, taking orders. “Il solito?” he asked me, beaming.

The usual? Yes, this was my place. They knew me here. The café favored Italian music, but occasionally English rock would fill the room. To my delight, Blondie would come down to the edge of the bar near my little table, fiddle with something or other, and sing along in accented English. I’d sit peaking over the pages of my novel, wondering whether he was trying to send me a message or he just really liked Bon Jovi.

Some days I wasn’t even in the mood for a cappuccino, but I’d go to the café anyway. I wanted to see my nameless friends, and I wanted them to see me. It was nice just to sit there, to observe, to be recognized by people whose lives were drastically different than mine.

And then it was time to go home. My chest physically ached when my airport-bound taxi whizzed down the cobblestone street passing the café, which would open in a few hours. Morning life would go on without me. Cappuccinos would be served. Conversations would be made. Beardie would brood, Blondie would beam, and someone else would occupy the rickety table in the corner.

I often wonder what they thought when I stopped showing up. I wonder if Beardie ever peered down the street, looking for the spot where I’d round the corner. I wondered if Blondie missed my ready change, my bad Italian, my typical grin. If he still gave his impromptu concerts. If his new audience was receptive.

I wonder if the two ever said to each other, “What do you think happened then, to the quiet American who read in the corner? The cappuccino fiend who pretended to know Italian?

Where has she gone?”

Megan Peterson is a 2013 graduate of Columbus North High School and graduated in May from Indiana University with a degree in journalism. After graduating from college, she spent five weeks in Florence, Italy. She recently began a four-month internship in New York City in the fashion industry. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.

Megan Peterson is a 2013 graduate of Columbus North High School and graduated in May from Indiana University with a degree in journalism. After graduating from college, she spent five weeks in Florence, Italy. She recently began a four-month internship in New York City in the fashion industry. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.