The Best of the Bettole: Two Pubs in Paradiso

A doctored image of the Black Eagle Irish Pub in pink.

On an old television in the corner of the pub, an augur of inaugurated bronze doom flickers, dressed like a child in a suit that’s several sizes too big. Here, a man of untold misery and loneliness rests his hand on a bible, muttering inaudibly with a scowl shared by all around him.

Forcing myself to look away, I pour molten wax onto the tip of my finger, drop by drop, then rub it into the mahogany table ad nauseam. I feel nothing.

“Look at America! Look how sad he is,” squeals Lur, the wild-haired Cuban woman sitting by the front door. She claps her hands together in hysterics, as she always does. After a month’s worth of nights at Bistrò, Lur has yet to learn my name, content in calling me “America” while scoffing in mockery at just about everything I say. I don’t object, for I am a beta cuck.

Lur’s husband, Marco, the pensive and wise bartender of the tiny, wood-lined bar, looks at me with pity, and calls me to the till by name. His graying hair is pulled back in a ponytail, hemp necklace dangling from his sunburned neck; he reeks of spliff. Pulling a greasy bottle from beneath the bar, he pours me a large glass of some clear and wicked liquor reserved, it seems, only for emergencies. “From my garden,” Marco says mournfully, his voice gruff and nasal. “Please.”

“Offer, I, too for you?” My Italian, broken and soaked through in sour wine, sounds as pathetic as I feel. He waves it off, pushing the shot under my hanging head. It stings my nostrils. With a backward tilt of my head, it disappears. Magic.

Winter, 2017. In the wake of an Orange November, I trade my savings for a few months’ rent in a moist, fungal apartment carved into the castle rock of Dolceacqua.

Neither Italian nor French, this tiny village above the Rivêa d’e Sciûe (Liguria’s Floral Coast) offers visitors a privileged plunge into an ancient and romantic world mere minutes from the Casino de Monte-carlo and the migrant detention centers of Ventimiglia. During the warmer months, spandex-clad bikers stop here for torta verde and pigato wine in the midst of their Le Tour, niçoise families retreat from crowded beaches to flood the town’s taverns for rabbit, boar, and a few glasses of the local rossesse, and immigrants risk their lives crossing the highway for France under the blanket of night in pursuit of a better life.

These days, however, Dolceacqua is largely still, silent, and covered with a thin, cool film of condensation. This heavy mist blots the ruins of the Castle Doria from sight, the Nervia River slows to a trickle under the bulbous, 15th century Old Bridge, and with hardly an outsider around, the streets are starved for footsteps:

At the historic Cinema Cristallo, a teenaged ticket-taker sighs with boredom, so slight was the draw one month into the screening of Lion, the three-time AARP Movies for Grownups Award nominee starring Dev Patel as Australian entrepreneur Saroo Brierly; at Piazza Garibaldi’s finest pizzeria, a balding server in a wine-stained apron polishes silverware on a white tablecloth set for guests that just weren’t coming; down the Via Patrioti Martiri (Martyred Patriots Street), a pub oozes an alluring familiarity: tinny sounds of the Sex Pistols spill out onto the cobblestone amidst rusted signs advertising Guinness to great effect.

Five depictions of heraldic black eagles.
Heraldic eagles through the ages.

With that double shot of garden poison rotting my gut, I peer into the AquilaNera Irish Pub with much apprehension. Where I had avoided the familiar in Dolceacqua up until now, my love of potato chips, sticky floors, and the inimitable contours of an imperial pint glass pouring that rich, foamy stout oyster down my gullet was simply too much to resist.

It was like entering a haunted house. “Salve, c’è qualcuno,” my voice echoes. “Anyone there?” As I wobble my way onto a stool, resting my head on the bar, a lanky figure emerges from the back with a Cheshire grin of welcome.

“You alright ovar ‘dere,” she asks, her Cheshire—er, Kilkenny—grin melting away. It was the first bit of native English I’d heard in months, and I sit up in surprise.

“Oh, it’s just I’m…I’m American,” I say, feeling a little naughty speaking my own language.

A voice startles me from a table along the wall. “One hell of a day for yez today, bruv?” An outstretched arm, holding up the remains of a whisky on the rocks, startles me from the darkness. “Put ‘at one on my tab, Col’,” he says to the bartender, before settling at my right. Don’ mind ‘f I join ya?” He unfurls a newspaper at taps his rocks glass for a refill.

“You’re…the waiter…” I say, gobsmacked. I’d been greeting him all this time as he polished his wares, thinking him to be a local when he’d been a damned Englishman all along.

“Eh,” he grumbles. In close proximity I can see what must be years of fade coffee stains on his shirt, his ruddy skin pocked and bloated. He was certainly older than I’d initially thought, or was at least a hard-lived forty. He spreads his copy of The Daily Telegraph atop the bar, pointing to the picture on the front page, where that miserable bronze face glowered in a full-page spread. It was official.

“T’America,” he says, clinking my glass and downing the rest of his drink.

Col’ sets our new round on the bar begins to say something, but thinks better of it. The Englishman looks over the paper. “Bet all ‘at wiggling trash at the border’s shitting ‘mselves about now. America First, fookin’ right. Cheers.”

I struggle to take my first sip, my ears ringing. OK. With a deep breath, I launch into a lecture of all the reasons I think this man is mistaken, spouting off a long list of reasons carefully curated from six months’ worth of progressive blogs, YouTube videos, and talks with my leftist friends. Why, he’s just a racist, sexist, proudly uneducated meanie, that’s all he is, I say, proud of myself. This guy doesn’t get it, I think. He’s on the other side of the world, how would he know?

“Il fookin’ Doo-chay, man, that’s who he reminds me of.” The server sips his new drink, savoring it for a moment, and a devilish grin spreads on his face. “Now that was a fookin’ leader, Moosolini.” Col’ llooks on, bemused, polishing a pint glass. “Man had guts,” he continues, and I feel the red creep onto my cheeks. “Nowdays out here, we got all ‘m melanzane pouring in ‘n no one does fook all.”

War flag of the Italian Social Republic
“Hanno fatto anche buone cose!”

“But I…I…” I shoot a look to the bartender for some backup, but she just shrugs. I’m in over my head. “Well. Agree to disagree,” I say, voice cracking. I wish I could hide behind my damned beer, but instead I pretend to look around the pub as the bald man continues on about racial purity. I wonder if that cobblestone on the vaulted ceiling is real, or painted on, I think, wanting anything but to look the man in the eye, though his focus is locked on mine. “Ha ha, maybe,” I say, drinking my beer as quickly as possible.

With one final gulp that nearly drowns me, I stand and curtsy like a fucking idiot. “I thank you for the generosity,” I say with an almost courtly grandeur, “but I really must be going.” With a nod to the befuddled bartender, I take my leave from the pub.

Wobbling more than ever back out on the street, I look back at the AquilaNera. Its wrought-iron mascot—an eponymous black eagle, naturally—soars above a maroon shield painted in medieval Blackletter. Black Eagle, I think to myself editorially. What an interesting name for a bar.

La Fenice Bistrò. Via Roma, 26.
Acquila Nera Irish Pub. Via Patrioti Martiri, 17.