BBC Radio Four ‘Sound Sculpture’
Six years ago (yes, I know, six!) I did a spot on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Saturday Live’ for their ‘Sound Sculpture’ feature where listeners would describe some sound that defined an experience or feeling that was significant and personal to them. I sent this following piece to the show’s producers who liked it and asked me to record something based on it in the BBC Leeds studio. It aired in January 2013. Only thing that annoyed me was an ongoing argument the Rev Richard Coles had on air with his co-presenter querying whether shouldn’t it rather be ‘expresso’ and not ‘espresso’! Oh ye of little faith…(and, as it turns out, little knowledge of Italian!)
‘My sound sculpture is the strangulated roar of the commercial Italian espresso machine, often accompanied by the loud hiss of the milk steamer. This together with the systematic thumps as the barista knocks out the used coffee grouts from the filter is a sound you will hear in any bar or restaurant across Italy all through the day but especially in the mornings. It’s a din I became familiar with in the early 70s when I first went to live in Florence as an au-pair. That sound, together with the dark aroma of coffee seeping into the cramped streets and old alleyways of Florence, conjures up a time of fantastic liberation in my life but also of tremendous confusion.
At just 18, I was a British girl of mixed-race. Here in England, I’d just failed my ‘A’ levels and I made the decision to take myself off to ‘the continent’ and re-invent myself. And so in Florence the love affair with Italy began; the sublime, old piazzas and the chic fashion stores. Surrounded by celestial images and angels, I was in heaven. The language was seducing me too. My old French teacher may have written me off as far as languages were concerned, but never having learned a word of Italian, I was beguiled, and I threw myself into it with gusto. Getting a feel for good food and wine was an integral part of this new life-style. I remember eating artichokes (carciofi) and aubergines (melanzane) for the first time; even their names in Italian seemed exotic.
Coffee was a big part of this food culture. In 70’s England it was all instant coffee and a frothy coffee in a café was considered the last word in cool. In Italy I soon got used to the dinky little cups half-full that you swigged like a stiff shot. I loved falling into one of the noisy local bars first thing in the morning, lining up with the rest of the customers along the bar and watching the barista swing smoothly into action. That espresso machine would be roaring like the very devil and the gadget warming and frothing milk for the cappuccinos would be hissing up clouds of steam as he deftly hammered out old coffee grouts, twisted into place the refilled filters, slipped the coffee cups onto the plate under the machine, then swung round to flick saucers and teaspoons into place on the counter in front of us. All this as he kept up a conversation with the customers over the racket.
That grating roar also reminds me of close encounters of the sexual kind. Back then there were very few black people around in Italy. I rarely saw anyone else who looked like me and apparently neither did the Italians. As a lone black girl, with a full head of springy afro-curls I felt as if I were a moving target. Men were everywhere, murmuring, brushing up against me, shouting at me from moving cars, blocking my path on the tiny pavements. Whenever I was out in the street, I always felt as if I were on the run. There were a couple of local bars near where I lived where I got to know the baristas and they let me take cover. When I was being hotly pursued by yet another unwanted man, they would let me come and hide-out in the unused, shadowy, back rooms of the bar until the danger was past. I felt like a fox down a rabbit hole waiting for the hounds to lose the scent. It was in the bowels of these places and with that strangely comforting roar and hiss and thump I would hear in the bar, that I took sanctuary; and it was here that there was nothing to do but flick through the crumpled back copies of Italian newspapers I found.
Maybe that’s where my love of the language began to take hold as I deciphered old copies of La Nazione and Paese Sera while taking refuge from Italian men. I went on to get a degree in Italian, teach in an Italian state school, work at the Italian Embassy in Washington DC for 9 years, and live in Italy and go on loving it. So much so, that I’m now writing a book about those early ‘pioneering’ years as one of the first ‘black settlers’ in Florence. The roar of the espresso machine loud and unrestful as it is, for me has become the sound of warmth and conviviality. For me, it’s the soundtrack of Italy.’