I am currently in Sicily. The holiday is a beautiful time to be here. I spend a lot of time in cafe’s and despite this being the land of delicious wine, enriched by volcanic soil, my drink(s) of choice are coffee and lemon soda. In that order. And so, in spending time writing in cafes writing about my meetings with immigrants, I am observing others who I have not had deliberate contact with, but , rest assured, they are in my orbit and I am in theirs.
Yesterday was an interesting, albeit an exhausting day. While I consider this place my second home, I must be quite intentional in my day to day living. So “a way of being” at home, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, does not directly translate here. Interactions are , in my opinion, entirely different. If Sicilians close ranks within themselves, imagine how the immigrant feels. Despite my status as an Italian-American, I am, while I am here, most certainly American. This is incredibly obvious to refugees and immigrants who may sense this better than some of the locals. Possibly it makes me an easy target.
Yesterday, as I waited for my friend Mody for no less than four times at the cafe where we always meet (and I kept missing him) I had a few interesting encounters. Initially , as I was walking to meet him, a Sri Lankan immigrant that I know , literally grabbed me from behind in the dark, then, thinking I would be as pleased as can be to see him, slapped me rather hard on the back (something he would never have dared to do to a native Sicilian) pleased that he scared the life out of me. My anger, pretty much against my true nature ,agitated him (as did my lack of interest) in such a way that I felt unsafe. I ‘ll spare the reader the rest of the details. Suffice it to say, I felt shaky the rest of the night.
Later, walking with a friend of mine and her daughter, we were approached by a young immigrant with her small child. She held out a can. She knew my friend, who she engaged in lively chit chat with while I stood next to them. She really didn’t pay any attention to me at all, but I dipped into my change purse and pulled out a handful—no doubt there were a few one Euro coins in there, too. I noticed an American dime, but my fingers were too cold to pick it out. I dropped the change in her can, and she still didn’t pay attention to me, instead, sending my friend and her daughter off with warm wishes. I didn’t think much of it as we walked on window shopping and checking out the local food fest.
Later, as I parted ways with my friend, and on to make another try at meeting Mody who missed the bus and was now bicycling to see me (I still missed him. It was just too cold), I see the young woman with her child approach me and tell me , kindly, but firmly that my money was “no good.” What she said exactly was “I tuoi soldi non va bene!” I was hungry, shakey, a bit irritated and felt confused at first. “Che?” I asked her. She shook her can and repeated herself, even going so far as saying she had already reported to her friend that the American gave her money that was no good. I reached into my wallet and pulled out some more coins, which she wanted to see in my flat palm before I dropped them into her can. She rewarded me with a rather strong hug for someone who looked quite fragile. She told me she hoped Babbo Natale would bring me everything I wanted for Christmas. As a parting gesture she reached up and kissed me once on each cheek, the Italian way. My irritation dissipated.
Are you already laughing at what you think is my stupidity? Well, I’m not finished yet.
Back once again to the cafe , I vow I will sit for only 5 more minutes. I am approached, due to my annoying habit of making eye contact with nearly everyone, by an African who places a clear jewel box in front of me with jewelry. He actually follows my eyes to what caught my interest and tells me “Venti”—20 Euro. I laugh and say “no”, tilting my head upward and clicking my tongue in a true Calabrese gesture, but , I actually liked the bracelet—surely not entirely silver, but mixed with a cheap nickel. I had 4 Euro in 2 Euro coins in my hand, waiting to order a cappuccino for me and my friend. He asked me how much I had. I opened my hand, doubtful he would accept that for the bracelet and , in fact, he took it right out of my hand and gave me the bracelet. He told me it was my last chance—tomorrow he would be in Catania. True or not, what did it really matter?
The locals would scoff at what they would perceive to be my vulnerability—certainly my extreme American stupidity—but , really, it cost me nothing. In my worst times (and I have had them, aplenty) I have still been better off than those I encountered yesterday. By a long shot.
I am lucky and I know that. I am here in a place I now feel is “home.” I am doing work that I love. I am learning more than I thought I would.
If I see the young woman with the can, I will, no doubt make a contribution to it again. And I won’t think twice about it. And I hope I do see her. I’d like to tell her , Babbo Natale, most definitely was good to me this year. I’d also tell her that I hope, will all sincerity , that he will be good to her, too. And I will mean it from the heart.