Sunday, July 31, 2016

Werk! day 2
It really could not have gone any better getting Tina and Job's house prepped for painting day tomorrow. We all tapped on the walls until the loose plaster rained down on us. I actually did very little of the mildew and mould removal in the bathroom because Paul took over for me when he got there, saying this is not work for you. I did not resist because my shoes were slippery and I was standing on a bidet; I am a short human, and I am 46. 

How much pleasure did it give me to hear the Nigerians hum along to the soundtrack of Hamilton? Too much, probably. We brought little speakers for my phone. They also really loved the songs I had by LunchMoney Lewis, Bills and also I Love Me. When Emmanuel sang along to the Schuyler Sisters, singing werk, werk and giving me a thumbs up, I about lost it. 

Derwood thanked us, but he was the only one not to help. Young Joshua got frustrated easily, but F showed him how to prep the walls with the scotch tape and he liked doing that. 

Anyway, this is how it went:

That brown stuff is all mould and mildew. They have been showering in that for three years.

Scream 4, the sequel

Time for a close-up!

A scene from psycho. See the yellow ceiling?

Getting Plastered!

Tina at werk

Emmanuel getting it done.

Paul came to help out.

Weirdest phone call ever
So last night I Skyped the landlord's of the African refugee house in Montecatini. It turns out that the Albanian wife and the Italian husband live in Switzerland with their two kids. Although Tina said she can speak some English, we only spoke in Italian. Her father is here in Tuscany, and he is the one who got the water turned on when he saw that Tina was pregnant. They could not have been nicer. Tina and Job had led me to believe that the husband might not approve of the deal, but it was not the case. They are thrilled for us to fix up the the residence and are happy to help Tina get her residency. The catch is that if their physical presence is necessary to make that happen, they won't be back in Italy for several months.

 Nevertheless, I downloaded letter of hospitality forms from the internet and filled out Tina's part of the information late last night, and they said they would complete the forms and send them back to her midweek. I suspect they keep the house for tax purposes and were never too invested in how much rent money they earned from it. My impression was that they are sympathetic to the whole immigration situation because of her Albanian background and that they are happy to help in any way they can. As for today, we are hoping that everyone has slept off their morning hangovers from Stanli's wedding ceremony last night, and will be ready to get to plastering the walls after their Sunday church service. I hope there won't be too much chaos and people will agree about who is doing what and how. It is important we get everything clean, plastered, and taped up so we can just get the painting done tomorrow. There are these nasty wall to wall carpets that have so much dusty filth in them. We have to pull those up and get down to the floor underneath. Luckily the house is old and stone, so the plaster isn't rotting through or harboring too much insect life.  

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Sit down  
You may seriously want to sit down for this one. We bought Mr. Clean sponges, roach traps, tarps, mould remover, cleanser, masks, gloves, paper towels, all of the cleaning supplies you could possibly imagine and set off for Tina and Job's house in Montecatini. 

Things got a little dicey when I called for a meeting of the residents of the house. What I didn't understand was how little they could understand my English. I spoke too fast, but I believe that they understood every word. For a New Yorker, I was actually speaking very slowly, I swear. Anyway, I thought I was outstanding. DNC level smackdown with balloons and standing ovations, drop the mic kind of outstanding. I overestimated. After the meeting, Job's "brother" who is not a blood relation, but just a guy named Derwood from his same village, refused to give me the number of the landlord. In my speech in which I said that we did not want anything in return for fixing their entire house except the knowlege that Tina's baby would come home to a clean safe place, I used the word contract instead of letter of hospitality and this freaked him out. I don't know exactly why. 

In my speech I also demonstrated the efficacy of the Mr. Clean sponges:

I love me some Mr. Clean sponges!

We will need to redo the plaster, as well.

I told them that I really wanted them to consider my suggestion of having guests pay for the privilege of staying there and to start paying a little rent each week so they don't end up always owing months of back rent at a time. I asked them to consider that with a new baby in the house, the lack of electricity or water could be potentially deadly and that would be on their heads. 

