Exiliado: Il Mare, Il Mare
I’m not sure what compelled me to ask a friend if she had ever visited the Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road. I didn’t even know it existed until a few weeks ago, when bored out of my mind by lockdowns and closures, I decided to walk from Wapping to Bloomsbury. I spotted it squeezed between the other buildings, red brick against grey with gilded wrought iron gates. A colourful mosaic depicting scenes from the life of Jesus above the entrance.
And walking along the shadow of St Paul’s, I am hardly starved of elaborate details on churches, let alone buildings. Yet there’s something about Chiesa San Pietro (or The Italian Church as it’s branded on its own website) that caught my attention. It reminded me, not so much of the churches I had seen in Italy, but instead a Catholic church in New York City, just off 42nd Street. It was crammed in and spilled out onto a busy road in a similar way. Like it had fought for space and won, elbows proudly out.
And yes, this friend is Italian, but I don’t think we’re supposed to ask people if what they’d like to do on a Sunday morning is go to church. It’s all drag brunches and bottomless mimosas these days in London. If it’s not ticketed and if you’re not queuing up for some form of ironic, nostalgic entertainment, it’s not worth going.
But I ask anyway. And I throw in the promise of brunch too, which is brunch in England but in the Mediterranean is breakfast. And she’s Mediterranean too, so she understands. And I often wonder, when I meet someone Mediterranean, if despite our different countries and languages we don’t share a kindred experience. And I, British on my passport, feel more like I live with my elbows out, fighting for my cultural space, when I am in England, than I have ever felt in any Mediterranean city.
I remember an ex watching me in horror , eat toast for breakfast with ham and cheese and mantequilla colorá, and commenting ‘breakfast is supposed to be sweet, unless it’s a cooked breakfast’ like there’s only one way to eat and everyone else across the world is just strange. Like you leave everything at the door when you get to passport control at Gatwick airport. Here are my cultural traditions along with my suitcases, but you can confiscate the way I eat breakfast and the fact I apparently can’t say aubergine and monarch and mayonnaise properly. And you sit in your room feeling the hot shame on your cheeks repeating meh-yo-ness again and again so that nobody laughs the next time. But enough of them. Que le den.
So she agrees, this Italian friend of mine. We meet in a deserted Farringdon on this late morning with the rarity of a clear blue sky where the trees seem actually green and London does not look like it is perpetually hungover. And I feel embarrassed a little, as we walk to the church. I’ve been exploring my faith again quietly, feeling around it like the beads on a rosary. I think maybe she came out of a desire to please me, or hoping that it will be a 20 minute job. Sit, stand, kneel, stand, Amen, forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder, bye.
But we are walking towards the church and the sun is shining and the Italian deli next door has its doors wide open, same strip lighting and tiled walls and slight dinge with door painted deep green, with the glass counters and cured meat hanging from a hook just like all those bars in Southern Spain. And old men outside in their hats and their pipes drinking coffee from glasses that looks five shades browner than anything you would get in Pret, shuffling newspapers and lips upturned talking with each other as they puff out smoke and fix the world.
And the women outside the church waiting dutifully, coming up to about my hip with their tight perms and leather handbags hoisted into the crooks of their elbows, all of them in heels and skirts and floral cardigans. And their pearls and gold bracelets and earrings that look like little glinting Easter eggs. Las alhajas, as my grandmother would say. And I am almost in Gibraltar outside St Mary’s Cathedral on any late morning. It makes me think how much I miss something like this, so simple, people who look somewhat like the people I grew up around. My friend turns to me and says “you can spot an Italian old lady from a distance” and we both smile, because you could drop these women on Calle Real and the same would be true.
At mass, I understand every fifth word, but I’ve never felt more like I’ve been transported back home. I wipe clean the image of London outside the doors and I imagine the sea somewhere close, that deep indigo turning to a blue that matches the sky on a good day. It would be nice to walk back through the doors and see a beach, the curve of the coastline heading up towards Málaga. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my neighbourhood church, but this one has incense and a high arched ceiling and a plethora of saints, all doing their own work. This one has drama and mystery and a dream of Jerusalem that is much closer to home when I am on the shores of the Mediterranean.
I am surrounded by men who are not towering over me, like the English do. Who have similar eyes and skin colour. Who express themselves with their hands the same way, even the priest. Who feel emotion and reach crescendos in their voices that I have often been chided for in this country, for sounding loud or rude or God forbid, overemotional. And I can see that in the ritual of the mass, my friend gets it too. After an hour and a half of service (which is not quite the express 12 minutes of a Gibraltar summer, but still, at Easter we sometimes have a record running time also) she suggests we go and be blessed by the priest. We stand in the long line and we bow before the relic of Saint Charbel of Lebanon, Mediterranean compatriot and healer of emotional ailments. I wonder if that includes homesickness.
At the exit, I am handed a postcard with an image of La Madonna del Carmelo. Or as I have known her all my life, La Virgen Del Carmen. Who in July is placed inside a boat and paraded across the water, blessing the sea and those who make of it a job and a home. And if that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.
Over brunch we talk about how we got here. The disapora we experienced in order to better our lives. How, when you live here, you have two lives, because a foot is always on the shores of home while the other may be floating down the currents of the Thames being dragged around the insanity that is this capital. And we lament, in a way, that we have grown so much here with everything this place has to offer, but maybe our blood doesn’t flow through the Tube lines underground. Our blood is not fish and chips and vinegar. We have olive oil in our blood, wine and salt spray and deep red tomatoes.
I do feel like that church on Clerkenwell Road, where I pushed through with my elbows and made a space for myself here and grew, and learned to keep things hidden for my home. Maybe it’s that lockdown cliché of having the time to think of what really matters, but all clichés are based on a truth, and a shared human truth at that. So I find myself here having more in common with anyone I bump into that grew up along the same flow of water that I did, whatever their language may be. And that water seems to want to pull me home.
I leave my friend by London Bridge station and I walk across Tower Bridge, past the people standing outside pubs holding plastic cups of beer, past the tourists in their large groups taking up the entire pavement for a good faux-candid shot of them looking wistfully at the skyline. There’s a pop-up bar set up next to City Hall, promising a Mediterranean experience on the Thames. It looks more like a Mexican cantina, with a feeble attempt at authenticity with a couple of orange trees and stick-on azulejos on the plastic tables. What I don’t feel is the breeze of the sea, the cry of the seagulls, the smell of sardinitas crisping on an open fire, or the warmth of a people who understand what all this might mean. I walk home asking myself,
Qué hago aqui?
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