Thursday, October 12, 2017

Flu achoo! season
I am a total germaphobe. I admit it. And — with all the guys hustling to make their rent payments and get food and necessities for their families here and back in Africa in all kinds of weather, shaking hands and handing spare change all day — there are always a lot of shivering, snuffly, group members to worry about in the autumn and winter months. For the last two years, we have tried to get everyone the flu shot. Sometimes when they didn’t have doctors, we had to give them the flu vaccines that we bought from the pharmacy ourselves. It is stressful as all get out. This year we had help from a donation to pay for half of them.

But this time we were super discombobulated because we somehow are the only people in town who did not know that our beloved Doctoressa Elvira from the Farmacia Centrale passed away. She always gave us the flu shot in the back of the pharmacy because she knew we were too chicken and incapable of dealing with lines and bureaucracy to get it any other way. We were so shaken, that to pick up the ibuprophen to distribute along with the flu vaccines, we had to stop at four different pharmacies that were not hers. One of them had this vending machine out front:

Please indulge me by zooming in on the bizarre playboy sticker. Of all the places to honor the Hef!



And the condoms. . . I know what the PleasureMax and the XL are for, but I am slightly confused by the ones that say Nature and Retard. Let’s not think about that too hard. Ha!

Marina also made good on her pledge to get the mothers from the Leone XII nursery school to give a bunch of clothing to Peace and Wisdom. Stanley’s wife is so mad that I did not give her money for the down payment of an apartment that she did not accept the clothes I had for Freedom, so I did not even try to buy the vaccine for her; but now, of course, I will worry all winter that she will get the flu. 

Jennifer has decided to take 16-month-old Wisdom to Rome to a doctor that some other Nigerian mothers she knows has gone to for his circumcision. The thought of her having to take him by herself on a bus, convinced me to pay for part of her train ticket. I didn’t break our no cash gift agreement because no cash changed hands, and we just charged it on the computer and sent her the tickets. She has to go to Rome anyway to go to the Nigerian embassy to pick up his passport. 








Our weekend in Rome was also stressful. The lavish American school in Rome is in the middle of nowhere. The train trip was a little more than three hours, if you include waiting for the connection in Florence. The whole experience is made a thousand times worse than it has to be just by the nature of the Italian public transportation system and the fact that the arrival and departure track announcements are made seconds before the train actually leaves the station. Everyone is worried, running, and hectic. We found the only rental apartment in the area of the school where T had to take the SAT test on Booking.com. It was clean but in a cement box in the middle of a gated housing complex with paper thin walls. We didn’t get much sleep. Because dogs. And inexplicable, irridescent heating system light holograms that flashed all night on the bedroom walls. And waking up at dawn. However, I stopped complaining after I met the other parents: one heroic mother who drove from Florence at 2 AM, since some tricky Americans had gotten to the only rental apartment first (yikes!), and one dynamo of a father who took multiple flights from Africa where he works as an engineer. The version of the test was diabolically more difficult than earlier ones this year, and many of the students came out white as paper full of eraser marks from number two pencils. Poveracci! 

We tried to revive our SAT survivor with some very good gelato and a little culture from the new Maxxi museum, the paved surroundings of which are an insane mash of architecture buffs and little mocciosi skate boarders, scooter riders, and remote control car enthusiasts. However, we did have the sweetest taxi driver in the whole city. His name is Dario and in order to prove we were indeed Americans he quizzed us on rock music and told us about his love of the Beetles, who he met backstage at a concert, and the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground. He had a terrilble sense of direction and not the best eye sight, but he was so loveable that it was hard not to feel we were somehow in capable, guitar string callused hands.





Thursday, October 05, 2017

Happy Birthday, Emmanuel!
I have gotten a little better at diplomacy and planning with the group. I decided not to go back to the house in Montecatini that is getting taken back by the bank and just have Emmanuel meet me at Peace's house. It is his birthday tomorrow, but we are going to be in Rome for T's second round of the SAT test. I wanted to make sure he got his coconut cake with a giant E for Emmanuel on it. I also asked him to deliver some baby clothes and toys for Freedom. It is not the deposit on the new house, but it is better than nothing, right? 

