Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Harry Belafonte


Local radio can sometimes furnish a cozy little world in our minds, with its eclectic choices and homespun style. Listening to WRFG this morning, I heard a song with vaguely Caribbean rhythms, and within a few seconds I was transported to a spare, sunken living room in a fourth-floor walkup in Florence, Italy.

The living room was the largest room in the apartment, and it was there that I spent many a night during my first winter in Florence, listening to my roommate’s tape of a Harry Belafonte concert.

I had little money and was still finding my way in the expat racket of English lessons and translations. With little to spend, my diet consisted largely of big bowl-life cups of caffelatte into which I dunked endless amounts of cheap biscotti. At night, I’d eat bowls of vegetables or greens swimming in olive oil, dipping crusty chunks of bread into the golden salsina that developed to stretch the threadbare meal.

In the background was Belafonte, singing traditional Caribbean songs. It became the soundtrack to my early desperate months in a city that would take its time to welcome strangers, particularly ones who were pawing around aimlessly for a life raft.

I got up early those days and worked what I considered a graveyard shift: the 7:30 a.m. class for the factory workers at the plant where I taught English. It was on the outskirts of the city, and after the class, I’d take the 23 bus back into the city to have the first of my various daily caffelatte meals.

As I compose these lines, I’m driving down the streets of my neighborhood in Atlanta – first Waldo, then a left on Glenwood, and finally a right on Boulevard to access the highway. But mentally, I’m sitting at the drafting table in that sunken living room on Via dei Serragli, locking onto the longing Belafonte conveys, longing for his homeland, longing for what was, longing for a time when whatever evil chasing us has become tired.

My longing at that drafting table, of course, was different. I was longing to settle down to my much-awaited Italian life. I was longing for steady work. I was longing to meet people. Day to day, I was just longing to make a little money so I could buy a cappuccino at a corner coffee bar and maybe get myself a proper meal.

Right now I’m remembering that sense of longing felt so keenly night after night in that windowless living room. And it's all because a local radio station played a song that sounded like a Harry Belafonte ballad, lodged deep inside my memory.

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