12th April 2021
Today the country is talking about haircuts. The national and the local news are carrying items on salons and clothes shops opening doors after months of deserted town centres. I have a witch’s mane from Lockdown 3, an overgrown hedge on my head, grey roots and frizz but that can wait. The priority is cappuccino. A hot cup of frothy cappuccino in a freezing Northumberland Square, mittens on and a thick scarf to protect from the wind chill factor.
I know I will write afterwards.
Is this cappuccino a magic liquid for my pen?
It always sparks some notes for a poem or piece of prose in my notebook. Tea at home doesn’t seem to work. The cappuccino ritual is missing.
Venaria, Turin 2019 The last summer in Italy
Before Italy closes in on itself and the UK lockdown creeps up on us, I stay with a friend in a historic suburb of Turin. It’s so easy to slip smoothly back into bar culture after 20 years of Mediterranean life left behind for return to blighty. Meeting on the pavement every morning, greeting locals, taking time to start the day with a chat with familiar village faces, feels necessary. It is necessary. The whole ritual is a massage to the soul. It has a community feel to it. OK I will cease to romanticise this. I like knowing everyone’s business and a cappuccino loosens tongues. The bar buzzes.
The bar breakfast is hand crafted with incredible skill; the cappuccino smooth, not sugared. It’s about the awakening of the senses. Light on cobbles, shutters of fruit shops rattling open, people passing on bicycles on the way to the office, sky filling with blue ink before the day’s heat rises. That’s all in my morning cappuccino in Northumberland. I drink this Proustian potion. I am back there. I am home in my cappuccino bubble, in my local bar in an Alpine village or on a Ligurian seafront.
As Lockdown progresses, I realise how much I have depended on my café in Corbridge to act as surrogate home. I also realise that my cappuccino there is a writing prop. My body does not feel switched on. My pen lacks ink. I struggle to get going. At one point, between Lockdowns, the café serves take-aways from the front door, but no tables are allowed. No sitting down allowed. I rush off greedily with my foaming liquid in a cardboard cup to take my Italy hit in the peace of the village churchyard. Secretly sitting amongst Victorian gravestones with those light shafts of a Dickensian Spring. First sip, I am there on a street corner, at a marble topped table waiting for the rush to the senses before scuttling up the Via Quattro Fontane to a seminar or meeting. I am not as chic as the Romans, my Linen crumples more, my brow sweatier but I am definitely living out my cliché of a dolce vita.
There are sometimes, over the years, children of varying ages in pushchairs or swinging golden-brown knees under the table. They’re dipping their croissants into baby cappuccinos and I am already making quick notes for the next writing piece. The day has started. We fit well into this space. We think it will never end. I take the 2 older children to primary school then head with the baby to the Bar della Piazza. The baby is passed around by clucking old ladies feeding him titbits of croissants while their husbands play cards whilst sipping their first grappa with an espresso shot. Twenty minutes previously the bar was bursting with the bus queue of school kids and commuters on the way to Turin. The bus driver will come to the bar, one swift gulp of free coffee and herd his passengers like a sheep dog to his vehicle. It’s a miracle they get to work on time. The air is loud. Very loud. I yearn for that loud. That joyful loud. Lockdown has been quiet. Cappuccino free.
I judge a café by its blend and cup size. By its location in a square in a town or village. I remember the poem I wrote or the teaching worksheet I planned with each breakfast in each place. This morning I tweet my friend’s Italian daughter, working in Belfast but brought up in Venaria.
“I’m having my first post Lockdown cappuccino.”
“Hope it isn’t a bucket of brown liquid,” she replies, not trusting us to get this ritual right.
“We are civilised in Northumberland," I tweet back, half showing off.
I know we can’t compete with those Turin cakes.
I wonder if a blood test would show half froth, half platelets in my veins. I am not able to give up this habit for Lent, everyone has their limits.
I wrote this piece today on a pavement on a freezing Northumberland Spring morning, but it could have been in an art deco bar near Piazza Castello, if you looked beyond the clouds.
Clare Lavery. Creative writer and lecturer. main areas of interest are Life writing about intercultural issues, borders and belongings. Poet.