The laundry shop is small , but impeccably clean. There is a flat scree t.v. on the wall, the sound low. Pink, yellow, green and purple laundry baskets are stacked on top of one another. Large stainless steel washers and dryers line the green and yellow walls. A few thick blankets are neatly folded and wrapped in plastic, waiting to be picked up. We wait to speak to Valentin, the owner of the shop, until he is finished folding another blanket. When he is done, he sighs deeply, thrusts his hands in his pockets and agrees to answer our questions. But he is not smiling. He is kind , and soft-spoken, but also, I sense, weary.
Valentin is 39 years old an immigrant from Romania. He arrived in Sicily in 2004, and was an illegal immigrant until Romania joined the EU 2 years later. He was looking for an opportunity as so many Romanians were at the time and was determined to earn his living in any way that he could: washing dishes, making pizza, cleaning, and working as a second chef. He needed to find a legal and legitimate job to be able to stay in Sicily. Though married, he had left his wife , Violetta, and his son, Florian, behind while he established himself.
He was eager to have a business of his own, something that he could dedicate himself to and to be his own boss as to increase the chances of his success. Sviluppo Italia Sicilia , a government agency that works within the regional economic structure in order to increase business to the area through support and development of new business initiatives. Valentin put together his CV, conceived of and designed a project and brought it to the agency where they , amongst other things, analyzed his capacity for management and success. They gave him 50% off the value of his project, which he will have to pay back in 5 years.
Valentin thought that nothing could be better, or , simpler than owning his own business. What he had not thought of was the racism and resentment that he would encounter from the locals. One look at his face and you can tell that the experience has taken its toll. When I asked him if he was happy in Sicily, he took one hand out of a pocket and scratched his chin and sighed deeply. “I am not doing well economically, but I am not giving up,” he said, quietly. “My neighbors don’t want me. I have a lot of debt and I have a family to care for.” This is a tough time to probed deeper, but I have to. I want to know, exactly, what they are denouncing him for. He shrugs. It is not an indifferent shrug, it is a hopeless shrug. “They denounce me for not following local standards, but the truth is , nobody follows these standards,” he says with a grimace. He goes on to count the times the local police have turned up at his sharp—-the locals complain that his detergent smells. He points to the food joint across the street and tells me, with a tinge of bitterness that ‘no one complains about that chimney belching the smell of fried food.’ I look out the window, decorated for the Christmas season, in the direction his finger is pointing. People pass by the large window, indifferent, not knowing that the man inside is not what they think he is.
Perception is a problem for most immigrants. They are often judged not for who they are, but for who people think they are. He knows the stereotype of Romanians is not a good one. “But we are not all the same, don’t they know that?” Tourists, he says, are his best customers as the locals ‘do not want to be involved in a business with a Romanian.” I started to think that perhaps his own perception might have been a bit off. Could people really be treating this dignified, well-spoken man in such a way? As I was scribbling in my notebook, a tall, blonde Italian woman, presumably a local, walked into the shop to inquire whether the parking on the street was paid or not. Valentin barely got a few words out before she held up two gloved hands, mumbled “scusa!” and exited the shop. My friend Ramzi turned to me and said “You have witnessed this with your own eyes. ” It was unbelievable, but true: as soon as the woman heard Valentin speak with Italian , tinged with a Romanian accent, she wanted no parts of it.
I ask Valentin, feeling rather desperate on his behalf, why he just doesn’t leave. It is a stupid question and I realize that as soon as it is out of my mouth. “The project manager said that I can open in another location , but this is not an easy thing to do. I cannot give up the business because I am bound by a 5 year contract. I will have to give the money back if I don’t succeed—and there is an additional penalty.”
Still, I know that Valentin harbors hope. His wife , Violetta, is a house cleaner in Sicily and his son, Florian his happy, healthy and well-integrated in society. He says that they have not experienced the racism that he has and he is thankful.
On one end of the shop is a painted picture of Jesus, a simple, rough sort of painting. Clear across the shop at the other end, is a rather large majestic painting of Christ, bearing the crown of thorns, his hands bound with gold rope. The metaphor is not lost on me. Valentin explains, with pride that, the the large painting was a gift from the Orthodox priest in Siracusa, Sicily, Padre Mikhail , as an inauguration present. It was handmade at the Cathedral in Romania and is a great comfort to Valentin who is a man of faith, but whose faith is tested over and over again.
Valentin needs to bet back to work . He has been patient with my questions. Before we leave, and as I am gathering my notebook and pen, he tells me “I wish that things would change, especially the mentality of the people here. ” I nod and agree with him, because I feel the same, of course. Then he adds, “People should focus on individuals, not their ethnicity. There is a criminal element amongst Romanians, but that exists in all cultures, even Italian Parliament!”
He is right of course. On our way out I glance up at the larger than life painting, a talisman, a protector of sorts . And I feel glad that someone is looking out for Valentin.