Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Espresso, Plantations, Sambo Imagery, and Colonization in Reverse

The Mixmaster and I just got back from Italy, and yes, it was lovely. Everything I dreamed it would be. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting on my trip, and places to eat (and places not to, of course) in Bella Italia. But I thought I'd begin my discussion of my whirlwind 8 days there with that quintessential Italian drink, espresso.
On day 2 of our trip, the first full day in Rome, I headed down to Squisito (the cafe just below our hotel) on Via Merulana and had my first cappuccino. We here in North America really drink coffee-flavoured steamed milk. The Starbucks "venti" is a travesty! The average cappuccino in Italy is about half the size of a regular ceramic coffee cup, and is drunk in a few minutes while chatting with the barista at the bar. Or, in my case, smiling shyly, and saying "Grazie, Signore," when I leave. The cappuccinos at Squisito (which translates to delicious in English), were 90 euro cents, and were frothy, not overly bitter, and creamy. The milk seemed to be full fat, which made for a silkier tasting beverage. And on offer was a dusting of premium quality sweetened cocoa powder. The baristas could even make heart shapes when pouring the frothed milk into the cup. You might want to check out this website to learn about all things espresso.

Espresso beans, sugar, cocoa: these are all goods that come from countries of the south (either the Caribbean, South and Central America or Africa). Edward Said, writer of the pivotal Orientalism, writes that European orientalists saw the East as a place of rejuventation, as a place where raw energy could come from that could invigorate the West. But we cannot forget the actual imported raw materials, that are turned into such highly prized food and other luxury goods made in Europe (this expands too to the highly regarded fashion industry, in which Egyptian cotton is a prized staple).

This is an image of the sugar packets at Squisito. I quickly snapped a photo, and brought one home with me, for my research. Racist imagery of black people (and others) in food is not new, of course. We here in Canada and the US have seen smiling black people feeding us everything from table syrup to rice (I'm thinking of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben respectively). And the less critical among up might say, "What of it? It's just a happy man in a hat!" without knowing of the history of caricatures of blacks. And they're always happy. If "moca" man wasn't smiling, we'd have to think of the conditions on his sugar plantation, Italy's (albeit limited) past forays into imperialism in such places as Libya, and our espresso might start to taste a little bitter on the tongue.
But one of the most exciting things I found in Italy was the scores of people of colour! I had thought that The Mixmaster and I would be stared at, and possibly experience racism in Italy, but Rome had more people of colour than Montreal, easily. There were sushi restaurants, and "Cinese food" (sic) places, and it made me think of a poem I read for one of my comps, Colonization in Reverse by Louise Bennett, in which the poet speaks of how the Empire "strikes back". I'm including a few stanzas here (the full poem is available online):

Wat a joyful news, miss Mattie,
I feel like me heart gwine burs
Jamaica people colonizin
Englan in Reverse

By de hundred, by de tousan
From country and from town,
By de ship-load, by de plane load
Jamica is Englan boun.

Dem a pour out a Jamaica,
Everybody future plan
Is fe get a big-time job
An settle in de mother lan.

What an islan! What a people!
Man an woman, old an young
Jus a pack dem bag an baggage
An turn history upside dung!

Yes, struggling African Italians, and Asian Italians might find it hard to challenge the hegemony of Italy's history and culture, but they speak back to the narrative of the Dolce Vita and make it their own, by adding "Cinese" food to the menu, or lapsing into Hindi when selling Venetian masks (as one vendor did with us). The Venetian South Asian we spoke with spoke Italian, some English, and Hindi. And it got me to thinking about what his life might be like. Similar to what mine was in Montreal, I guess, a riot of multiple languages and cuisines. Colonization in Reverse, indeed.
God, I wish I wasn't so jet lagged...


  1. hmm, viga i wonder if its still mispelling if the asians are the ones spelling their own label that way?

    great pictures and thanks for posting the poetry, much appreciated!

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  3. Writing comments at 5 am, not a good look! Let me try again...That's a good question, kenji, and thanks for your comment! So far as I can tell, Cinese is the Italian word for Chinese, so I don't know who is naming themselves, and who is being named. And like many European countries, Italy didn't seem pretty welcoming to immigrants. There seemed to be little mixing of immigrant and white Italian populations. Many immigrants were "husseling," to use MIA's term. Like, selling umbrellas in the Metro kinda husseling. And owning makeshift fruit stands and small import jewelry stores. I only saw one South Asian Italian in a business suit on the metro in Rome once (not that being in a business suit means anything, really...).
    Yes, thanks, I'm working on my photography skills, and the poem _is_ amazing! The entire piece can be found here: