26 June 2011

LIFE: Precious

SARONNO, Italy – I met Precious in the train station when I was on my way home from a doctor’s appointment in the nearby town of Busto Arsizio. I first saw her when we both got on the wrong bus and ended up sharing a 30 minute bus tour of the hinterlands of Busto.

Saronno train statio
We didn’t talk on the bus. It was raining and I was damp and tired and all I wanted to do was get to the LeNord train station and go home. I didn’t know she was going to Saronno too until she sat down next to me and we started making small talk, you know, the way people do who happen to be next to each other in waiting rooms.

She told me her name was Precious and she was from Nigeria. She was surprised that I was American and said so. I was the first American she had ever met, she said. About four sentences later she suddenly turned serious and said to me, “do you believe in Jesus.” As she said that, she pulled a small bible out of her handbag and held it in her hand.

She caught me by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. I knew if I said yes, she would roll into a discussion about the wonderfulness of Jesus and religion and how we have to venerate Him. Or even worse, she would start reading to me from the bible, or wanting me to pray with her. On the other hand, if I said no, she might take the hint and let the conversation take a lighter note, like what films in English were playing in Milan that week.

 Waiting for the train

I realize now, of course, that it would not have mattered which road I took, she wasn’t going to let me get away that easily. But at the time, I was convinced a strong stand would put an end to her interrogation. So I took a deep breath and said, “No, I don’t.”

The girl was horrified. She took a deep breath and said, “How old are you?” 

I told her. Obviously I was, in her opinion, close enough to my expiration date that she felt compelled to save me, and so the onslaught began. With bible in hand and a most serious and concerned face, she recounted the horrors that were in store for me. Did I really want to spend eternity burning in the pits of hell? And didn’t I see all the glories of the afterlife that awaited me in the house of the Lord, if only I would believe in Him.

The train station in Busto Arsizio didn’t seem to be the place to discuss such a heavy subject as the pros and cons of my impending encounter with the afterlife, so I did my best to change the subject. To move her off the Jesus track and onto a lighter, more suitable discussion for a brief encounter – the weather for example.

Via Roma, Saronno
When we got on the train for Saronno I sat down next to a young Italian woman and Precious sat across from me. As I wracked my brain trying to think of some way to distract her, the young Italian woman, hearing Precious and I speak English, joined the conversation. Precious immediately turned her focus to her.

“Do you believe in Jesus,” she asked the Italian woman.

I’m coming from Marrakesh, the Italian replied, “where I met the most beautiful Frenchman. He’s a singer. He’s making concerts traveling around in North Africa. Do you think there is such a thing as love at first sight?”

Eureka! That was it! All I had to do was start another conversation. So I did. With the Italian. Now if Precious would just put her bible back in her purse, and join in we could have a nice conversation, but she didn’t. She just sat there and clutched her bible.

I was sorry that I couldn’t engage her on some other subject . I would have liked to known about her as a person, her life, why she was in Italy, how she was getting along. I could tell by the seriousness in which she talked about her relationship with God, and her obvious concern for me, that she was a wonderful person, a daughter any mother would be proud to have.

Saronno Rules
I also understand how difficult it is for Africans immigrants to have any kind of contact, other than the most superficial with Italians. It was difficult for me when I first came to Italy and I have the advantage in that until I open my mouth everyone assumes I am Italian.

But while I felt bad for her, the thought of future conversations that most certainly would center on my impending demise and the penalties I would suffer for my lack of belief, hardened my heart.

And then we got off the train.

There are two exits to the Saronno train station. I was turning right to go home, and she was turning left to go to a religious service, but before we parted she said to me, “will you’ll come to my wedding mama?”
A Nigerian Wedding
For years I had bristled at the African vendors calling me “mama”. “I’m not your mama,” I’d reply to their attempts to get me to buy whatever they were selling. But in that moment, standing in the sottopassagio of the Saronno train station, I realized that for Africans the title “mama” is the equivalent of “signora” in Italian. It’s a sign of respect. I also realized how much I don’t know about the Africans I pass every day on my daily to and fro along the streets of Saronno.

I grew up surrounded by immigrants on both sides of my family, and lived their immigration experience with my own decision to move to Italy. But there is a big difference between immigrating to a multi-cultural country like the United States that was built on the backs of immigrants like my grandparents, and a mono-culture like Italy.

There are no Italian J.P. Morgans, Andrew Carnegies or Cornelius Vanderbilts building railroads or steel plants or digging for oil. There are mostly small family run businesses doing their best to survive the global crisis and any additional competition from non-Italians is suspect. The role of Italy’s immigrants still needs to be defined. In the meantime, people like Precious are breaking new ground, and I wish her well.

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