Waking early in Abruzzo, Italy some years ago I lay listening to the silence. Only it wasn’t quite silence (I could hear some distant birdsong and the muffled purring of one of the cats under the duvet). Was there something missing? Yes! No church bells on a Sunday morning – even though most village churches do have a single bell. In Abruzzo we heard all kinds of sounds from the local churches to announce a special festa or saint’s day, including mortar shells and fireworks. Yes, really, mortar shells (or something almost identical according to the neighbours). Quite disconcerting to hear distant shell-fire from down in the village!
I’ve since read that change ringing like we have in the UK does exist in an area around Verona. We weren’t within earshot of a church where we’d lived previously in Wales either (though change ringing is not so common there anyway). The truth is it was a phantom echo of years gone by, a bit of English nostalgia on my part, and I blame BBC Radio 4 for that. Waking up that morning in Italy I was looking forward to listening to Bells on Sunday followed by the Sunday morning schedule – Something Understood, Farming Today, building up to the topical Broadcasting House and the joy of The Archers’ Omnibus. Sprinkled through this schedule would be my chores (like cleaning out and re-lighting the wood stove and feeding the cats/dogs, and some work on the computer), with the anticipation of settling down with a large, strong coffee and something to eat when The Archers’ started.
I like to think it was a perfect blend of my Italian and my British life, the way the BBC became the soundtrack of most of my days there – especially in the winter. I know I should’ve listened to Italian radio, and for months I did try. I searched the available stations and found RAI 1 quite easy on the ear (RAI is kind of the Italian equivalent of the BBC, being the state owned public broadcaster). It was a struggle though, not understanding enough Italian to grasp most of the content, catching only snatches of conversations and misunderstanding news stories. After nearly a year of living there with only an old wireless radio that picked up BBC World Service if we were lucky, we finally got a fully-functioning ‘phone line and, joy of joys, a dial-up internet connection which allowed us, on a good day and with the wind in the right direction, to listen to the BBC via iPlayer. Four years later we got wifi (woo hoo) and could listen to the iPlayer and browse the internet at the same time!
So, going back to those thoughts on waking, my musings on church bells brought me around to thinking about my father, who wasn’t a natural church-goer or a bell-ringer. But when he died in 2003 the English village where he’d lived, and volunteered his services on the parish council for 30 years, rang a full peal for him. It was incredibly moving, to hear those 6 magnificent bells being rung; the sound rolling out across the village, the fields and the River Thames on a spring day. Dad was also an inveterate Radio 4 listener, and a lover of good coffee. An early memory: sometime in the 60s (I was probably 5 or 6), in the kitchen at home, Dad grinding Blue Mountain coffee beans in a little electric Moulinex grinder, putting them in a jug filter and pouring boiling water over the grounds. We were allowed to have a small coffee on a Sunday morning, topped up with lots of hot milk.
What do you miss most when you’re away from your home country?