Of Bars And Bar Girls

I once met a woman who was opening a bar. She told me that a certain kind of behavior would be expected of her as a bar girl.

Petteri Sulonen / CC BY

I once met a woman who was opening a bar. She told me that a certain kind of behavior would be expected of her as a bar girl

I once met a woman in Milano who recounted a delicate conversation she had had recently with her boyfriend, with whom she was living, and with whom she was opening a bar.

“We talked about me being a bar girl,” she told me.

“A what?” I asked.

“You know, working in a bar,” she replied.

“What about it?” I asked.

“You know how it is,” she said.

In fact, I didn’t know how it was. What was? And what was what? She finally got me to understand that a woman working in a bar would have to accept that certain things would be assumed about her character, and that even a certain kind of behavior would be expected of her. She would have to be at least somewhat flirty, even sexual, especially with male customers, at least while serving in her capacity as the barista, as the bar girl. And this role and behavior would somehow have to be accommodated within her romantic relationship.

Let me back up a bit and explain one crucial thing that, as a native speaker of English, you perhaps do not understand completely. I put the word bar in italics because even though it is an English word that was borrowed into Italian, an Italian bar is not the same kind of place as an American bar. In Italy, as I assume you are aware, one goes to a bar principally to get coffee drinks — espressos, cappuccinos, caffè macchiatos, et cetera, in the morning — as well as other things, a beer or a glass of wine, for example, maybe also a cornetto (croissant) or even a gelato, in the afternoon or evening.

In American English, the word ‘bar’ refers to an entirely different kind of place. In America, as I once explained to someone, a bar is a place where lonely old men go to get drunk. It might not be all that bad; a bar can be a fairly reputable place where you go to have a beer or two, a glass of wine, or some kind of mixed drink, but always at night, and never during the day, unless there is something wrong with you. If you are an American, you probably do not want to be known as a person who spends a lot of time in bars. They are not wholesome places, not like and Italian bar or even an English pub.

True, there is a period when you are young, say from the legal drinking age of 21 to the first few years after college when you are just getting established in your career and are looking to make friends, and are perhaps searching for a mate, that you will often go out drinking in a bar on a Friday or Saturday night, but that is it. A bar is never a place where you go during the day, and it generally does not serve coffee. There is really no such thing as a coffee bar, or the kind of bar that exists in Italy, as I described.

To get coffee in the United States, you go to a cafe, but you probably do not even call it that; you refer to it by its brand name, like Starbucks. On a Saturday morning, you can text to your friend: “Want to meet at Starbucks?” and they might text back: “Sure”. I can remember a time when the only place one could go to get a cup of coffee outside of the house, to-go as we say, was a donut shop. But this is ancient history, at least outside of big cities, before the 1980s or so.

So what, then, to make of this Romanian woman and her boyfriend who were opening a bar in Milano, at which she would be the ‘bar girl’. By this point, making a decent cup of caffè is a well-honed craft in Italy. Pretty much every bar you go to in Italy will serve up a decent cup of coffee. I have noted some regional differences — of course, because this is Italy — namely that it will be più ristretto (thicker and more concentrated) in the south, but I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, because there always are exceptions to every rule in Italy — but basically, there is little to distinguish one bar from another on the basis of the coffee they serve. But again, I can hear the arguments brewing. That’s a coffee joke.

So Italian bars tend to attract their clientele and to establish their character in some other way, by aligning themselves with a particular soccer team, for example, or/and by extension, aligning themselves with a particular political party. AC Milan and Berlusconi and Forza Italia have formed a natural, obvious and popular combination since the 1990s. In such places, it will be obvious who they support, decorated as they will be with pennants, posters and photographs showing their allegiance to team, to leader, to party.

Another way, of course, is to have the bar staffed by a friendly and charming barista, or at least someone who leads you to decide that this bar is your bar, a place where you feel comfortable and welcome. The sexes being what they are, the owner of a bar might be wise to hire an attractive young woman because, well, men and women alike tend to like being around attractive young women. Hence, the birth of the bar girl. Now, if the bar is family run, then they staff it with whoever nature gave them, but that is a different story, although not one that is inconsistent with bar-girl theory.

As one bar girl admitted to me — not the Romanian bar girl that I introduced earlier, but now another Croatian one — I never tell my boyfriend what goes on here at night. “Like what?” I asked, innocently, clearly not in on the racy nighttime loop, always a day patron be I (I need my full eight hours).

“What would be the point?” she said.

“The point of what?” I asked.

She just looked at me, standing, behind the bar, in her tank top.

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