What I didn't know is that the Italian landlord and his Albanese wife are these lovely people who let dozens of African refugees use their address and ask only 450 euros a month in total for a three bedroom house. I didn't know that Tina is the only woman in a house of six men who expect her to do all of the cleaning and cooking even though she is nine months pregnant. I also didn't know that she had to spend her own money on most things because the men would often not chip in and not agree to pay the rent on time. 

Job and the gang were going to Stanli's Nigerian wedding ceremony, which while not legal here, is traditional and they did not want us to clean without them so they insisted they come back tomorrow when they will get a team of people from their church to help us. 

F went up and talked man to man with Derwood and explained in his super slow L.A. kind of way that we had only good intentions and he got the man, who Tina had said was wicked for no good reason, to release all the numbers, skype info, and email. I wrote to him and he made an appointment with me via a text filled with smiley faces. Hopefully he will get Tina the hospitality letter she needs to get residency and a permanent health card and it will be a trust and hope building exercise, albeit an expensive one, for everybody.  

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Hurdles
Watch her break the world record!

Five hours and 150 euro later (170 if you count the 20 euro we will spend on additional fanny packs for the other men in the group) we managed to do the following things:

in primis, F made two loaves of his wonderful sourdough bread for Manuela, our wonderful lawyer. Because. It feels wrong not to pay a lawyer that talented something exhorbitant. We are from New York, after all.

We met Paul and drove to Montecatini to pick up Cool at the post office where he had gotten his stay permit kit.

We found Manuela's office. 

We provided her with passports, back up documents which we have scanned for our group and their respective family members, and we were not missing even one document. Insert pat on back here.

This is my face when stressed; F said I bit my lips off.

Manuela completed two "kits;" the application for the stay permit seemed to be challenging even for her so you can only imagine if a mere foreign mortal wanted to try to complete it without the help of an expert. She thanked us for the bread. She warned me not to let the article in which I criticized the police's practice of emptying the pockets of immigrants when they are suspected or caught begging for money, regardless of whether or not they are pleasant and not aggressive when doing so, and regardless of the fact that people in my group's category have no other possible way to survive. She told me I could face charges myself in doing so. I called Nadia and sent a message asking her to desist. Then I made copies of those texts, just in case. 

From there we drove the guys to the police station where Cool needed to report his wallet stolen before he could request a new one. We waited for half an hour and then we sat in front of police officer who helped us to print out the form. He was kind to us, but I would never want to see him angry.

The GPS was telling me how to get to the police station as I helped F navigate. Cool got anxious and started talking over the directions, insisting her knew the way. He knew the way, but he made us stop five blocks too soon. While F parked the car, I ran after Cool and Paul lagged behind me. We were under the impression that the police station was going to close within ten minutes. They weren't. I was wearing slip on shoes and I had to tense my muscles to keep them on and keep up with him. When I got home I had a huge swelling on my tendon from the stress. Ice, elevate, stress, repeat. I knew the GPS was right, but I felt it was important for Cool to have me listen to him and to be in control of his situation at that moment so I let him lead. I would probably do it again, if I'm honest.

Next we went to the tobacco store to make xeroxes of the documents we needed for the post office. 

Then we went to the post office. The coded tickets have a corresponding computerized message board to guide you to the right window. It is confusing because ticket number 030 can have a euro sign in front of it, but it can also have an envelope symbol in front of it, or the symbol of an arrow and you have to know only to approach the window when the number with the right symbol flashes momentarily on the message board. We finally got our turns and our agents told both Cool and me and Paul and F we had to return back to the tobacco store and back to the police station because they didn't know how much to charge us and because we needed to buy a kind of postage stamp called the Marca da bollo for 16 euros a piece. 

scratch and win!

Then I called both lawyers to get clarity on the price of the fee. Even though they said we shouldn't have to pay to replace stolen stay permits, the post office seemed to diagree so we ended up choosing to pay the lowest choice option just in case. We went back to the tobacco store and we bought the guys some water because I didn't know how long they had gone without.

don't sue us today

We returned to the post office and got the applications completed and appointments for both men to have their finger prints taken again in September. Then we took pictures of their receipts in case they get stopped by police in the meanwhile. 

please, lady . .

Then Stanli, Cool's brother was begging/working in front of our house and so we made a copy of his new permesso that we helped him get in case he gets in more trouble. Up and down five flights of stairs, F looked hangry at us. Then he had lunch and he was sweet again. 

