Persona non Grata
On St. Patrick's Day I wake up, get some pizza, make espresso, complain about my women problems, and go out to paint the town green. Sometime after a beer with Basam and flirting with Valentina at Blockbuster Video, I get a free turtle. Not just any turtle though. I get a plastic, Senegalese (ahem...CHINESE) turtle for good fortune. "Uno regalo gratis per te" said the man who gave it to me, "Africano per buona fortuna". In other words, a free gift from Africa that will bring me good fortune. Why me? Why a turtle? Why free? Ok, so he tried to sell my a watch first, but when I said no and started to walk away he insisted that I take the turtle.
In Rome it's normal to be approached by recent African immigrants who try with all their might to sell you goods. In fact, it's normal in many big cities all over the world. Hell, they've perfected the practice in New York. "Rolex, Rolex...cheap Rolex mister", they say in English soaked in a thick colonial French accent. Here it's much the same. They work the same types of areas (tourist-filled pedestrian thoroughfares), have the same grueling hours, sell the same shitty goods, and come from the same countries; mostly north and west Africa. People here treat them the same too. Most ignore the sales pitch, some check out the merchandise, and some buy. Others shoot slight glances of fear and disdain, subconsciously showing their disapproval with their body language.
theoretically I should be used to this. I've seen the same guys, same sales pitch my whole life. They're the same here but I'm different. It affects me differently here. In a bizarre way we actually share a part of the same experience. Our lives and backgrounds are extraordinarily opposite but yet in simple terms we do the same thing. Let me explain. I left my country with two bags and a plane ticket. I couldn't speak the language. I needed work badly. I have no visa, no work permits, pay no taxes, and make my money off of tourists.
African politics aside-although it's shameful not to acknowledge this as the impetus for them coming here-they're here to work. They're here to survive, to keep a sustainable life for themselves. They eat pasta, drink espresso, and go to work every day like most other Romans. In Rome though, they're not welcome.
Berlusconi's government sees these types of immigrants as a social and economic cancer. Many Italians decry them in public. Rowdy sections of soccer "ultras" (hooligans) taunt African players on the field and even throw bananas at them during play. My question is, why not me? Why don't I get taunted or scoured at while I'm at work? The answer unfortunately is tragically simple: racism. In Italy the difference between a working tourist and an immigrant is the color of his/her skin.
Racism breaks down reason. Racism is why I work less than these guys and make more money. Racism is why I don't hide from the police when they come around. The real tragedy is that their negative reputation is almost entirely undeserved. I've never had a bad interaction with an African immigrant in three months here. On the contrary, I've been an accessory to petty burglary with Italians (not voluntarily), seen British brawls, American vandalism, and Venezuelan drug trafficking. That's not to say that crime doesn't exist amongst African immigrants. I'm sure it does. But they have more to lose if they get caught. With these guys there's no "plan B".
After the pitch fails, some guys walk away. Other guys will actually walk and chat with you. It's not always for the sale either. My first month here I had breakfast with a Nigerian man who gave up on trying to sell me socks. We got a coffee and a cornetto, split the bill 50/50, talked about music and parted ways. I have a friend from Cameroon who sells CD's in front of the grocery store. He calls me his brother and practices English with me every time I go shopping. I've never given him a cent.
On St. Patrick's day I got a turtle. No bargaining, no hustle, no tricks, just a turtle. A man I didn't know gave me a gift for good fortune. Good fortune that he probably needs more than me. I almost felt guilty for taking it. Three days later though it finally hit me. Giving makes a person feel whole. Giving is what truly defines our character and connects us as human beings. I'll never look at African street merchants the same. I'll always look them in the eye and acknowledge them as hard-working equals. In my own way, that's the turtle I can give back to them.