(First published June 12, 2020)
I am breathless when I reach the top of the cobblestone stepped street and before I can turn to look behind me at the view from the small piazza, there is a “buongiorno”. There are two men who work for the town. One is sitting in the shade with a weed-whacker while the other sweeps up the poppies and malva and Queen Anne’s Lace from the edges where the stone street meets the stone walls.
We know each other by sight, though this is the first opportunity we’ve had to chat.
“But you’re not from here” says one. It’s both my accent and the fact that he would know if I belonged here. It’s a small town.
Where are you from?
Why are you here?
Are you alone here?
How long have you been here?
I am used to the questions. They come whenever curiosity gets the better of someone. Of course, I do my best to encourage curiosity, noting quite early on that people would just stare suspiciously at me until I smiled and nodded and said “buongiorno”, thereby signaling that I am a fellow human being (however oddly misplaced in this closed landscape) and that, while I am a stranger, I am not necessarily a threat.
Let the interview commence.
I explain who I am and what I do and where I live and who my companion is and where I was born and where I lived before and the inevitable question follows: What is going on over there? It a mess!
Yes, it’s a mess.
The conversation takes a familiar course. I am being asked to rationalize and defend.
“You have to look at the history,” I say. Americans are an invasive population living on stolen land, with people who they stole from their homes on another continent and turned into slaves. It’s a difficult situation to reconcile.
“True”, says the man in the shade. “It’s not like that here.”
I know I am speaking as one cultural descendant of the principle invaders, descendant of terrorizers and colonists, to another. I don’t think he makes the connection.
“You’re a soup of different cultures. It was bound to get out of hand.” He says.
Not necessarily… many of us have learned to adapt to different cultures, it’s not a bad thing.
He’s not convinced.
He’s nervous: “That’s going to happen here before long—the riots and violence.... Look around at who’s coming over here.” He gestures as if we’re surrounded by a mob of those of whom he speaks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I think we have an opportunity to do things differently here. We don’t have a long history of slavery on this soil, for one thing. Or segregation. We haven’t yet set a precedent of broad prejudice.”
“That’s true, everyone has rights here.” He says, nodding.
I don’t mention that these rights are relatively new; that this democracy is new. I don’t say that in certain respects, Italy is lagging behind in terms of the actual practice of those rights and of equality, particularly for women.
“Those rights are important, “ I say. “People from all over, not just from Africa, have been coming here relatively recently and are relatively few. I think a lot can be done starting now to create understanding going forward so that there’s no reason for chaos.”
I make the case for common ground. For well over a century there has been a mass exodus from the Meridonale (southern Italy). People leave and leave and rarely return, looking for a “better life”, like many of the folks who leave their homes to come here.
“Ah, but theirs is a whole other culture,” he says.
I understand the coded language: They are different. (We don’t want them.)
I understand the fear. “Different” can be terrifying.
In the context of dying villages, of dying micro-cultures and dying dialects, Different or Other can be perceived as a further threat. At the very least it’s startling, in the context of this village specifically, to see any unfamiliar face. A face as dark as the color of the skin of an eggplant would be even more startling. I make the case for wonder and beauty, that we should not all look alike.
He is skeptical of my hopefulness, but in the end we tentatively agree that what’s happening across the US won’t likely happen here.
“After all, Italians are a peaceful people,” he says, by way of reasoning.
Of this I am dubious, but still… one has to start somewhere.
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I added this blog as a way to share some thoughts and experiences around the impact of Covid-19 on my life here in Southern Italy. These posts have been a near-daily practice during this time and are largely unedited, most having been first posted on Facebook. They are of course in order with the most recent entry on the first page. I invite you to explore previous posts or even start from the beginning.