Then I spoke to Tina and she said she would be sending me the number of her landlord to negotiate with. She hasn't so I have never been able to relax. Nadia is saying she wants to help us "paint," which is great if she doesn't turn it into a photo shoot. 

I gave Cool and earful in the car because he never told me his permesso was missing because he was worried about my reaction. If I hadn't had a voice tell me to call him, we would have had to do all this on two separate days, which would have been hell. I told him that he had to trust me to help him at the time when the problem is happening because otherwise it just makes it harder. When we said goodbye Cool called me his angel and then I gave Paul a kiss on his ear and I told him, "Listen son of mine, be good." And he was happy. Finally. 

But I would be lying if I said this was easy. 

When it rains, it pours

Things have been pretty calm for us personally, minus some serious hot flashes on my part, since we came back from our vacation. Not so much so for the group of Nigerians we are trying to help.

As I wrote last time, Paul lost his wallet when he was biking home one night. He was distraught because some people came and shut down the restaurant for some technical violations. He didn't know what was going on so he thought he was losing his job after only one month. Meanwhile, he has never been paid, but that is common in Italy for workers. It takes months to get paid sometimes. Now it seems that he is back at work. Anyway, for us it meant begging another appointment with the lawyer because now lost stay permits can't be replaced through the police station. They require that a whole new application gets filled out, and sometimes that is too difficult for mere mortals. For us it also meant accompanying Paul to the police station to report the wallet missing and to the tax office to get him a new codice fiscale for tax reasons and to the bank to get him a new bank card. Paul is now the proud owner of a brand new fanny pack!

Then I had the idea that since we are running out of time before Tina has her baby, we should just repair their current place of residence. Come to find out that they want me to negotiate with their landlord. While it is true that they were without running water for one month, they had not paid their rent for four months before that. Five months if you count this month. Despite, all of the money that I have given them. I don't know if they use it for food now that they can't beg without having problems from the police. Just today a friend of Job's had his pockets emptied and received a fine for public begging. Luckily, it was not him. I could not take anymore today. Just as business hours were ending, I found out from Tina, who I called, that Cool had his wallet and permesso stolen. It is too late for me to advise the lawyer or for him to get to the post office to request the new application. Tomorrow we will be late to the appointment and we will have to hope and pray on the lawyer's mercy. We are bringing her homemade bread.

I put out a plea on FB for people to help us clean and paint Job and Tina's house.

Corny internet stock photo alert! Not, I repeat, not us!

They want us to convince the landlord to put Tina's name on the housing contract so that she can be eligible for health care and a doctor for her baby. I have photos that prove the landlord is negligent, but I hope to woo him with the free manual labor. You get more flies with honey, but I hate flies. I could go to the police with the photos of the current conditions if it weren't for the fact that we need to avoid eviction at the moment, not just for our group members, but for the others in the house, as well.

Emmanuel called me because he misses his son in Nigeria and he needed a pep talk.

Jennifer called me, not because Cool lost his document, but because she got her and baby Wisdom's stay permits for the next two years. She called for congratulations. Which was weird timing, but we will take good news where we can get it at this point, I suppose.

In unNigerian related news, T is loving Harvard's summer program, but they are working her to the point where she hardly sleeps and has to schedule meals on her phone calendar. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The learning curve  
If you're like us, when you get home from a trip you like to take a hot shower. Well, scordatevelo/forgeddaboudit because of course we could not get the red panic button the machine to restart the hot water heater. The next morning, I realized that there was a puddle underneath the machine and that the successful calls I made to get my nervous nelly plumber and the technicians to come were for nothing.  I always call our first plumber from Corte Campana, but now that I really look at it objectively, I have to admit that the only reason I call him is that he has a really cute rear end. He has never really done anything magnificent that involved plumbing or tools. He just looks good as he is leaving with a pocket full of my euro. Anyway, we had to have that dreaded conversation with our landlords, who told us on the first day that they hate fat people, to ask them for assistance. This was made even worse by the fact that anyone who openly tells you that they hate fat people is an ass hat and also because it turned out they were on some luxury vacation cruise at the time. For T's sake, since she loves our apartment and we need to stay in Lucca until she graduates high school, I really was super courteous about the whole thing and apologized to them instead of the other way around. They sent their trusted plumber who is in retirement and is sort of reluctant to do any actual work. He didn't come several times when he said he was going to. Even on the morning he said he was on his way over, we called to find out two hours later that he was on line at the supermarket and couldn't be bothered. It turned out they had to bring his granddaughter to the doctor because she woke up screaming from a nightmare and they didn't know why. We had to beg him to come, promising to find someone else to help F bring the new boiler up all our stairs. When the new boiler arrived it was a new model and it needed all new pipes so in the end it took nine long days, two trips to the hair parlour, and the joke is that no one will agree to take the old, heavy, rusted boiler away.

