Even with the best English-Italian dictionary, some Italian words baffle. Like tabaccaio. "Tobacco shop," sure. But what else is going on in there — and why does everyone seem to think it's so useful?
First, make sure you have the pronunciation right: "ch" is hard in Italian, so it's tah-back-ee or tah-back-aye-oh, not tab-atch-ee. (One poor tourist confessed to me the other day, "Oh no! I've been saying 'tab-atch-ee' for years of coming to Italy!")
Second, a tabaccaio is not just a tobacco shop. Yes, you can get cigarettes there — but you can get a bottle of water, gum, and likely postcards, batteries and international calling cards, too.
Most usefully, it's where you can get tickets for public transport. At the counter, just ask for "un biglietto per l'autobus" or "due/tre/etc. biglietti" (the ticket works for the bus, tram and metro); it's €1 per ticket. You'll also see Italians using the tabaccaio to pay their electric or phone bills and to "top up" their pay-as-you-go phones.
When you're looking for a tabacchaio, just scan your street for the telltale blue sign with a white T. Just remember that many tabacchi, especially outside of the tourist centers, close during lunchtime and around 6 or 7 at night.
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