There are certain sounds I associate with Italy: cicadas, from my summer in Brisighella; church bells, because I miss them every time I leave; the cacophony of a market; and – believe it or not – the sound of tapparelle being raised or lowered.
When I arrived in Italy for the very first time, the tapparelle or rolling blinds were one of the first things I noticed. When pulled down, they make everything look uniform – and closed. I remember thinking Milan looked like a ghost town early in the morning. But it was just a Sunday morning in September, and people hadn’t woken up yet. An entire city of closed tapparelle is a little disconcerting if you’ve never seen it before.
And then of course people started getting up, and for the first time I heard the very distinctive sound of tapparelle opening – a sound I then heard most mornings (and evenings as they were closed) for the years I lived in Italy. The sound of rolling slats of metal isn’t exactly music, but it’s distinctive. And when everyone nearby has several windows to close, and when you live in close quarters in an apartment building, well, the routine and the sound of neighbors closing up for the night becomes part of daily life.
After awhile I paid as much attention to the tapparelle as I did to garbage cans or lamp posts – that is, not much. They were useful, and they were there. The sound they made blended into Background Noises In Life, along with the ever-present Milanese traffic or the rumble of the subway. Until I left. And then I noticed the sounds that were missing.
What are Tapparelle, exactly?
Tapparella also means conveyor belt or if you speak French, think of tapis roulant (rolling rug). That descriptor also gives you a sense of how they open and close: think slats that slide and roll. Made out of metal, or sometimes wood, the sheet of slats rolls up and down on a deep track along each side of the window. I’ve never seen one come unhinged. They are opened and closed from the inside with either a button, a crank, or a rope, and they roll up inside the wall so when they’re open you can’t see them at all. Fantastic at keeping the light out, they are also great for security: my Italian friends don’t have home alarm systems. When they leave town they just close their tapparelle and off they go.
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