The thing that was a bummer about spending a bunch of vacation days babysitting a boiler to make sure it didn't explode and cause damage to the whole building was that I have been dying to go to Parma to see if our research was on point and that Parma would really be a good place for us to live in two years time. Today was the day. Just steps from entering our car, we got a call from Paul. He lost his wallet. Or maybe he was pickpocketed. But most likely it fell out of his pocket when he was on his bike last night. It had the permesso/stay permit we worked so hard to get him in it and the codice fiscale that we took him to get in Guamo and the new bank card that F just went with him to get two days ago! At first we just told him to go to the police station to report it himself, but when he asked us to go with him in that voice of his I ended up telling F to turn the car around. It was a good idea that I did, too, because there was a lot of cajoling in Italian involved. Both of the agents we dealt with were really nice to us and it helped a lot that we had kept a copy of Paul's documents so it was easier to report and find him in their computer system. I am not looking forward letting the lawyers know we need their help yet again. 

It was particularly sad that Paul's wallet went missing because we had just been able to give a generous donation to everyone in our group that my mother had managed to get through her ties to a generous soul in Norway who wanted to help their cause. Luckily the bulk of Paul's share was deposited into his bank account before he lost his wallet.  It was nice to be able to give something to Tina and Job, even though the apartment situation is a no go. At least F was able to bring her a really expensive stroller set and crib from this nice Dutch lady who was spending the week in Lucca and wanted to do something nice. 

Finally, we got to Parma and it was all that we hoped it would be. It would have been an even better choice for us in every way except for the fact that T's high school is so good here. I didn't realize when we picked Lucca that it had changed a lot from our first vacation here in 2004 until our move in date in 2010. There was a huge financial crisis, of course, but the upshot is that Lucca has become a major tourist destination and the inner city has become unliveable so all the locals are moving outside the walls. There are so many events that attract tens of thousands of visitors and that means noise and chaos in a place that doesn't mind tourist money, but has a decidedly negative attitute towards immigrants no matter where you are from. Parma is much less touristy and there are two largely residential areas that are so tranquil and lovely, yet only a ten minutes walk from great wide avenues that are lively and filled with great shopping and restaurants and theaters. It doesn't hurt that it is foodie heavan and that the University is there. The summers will be a bit hotter and the winters a bit colder so we will go back a bunch of times throughout the year to make sure we really know what we are getting into. I did feel I was falling in love when I spontaneously started crying upon entering the duomo. No offense, but their duomo makes our duomo look like Grand Central. 

so spacious, and quiet, and anonymous. yaaassss!

Did I tell you that when we had drinks with our friends Barbara and Alessandro who are Lucchese they told us that a bunch of Italians think that the refugee situation is temporary and so they don't have to come up with any long term solutions? They know better, but they say it will take years for people to realize the advantages of helping immigrants to integrate here and that it will also take years for Lucca to realize that renting out their whole city by the week to tourists is going to be a big headache and not worth it in the end. She also told me to be careful because if I accompany Tina to the hospital when it is time for her to give birth, I may end up paying tens of thousands of euros for her care since she does not have a health card. She advised me to say that I don't know her personally and that I found her on the street in need of help. Good to know, good to know. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