Emmanuel also asked me if I had heard from his lawyer because he thinks he is supposed to go in front of the Refugee Commission to hear if he can stay or if he is going to be deported. Hopefully, if his true story gets translated properly, he will have a better chance this time around. I have not heard from the lawyer, but I told him that if he tries to make contact first, I will still help translate his lawyer's instructions for him.

Peace is now mimicking everything everybody says from howreyou? and uncle! to somecake! She not only copies what people say in church on Sundays, but you can see from the video below that she has already learned to dance!

Out of all the toys and dresses that my friend Francesca donated to Peace, the favorite by far was the little Hello Kitty wallet pictured below. Tina loved it, too, and can't wait to go shopping at the supermarket so they can both use their pocketbooks at the real cash register.

Uncle Emmanuel and Peace






Thursday, September 28, 2017

Where we stand
I think it might be time for a recap here. 


It has been seven years since we moved to Lucca.

 T with Peace now.
Us two.
Our daughter T.
T with Peace when she was first born.

T has made it through middle school and has entered her senior year of high school, known as quinta. When we got here, I could only dream that she would be able to stand -- not only next to Italian kids and be interrogated in different subjects, law school style, as they do -- but that she could really put two feet firmly in knowing herself in our adopted home. And she can and does. 

It has been just about two years since we started the "group:" six Nigerian adults, plus two toddlers who we got to know from birth. 

Jennifer and Cool are the parents of two year old Wisdom. Jennifer took a long time to warm up to me, but we got there. She does do things like tell me Cool didn't make any money in Malta, while Cool told F that he made good money in Malta, but that is less of a trust issue and more of the fact that she is a kick-ass business woman who can cook a chicken for 15 people for lunch, while getting a travelling weave expert to do her hair, and launching a secret tailoring and design shop that I only found out about by accident. Their house is filled with mosquitoes and even the bat house we got them didn't work. It also has serious sewer issues and has no working hot water heater, which is going to be a disaster this winter. Cool lives under the shadow of the invitation he made to his three (or more?) brothers to come and find him In Lucca when the begging was lucrative. Now begging is officially illegal and his brothers are barely making it and ask a lot of him.

In fact, Cool's unstable brother Stanley may or may not be in Sweden while he left his wife and infant son Freedom in a Montecatini house for which they never paid rent. Stanley's wife just asked me to help her get 1600 euros for a new house in Borgo Buggiano she found, since the current one is going to be foreclosed when she is evicted at, you guessed it, Christmas. Except she is not in the group, and we are personally out of money to donate to the group anyway.  And it is rough to get anyone to want to donate to them, although for baby Freedom's sake, I hope someone does.

That house has seen a lot of shit go down, though. That is the house where group members Job and Tina lived when Tina was pregnant with their daughter Peace. I met Tina when she was begging in front of the bakery by our house. Job got into the group because he crashed one of the first group meetings, and at that point I didn't know that he was Tina's baby's father. I actually told her I thought he was rude and overly insistent until the day they approached me in an alley, holding hands and pointing at her belly. Anyway, we bargained with the crazy house owners who do not live in Italy and are, luckily, terrible financial managers, and rennovated the house ourselves so that baby Peace would not be surrounded by squalor. Emmanuel still lives there by his own choice, but we helped Job and Tina get a better house in Pescia. 

It is hard to imagine a time when we didn't have Peace and Wisdom in our lives. Yes, Nigerians give their kids names of biblical virtues, but I mean that in every sense of the words. 

Both couples are still unemployed and the men still have to beg. I did eventually find them jobs in restaurants, but they did not take them, after which I gave up a bit. A lot of that had to do with Job's brother Emmanuel, who I did not know was Job's brothers for months after the group was formed. And to think, I started helping these guys because we all spoke English and I thought the fact that they had no official help from any Italian association or charity was all a big mistake.

I came to find out, sadly, that it was not a mistake. Three of the six, if I remember correctly, Tina, Paul, and Job report being offered a five hundred euro bribe by hotel managers put in place by local Italian government who housed them in 2012 when they first got off the boats. They didn't understand back then that by taking the money, they would be relinquishing their ability to help from established charities like the Red Cross and Caritas. Jennifer and Cool were also outside of the official systems for refugees and after they got their permessi they mostly survived on their own terms. At any rate, we found out that even if they had the official welcome and had been followed by charities at the beginning, most African refugees end up in the same situation: unemployed and begging on the streets.

