Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The bells of Varese



When I lived in Cairo, on the rare occasions when I went out and got really messed up, I would know when to get up when I heard the Dhuhr prayer at noon, in varying loudspeaker arrangements and at slightly different times from the dozen or so mosques in earshot of my flat. first one, then several voices, seemingly competing to sing louder, truer, more beautifully than the next. (Some were not beautiful but merely enthusiastic).


When my mother visited she woke every day to the Fajr prayer at dawn. (After the first week I hardly noticed it). At first she didn't like it but after returning she spoke of missing it. It gives a collective rhythm to the day. You know everyone, in every flat, can hear the same sound. While I'm sure that (except on Fridays) most Cairenes didn't rush down to the mosque at every call, the prayers symbolised collective social moments: getting up, stopping work for lunch, returning home at sunset, going to bed.

In Varese the town clock goes further than this. Every fifteen minutes, all day and night, the bells ring out. I rarely glance at the clock because I am constantly reminded of the passing of time. There's another church which I can't see and it obstinately remains half a minute behind the church in the town centre, jealously guarding its interpretation of what time it is in a world where hours, seconds, minutes are electronically synchronised and infallibly transmitted.

Twelve o'clock- twelve long gongs. Quarter past- the gongs again and then a single, higher chime for the quarter hour. At half past there are two short chimes.

Additionally there are other chimes, chimes I can't place or understand. Sometimes I wonder if there's a bell-ringing school in the town. Smetimes it's a tune, sometimes a cacophony of overlapping discord, not unpleasant to hear but bewildering. What does it mean? What is everyone in Varese doing right now? Should I be doing it too?

The other strange thing is that if you walk for two minutes down to the main square and look at the clock in the steeple, it shows completely the wrong time. Trust your ears, not your eyes.

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