F*oreign You
So I have to admit to being a little annoyed that after all the work I did to get people to offer Tina and Job a place to stay rent free with part-time jobs included, I ended up being the one to apologize for disappointing them. I hate having any tension with people in my group so I just explained to Tina that sometimes I feel like she thinks everything comes easily to us, and that it doesn't take dozens of hours and repeated attempts and many awkward conversations to line up every opportunity for them. I asked if she thought I was angry with her. What could she say? She said no. I said she was right, but I was frustrated because I thought she should at least consider staying in the place we found them that was rent free, Grey Gardens or not, for two months to get medical care and save money while we looked for a better place, but she just grunted about my emotional display and flat out refused the offer on the table. She feels it is too far away from her friends and too isolated of a location. Well, listening to me talk made me feel better so I guess the air is cleared. I figure I understand 65% of what she says so the percentage is probably equivalent on her end. I was also pretty amazed, if not incredulous that F's student managed to get us a real estate agent who had a perfect apartment for them and was willing to work with us. Unfortunately, not one of us was surprised when the whole deal fell apart. 

Tina daydreaming about having a really nice apartment.

The real estate agent, Valentina, is a friend of F's student Gabriella, who also is an architect who also rents out a room by the week in the city. F assumed and he witnessed them talking about the fact that the apartment was for our Nigerian friends and that it was hard to find apartment contracts for foreigners, that is people from Africa, Pakistan, China, and other primarily non-English speaking countries. Valentina told me today that she would not have wasted anyone's time if she had known that the apartment was for Nigerian people because these home owners would never approve them. Today we got an email from Valentina saying that the apartment owners did not want to rent to Africans because they were worried they would fill the apartment with family members or friends who needed a place to stay. She also said it was a disadvantage that Tina is pregnant because Italian homeowners fear they will not be able to throw a mother and newborn out on the street if the rent goes unpaid at some point in the future. I begged her to consider that they had gotten a raw deal and had done the best anyone could be expected to do under the circumstances. I offered to sign a sworn statement that I would personally guarantee as to the number of people who could sleep in the apartment at any given time. I begged, I cajoled, I pleaded. In the end, she said she would talk to the owners, but that if she were me she would not hold much hope. 

It was awful to have to tell Tina, yet again, that another possible home fell through because people had realized she was Black. I mean that is the long and the short of it. The baby is due in exactly a month. I encouraged her to use the network of Nigerians at her church to spread the word that we had money to pay a comission to anyone who can help them get a rental contract, without which they will not be able to get health care outside of the emergency room or a regular doctor visits for the baby. 

I also feel a bit badly because until the work comes through it is true that the proof of employment that they have to offer potential apartment owners is that of friends of theirs. In other words, we are all, out of desperation, not being entirely acting on the up and up. We can't be sure the agricultural job we are hoping to get them will come through in August, althought it would sure solve a lot of problems if it did. 

Meanwhile, we still don't have hot water at our own place because the whole boiler has to be replaced. It rusted through less than a year after it was bought in what was theoretically a new and unused condition. We had to figure out how to turn off the hot water and empty the tank so as not to cause damage from a flood to the entire palazzo.. Ironically, I had to call and apologize (doing lots of apologizing lately) to our current landlord for disturbing him on his vacation cruise because he bought boiler that crapped out after less than a bear; and it turns out he has to have his plumber buy our new boiler from our old landlord who we know is horrible cheapskate. 

Here. Enjoy my friend Patrizia's kitten: 
At least Patrizia, who is not a foreigner here, finally got her housing issues resolved!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Grey Gardens  
I put a desperate plea on FB to try to get Tina and Job a new house with running water before their baby comes. No one wants to rent to Nigerians even if they do have stay permits because they don't believe they will pay the rent because RACISM. So I was thrilled when this Finnish activist named Anna who is married to an Italian who seems to have no problem with the fact that she is vocal about her hatred for Italians and the city of Lucca and is a massive fan of conspiratory theories and the F bomb. She told me that she found our friends a house in Florence through her friend Benedetta and that they could have jobs and stay at her villa rent free. This seemed too good to be true so I called Benedetta who confirmed that her American husband is often away on business and that she would love to house a reliable immigrant couple who could serve as a caretaker for her mother and who could help with the gardening and other chores. She said she would not only offer then the place rent free, but she could pay them to do the part-time work. I ran around the house screaming with joy. 