Anyway, Emmanuel really tugged at our hearts because he is a widow and because he can't reunite with his seven year old son Precious due to the fact that he was denied a permesso di soggiorno from the start by the refugee committee. We worked for weeks on end to get him a job, a new house, and a new chance at a permesso, but he got fired from the job after only two weeks because he felt it was too physically difficult for him. To be fair, it is a job that requires 12 to 14 hour shifts at the sink during high season; and while the contract is very useful, the pay is not great.

Last but not least, Paul is also in the group. He had no one here and was the youngest of the guys. He desperately wanted to stop getting hassled by police and to have a real job. He is a hard worker and he now has a job we searched out for him as a dishwasher, an official residence, job contract, and, soon, also health care. 

We were able to help everybody out financially, but that only could last for so long. Our teaching incomes in Italy are very small in respect to what we used to earn, although life here is much cheaper than life in New York, even seven years ago. Now we just do things like translate for them because they have never had Italian language instruction. We used to shuttle them to doctor and lawyer appointments, but they have become a lot more independent. This year we will still have to get them their flu shots so we all don't spend the holidays in the emergency room. I already got someone to donate the money to buy the vaccines. Our main work now is just collecting clothing, book, and toy donations and delivering it to them.
It is not the success story that I wanted for them, but they are still here fighting for a better life. And that is a lot.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Fits and starts
I am sad to report that Gabry's wife Diana is really not feeling well. She is malnourished and her teeth are disintegrating due to a lack of calcium, so that Gabry has to return home to take care of little Paol while she is in the hospital. I have two bags of winter clothing ready for her because she is the same height of T (1.7 meters or 5 ft. 7 in.). Unfortunately, Gabry reports that she weighs only 39 kg (which is like 86 lbs). The whole thing is very sad, and we haven't heard of any job opportunities for him. 





In brighter news, I got to drop off some donations from Marina, a nice woman who is friend of a student of mine who has a daughter just a little bigger than Peace. She told me that she has set up a donation drive at her daughter's school, which is really wonderful. Peace was just waking up from her nap when I got there. She was in a great mood. Also there were some friends of Tina, a woman who does her hair and her daughter. I was surprised to see that Peace was thumping the very well behaved daughter, a lovely 7-year-old who was just playing on her own. Job explained to me that another little girl named Divine like to beat up Peace and so he taught her to defend herself. Unfortunately, now Peace has the wrong idea and thinks it is great fun to thump every big kid she can get her hands on. They will sort it out. 



I also saw Jennifer and Wisdom. Jennifer gave me the awkward task of calling to set up an appointment for Wisdom's circumcision. It is not standard procedure in Italy and is only free of cost if a doctor prescribes it for medical reasons. T is ashamed of me because I found this out by getting one of my students to call the hospital for me during the lesson. I feel okay about it, though, because what took her ten minutes to find out would have taken me five hours. We brought Jennifer a bag of clothing for herself and some toys and books for Wisdom. Come to find out that Wisdom is terrified of new toys. Hopefully, with time, he will come to love the little, batter-operated, biker dude who zooms around his house.

Today was T's first day of her last year in high school. She has been dreading it because she has to ask three professors for letters to support her college applications. Since it is a very unusual request in Italy, she has to request them in a very particular way. The deadlines are coming up, and the recommendations are obligatory. It is rare for professors here to write flattering things about their students or to have to brag about their schools in writing, and then there is also the issue of translating it all into English.

Last week we were invited to my student Mario's from the Very Much class a few years ago for a pizza dinner. As per usual here, he neglected to mention that not just his girlfriend, but his whole family would be there, that there would be a cooking demonstration and that we would be sampling eight kinds of pizza and focacccia that would make Rocky himself go into a carb coma. It was very sweet of them, and they gave us leftovers, which we in turn passed on to a very appreciative Gabry. This Saturday we will have another abbuffata of a feast at a dinner with the girls from the Ischia Vacation at one of T's friends' mothers. F and I will probably have to watch at least three Italian Fiction series just to have enough vocabulary to get through the appetizers. Wish us luck!



Friday, September 08, 2017

Into the Swing
We probably should have sent Gabry to the restaurant instead of Khadim. At the time we thought he was on his way to becoming the best taxi driver in Romania, but then even the mayor of his small town got in on shaking him down for more and more blackmail money for the bureaucratic part of his business. To top it off, some right wing journalist for the newspaper La Nazione put a full on photo of him on the cover to lead a story about street beggars. I wrote the chef, but I got no response.

