CHIAVARI, Italy – In the first six months of this year more than 65,000 immigrants found their way to Italy. They come in by the boatloads overwhelming the residents of Lampadusa and other town in the south. It’s a national problem but except for the few Africans I occasionally see here in Chiavari, I have no contact with them. It was much the same when I lived in the Milan suburb of Saronno, until the day that I met Precious.
I first saw Precious when I was on my way home from a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t know we were both going to the same town until she sat down next to me at the train station and we started making small talk the way people do who happen to sit next to each other in public places.
She told me her name was Precious and she was from Nigeria. She seemed surprised that I was American and said I was the first American she had ever met. About four sentences later she suddenly turned serious and said to me, “do you believe in Jesus.” As she said those words, she pulled a small bible out of her handbag and held it in her hand.
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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 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 let the conversation take a lighter note, like most casual conversations do and we could talk about what films in English were playing at the Arcobaleno Theatre in Milan that week.
I realize now, of course, that it would not have mattered which approach 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.”
She was visibly horrified by my answer. Then she took a deep breath and asked, “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.
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The train station we were sitting in 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. I tried again to move her off the Jesus track and onto a lighter, more suitable discussion for a brief encounter – the weather for example. And then our train came.
When we got on the train I sat down next to a young Italian woman and Precious sat across from me. She was fully concentrated on her mission and continued her recounting of the horrors that awaited me if I continued down the path that would surely lead to my destruction. She was making me feel very uncomfortable, and as I wracked my brain trying to think of some kind 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 woman 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! I had found a way around the
problem. All I had to do was start another conversation with the Italian woman
about the possibility of real love at first sight. So I did. I was hoping
Precious would join in and we could all have a nice conversation, but she
didn’t. She just sat there, clutched her bible and listened as the woman talked
about her adventure with the handsome French singer.
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While the Italian woman’s talked about her good fortune at meeting the Frenchman and misfortune that it happened her last night in Marrakesh, I was sorry that I couldn’t engage Precious on another subject. I would have liked to have known more 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 kind and caring person, a daughter any mother would be proud to have.
I also understood 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 most Italians seem to love Americans even though in reality few have ever actually met any.
But while I felt bad for Precious, the thought of future conversations that most certainly would center on my impending demise and the penalties I would suffer for my apparent lack of belief, hardened my heart.
And then we got off the train.
We stood for a moment at the bottom of the stairs in the station’s sottopassaggio. As I was turning right to go home and she was turning left to go to a religious service, she said to me, “will you come to my wedding mama?”
For years I had bristled at the African vendors calling me “mama”. “I’m not your mama,” I would often reply to their attempts to get me to buy whatever they were selling. But in that moment, standing there with Precious, 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 of shopping and errands.
It’s not that I don’t know about immigrants. I grew up in a family of immigrants and know their stories by heart. I’ve even lived my own immigrant experience with my decision to move to Italy. But my experiences were a very different from theirs. I had many advantages my family did not have starting with language skills and life skills that helped smooth my path, advantages immigrants like Precious can only dream about.
As for my grandparents’ experiences, there is a big difference between immigrating to a multi-cultural country like the United States that was built on the backs of people 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 and providing work for newly arrived immigrants in the process. There are mostly small family run businesses doing their best to survive the global crisis and any additional competition from quarter, especially non-Italians is suspect.
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As boatloads of refugees/immigrants continue to land on the islands around Sicily the role of Italy’s immigrants still needs to be defined. Those coming ashore see Italy as the land of milk and honey, the Italians rich and prosperous. And compared to the life they left behind, it is true. But the Italians see themselves as barely hanging on, struggling through each day. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
I never saw her again, but I’ve thought about her many times since that first encounter. I do wonder what happened to her and if she’s happy in her new life. I hope that she is. For me it was a missed opportunity to better understand others who are as much a part of this Italian life as I am. But life is like that sometimes, isn’t it.
Photos: Ansa, La Repubblica
Photos: Ansa, La Repubblica