I didn't sleep the whole night and counted down the hours. I just couldn't wait until we could pick up Tina and Job and show them their new house. I was so excited that we got there early and had to wait outside the front gate. When we walked in we found a total Grey Gardens type situation that was so sad that even Nigerian refugees didn't want it. We were so depressed that we didn't take any photos to speak of, but then I looked up Grey Gardens on Google. I promise you that this is an accurate representation of what we saw. 

Tina started swinging her neck and clucking and complaining away in Nigerian to Job who, smart man that he is, knew he could never argue her into staying there even for one night. The kitchen was filthy. The old lady was really sweet, but also a real chatterbox. The bedroom was depressing and filled with hoarder like crap, and the bathroom was flooded with three inches of water on the floor. Benedetta's mother recounted how she had been robbed by a gang of Eastern Europeans who were very polite, but still. . . And now she doesn't feel safe spending the night alone in her house so she hoped that they would come live with her. This was not a great selling point, as you could well imagine. Then Anna showed up with a young couple who had taken her to the beach. She seemed afraid, for an f bomb dropper, because even she knew what a load of crap she had sold me about it being luxurious. She had told me that we would show all the snobs and racists by having the refugees live in a better house than any of us even live in. She exaggerated. Greatly. 

Tina and Job, waiting outside the gate because we were early.

Then we met Benedetta's husband who seemed to be suffering from clinical depression and contradicted everything his wife said about having money to pay for gardening and elder care work. F did not say two words so I had to pick up on everyone's nonverbal clues. I tried to get them a hospitality letter or work when I realized that Tina would never live there. I think considering it was rent free, Tina and Job could have found a way to fix up the joint, but they were really taken back by how far in the hills it was and the fact that the bus only ran once and hour, if that, to get you back to civilization/ Montecatini. 

I am exhausted, disappointed, and kind of pissed off at no one and every one in particular. And also I now feel kind of down on Drew Barrymore for no real reason. Merda, merda, merda.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Erice and me
Even though our hosts kind of blew us off after the whole bone in the throat fiasco at their football party and then told us we had to leave like twelve hours before our flight, it all worked out. We decided to drive to Erice, where my friend Giusy told us that the best bakery in Sicily is located. And she was totally right! We even got a peek at the owner and namesake Maria Grammatico! The pastries are just magical. The whole city is very romantic. There are very windy, slippery stone streets and all of these secret doorways that leady to ivy covered courtyards. The sunlight was just loving on all of the white stone buildings that make up the old city on the top of the hill, and then you turn the corner and it all gives way to this incredible panorama of the castles in the hills and the sea in the distance. 

Worth the climb! Order the Genovesi and the chocolate rum marzipan bon bon guys.

The chance to the miniature version of the city and meet one of the artisans who created it was worth every penny of the four euro entrance fee. In reality, that was a crazy bargain. I have a dollhouse fetish and this mechanical version which was made of wax and ceramics really captivated us. 

We had a picnic on the shady steps and enjoyed a cool breeze for a change. The drive up is filled with hairpin turns. Theoretically it is a two way road, but when another car comes whipping down the hills at you, it is pretty scary. But worth it, since we are home safe and sound. 

I got you a present, T!

We spent like a million hours at the airport and we met a super nice family from Barga. The fifteen year old girl must have thought I was kind of oversharing, but I teared up meeting her because I miss T so much. 

Of course the caldaia/hot water heater was not working when we came home to the 9000 degree apartment due to what we assume were many a power outage due to the heat wave in Tuscany, but we resuscitated it and turned on all the fans. 

At the airport, I managed to help Tina salvage her doctor's appointment at Punto Donna. She told me the white women who came late to their appointments were not turned away, but she was. I called and pretended to be an important outreach worker who needed to know she would be seen before I caught my important flight. I think it worked. Then I had to let Emmanuel know that yes, his letter did get to his lawyer in time so the new appeal can be processed. And, lastly, I got this activist lady on FB to say that she thinks she can get Tina and Job a free villa in Florence, if he is willing to help with the gardening. I'll believe it when I see it, but we have three other leads on apartments for them so there will be a lot of hot car yoga in my future as we schlep around trying to get them housing. Their landlord finally did say he would send someone to fix the broken motor in their water pump. But I will also only believe that when I see it. Lord am I jaded after everything.