Actually, I am wrong about the mayor. The mayor is now helping Gabry, but it is some police corporal that he has against him. Anyway, he just told me that his wife, who is as tall as T, only weighs 39 kilo and is in such frail health that he has to go back to care for his son while she goes into the hospital. It is terrible. 

Everybody in the group, aside from Paul, is still unemployed. Cool had no luck in Malta. And Jennifer is really sick of their house, which is still crawling with mosquitoes and has no hot working hot water heater for the winter. On the other hand, they definitely should have took the work offer I found for them at the beginning of the summer. It is till rough to see them and know that their life is so tenuous. They are used to it. That is the crazy thing. I have a lot to learn from them about enjoying all the good moments of life because they really seize them and they laugh, and they don't give up or lose hope.



Saturday, September 02, 2017

Happy First Birthday, Peace!
We brought Peace her first cake and her first tricycle. She is already walking and talking up a storm. She has a mouthful of teeth, and is eating real food. None of us can imagine how we survived in a world without her in it. She has already made everything we know so much better.











Job was out trying to make some money because the weather was nicer than expected, but Uncle Emmanuel was there with us. They loved looking at the photos of New York and the keychains I brought back for them. The tricycle was also a massive hit.










Thursday, August 31, 2017

a wonky international time machine
Our trip to America was not for a vacation, but due to a huge bureaucratic cluster-f$ck against kids with diabetes when it comes for registering to take the SAT exam for college entrance. That said, it was a good time for us to come back and test our footing back on our old stomping grounds. I apologize to all our friends that we didn't call because we didn't call anyone. The actual plane trip and jet lag  went as planned, yet devastated me. It was a good thing we had planned time before the test for T to get her inner clock reset. I just wanted to concentrate on our daughter and keeping her sane and distracted before the exam. It turns out international cuisine, the best museums in the world, and, most of all, some revolutionary book stores are all our girl needs to be happy. It didn't hurt that we got to crash at our friends Thom and Ellen's amazing loft in Williamsburg, where Ellen also has her art studio. 

We had a few days with family that included some prize winning restaurant dining, an epic boggle championship, and some interesting stories from the authors in my family -- my mom and brother. 

Riding the subway in Manhattan and Brooklyn, I saw some really beautiful, moving examples of a sense of community, resistence, and empathy in action. I didn't expect it. And I was happy and proud to see it. I am proud to be a New Yorker, but it is clear that I couldn't be happy living big city life. I would rather be an outsider in Italy than an insider in America. I am grateful because, out of all the flavors of outsider, I like the New York flavor best. When we got on the plane, I could not have predicted how I would feel. I guess given the last seven years of my life, it is a relief.

Highlights of the trip would be the Eclipse at the Met, dinner with the family at Nix, the Strand and its many wonderful political buttons, the fashion gurus at Shishi who dressed us and took all the work out of getting a new wardrobe, Harold at Tip Top shoes -- who salsa danced for us -- and looping the park with my best Ian.
This is what 25 dollar almond butter looks like. I said 25. Dollar.


Television has become a thing that you need a degree to operate. After you figure it out, there is still nothing worth watching except for shows with sound tracks that have 90s R&B like Sex and the City. The commercials are epic and have no connection to the products for sale. I am so lost. Help me make sense of it all, Maria di Filippi, ti prego.


 Yeah, we couldn't believe we got to stay here either.




This is a real cool lady at Whole Foods, the supermarket the size of a football field, also known, due to the prices, as the food museum. We also saw her at the cool salad chain lunch spot, Sweet Green.











Here is the sun eclipsing.







 This little girl was saying, I kid you not, "So when I was a baby, we used to hang out?" And the Uncle guy said, "Yeah, but we hang out now, too, right?" Sooo New York. I died.


 I made T take a trip down memory lane to the tot lot in Prospect Park.


Post-SAT mandatory Van Leeuwen artisan ice cream extravaganza!



T got a celebratory second ear piercing. We felt very cool of ourselves, but F said I probably should not have bought her a doll named Scorpio Vixen for her when she was young. 



Full circle to Chelsea Market where it all began.