Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Santa Success Story
From last year at the Red Cross to this year at a group home, Moro has been a constant source of positivity. He was the one who helped us distribute winter scarves that the children had made to the refugees in the tents, even though he himself had been newly transferred to a group home. All of the coats were too big for him, but he helped us to keep people from squabbling over the stuff we had to offer because, unfortunately, we did not have the right sizes or enough coats for everyone that night. We got him started studying Italian from my same first Italian book, and now he is taking part in a pastry course as part of his job training. It has not been easy for him by any means. Some months back we had the sad news that his infant child had died back in The Gambia. Nevertheless, he keeps fighting for a better life and is clearly someone whose success will touch a lot of lives. He is very short in stature, so it was amazing that Geraldine had given us a whole rainbow of different colored shirts and sweaters that were just his size and a beautiful red winter jacket! Courtney gave us three giant bags of groceries and toiletries that were very much appreciated by everyone in his house. 

 That was last year. This is now:

Santa time
The brownies were too crumbly to cut into shapes. We opted for holiday light themed cupcakes. It seemed simple enough, if you don’t mind separating out a dozen bags of M & Ms into their separate colors and unwinding licorice twists into single strands. And I don’t. The first batches went out without a hitch. The next day went to bring them to Jennifer and Wisdom and Tina and Peace, but I didn’t notice that the rainbow colors had melted right off the M & Ms leaving little naked chocolate blobs everywhere. It was too late for some, but before the second shift of deliveries, F and I replaced every single M & M and went out into the cold night. We visited Paul, did a drop off for Emmanuel, and drove out to Porcari to visit Patrizia. Luckily, we also had donated clothing for everybody in the group, so we came out with a full sleigh.

I was so tired at the last stop that when I got out of the car I neglected to notice a potted cactus in front of a beauty salon. I brushed up against it. Twenty minutes later, as I was sipping tea with Patrizia, I brushed my hand down the side of my stockinged leg and had the sensation that I had forgot to shave my legs. But then I remembered that I haven’t had any hair on my legs for over ten years, and that is when I realized I was full of dozens and dozens of prickly cactus thorns.

I am sorry to have sad things to report. It was not easy bringing Christmas to Jennifer and Wisdom. Their once lovely house is in shambles. We couldn’t even go in the usual back entrance because it was boarded up. There are at least eight people living there in the dark. They owe a thousand euros for electricity. Cool is in Denmark where he has been unloading trucks each night to earn money. Jennifer told us he never got paid and is now stuck there waiting for back pay. Wisdom had the flu all week and looked miserable. He didn’t seem to recognize us and has full on stranger anxiety. Luckily, a friend had donated some money to the families that I could pass on to them because they were out of groceries. It was truly awful. If anyone can help them out, please let me know. Emmanuel is also begging for rent money. If he doesn’t collect enough, it is possible that the owners of his house will finally evict everyone. I am so upset that they didn’t opt for the jobs I had found them. I don’t see how they would not be better off.

Today we are going to Viareggio where I hope to see Courtney, who has food to donate for our last stop, and then a visit to Emmanuel’s ex landlady who seemed a little lonely, and, lastly to Moro, the guy who helped us visit the Red Cross Tents last year and who now lives at a group home outside the city walls. Here is the good part:

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

vague on purpose

I went to a dinner the other night where one of the guests delighted me by proposing a completely renegade solution to the Italian requirement that refugees possess a passport from the country from which they escaped. I can’t share it with you in detail since I certainly do not want to implicate any of us good folks. Unfortunately, upon further investigation, my nefarious plan to get a new Nigerian passport is not going to work because word on the street is that their consulate is even more corrupt than I am. I guess Gabriella won’t have to get the oranges with the jail cell keys in them ready after all. (Just kidding, official people reading this.)

Today F and I filled out a sample kit of the application for renewal and sent it to the judge to have the lawyer look at it. We will plan to go for step one of the renewal process right after New Year’s: the dreaded Ufficio Postale. 

Meanwhile, both of our families are getting inflated electric bills. I suspect it is because of their foreign names on the statements. One family owes more than 900 euros in utility bills and the other is also heavily in debt. I could scarcely get them to focus on the legal issues because I happen to call them while they were making a desperate attempt to get the Enel, the electric company to send out a technico to check the actual meters.

T has tests all week long.

The stress is real. 
Enjoy some of our tree ornaments:

Friday, December 08, 2017

Lots of Good Wishes
I met with a new lawyer yesterday to try to resolve the Nigerian passport dilemma. My student, who is the mom of a boy in T’s class, a law professor, and a judge, was kind enough to take me to Pisa with her where she teaches at the University. Her assistant, a very polite and kind law professor named Niccolò then took me to meet this colleague of theirs who specializes in international law. I started out by asking Niccolò if the lawyer would have the obligations of a privileged relationship even though the woman in question is not his client yet. He assured me that in Italy, the privileged relationship begins from the time you walk in the door. I then felt I could freely share the whole story about how this woman had to change her name on the passport or risk being raped, and how her ability to renew her stay permit in Italy was now uncertain.

Unfortunately, the lawyer confirmed my fears. It is a practice, although not a law, that the Italian titolo di viaggio which serves as a passport for people seeking asylum who cannot get one from their countries of origin is usually only renewed three times. I don’t know why. He thought that eventually she would have to risk going back to Nigeria to get a new passport just to fulfill a bureaucratic need, even though it could have dire results for her and there are no guarantees that the embassy will even give her a new passport. It is likely they will ask for an insane amount of money to do it, if at all. He will be letting me know, hopefully within the week, if she can even renew the permesso this time around before the expiration date on her valid documents, and what if anything she can try to do in the future. It is a dismal, confusing, and unjust situation.

After the meeting, there was this nice moment where these African students were at the blackboard in the classroom where I was waiting for Brunella, solving a really complicated chart filled with mathematical equations. They were speaking what sounded like French and one of them was guiding the other in filling in the answers. Eventually a girl showed up that was friends with them and started laughing about the hard time the one guy was having deciding where in the chart to put the solutions. I got a flash of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as Africans at Pisa University and it made me smile and feel hopeful for everybody. I mean, hopefully they will turn out better than that, but you know what I mean.

On a happier note, we celebrated Paul’s birthday today. He is 27 and still working the job we found for him as a dishwasher. He works long hours and does not get paid on time or in full, but he uses the money he does get to pay his mother’s annual rent in Nigeria. He let us know that two of his mother’s children, I think they may be half siblings of his, stole that money to come here and got here right before they started blocking refugees in Libya. The male has tuberculosis and is receiving medical treatment here. The female is also at a camp in the South of Italy. He is angry that they stole the rent money from his mother and did not listen to his pleas not to come here, but he is happy that they are even alive. His birthday wish was incredibly beautiful. You can listen for yourself, but get some tissues ready. If you can’t understand his accent, the gist is that he hopes to be able to help others this year.

We also invited this woman Donna who had been helping him out behind the scenes since last May. She is a fast talker, so I think she understood him better than he understood her; but it was nice for them to finally meet in person on this really uplifting occasion.

I feel stressed, but grateful that we’re all here. My wish is that everyone in my group gets to stay here legally and goes on to live long and happy lives. It is going to be a real nail biter at the post office and the police station in January, so stay tuned.

Plus also, Gabri is back outside the ortofrutta and things seem to be going okay for him now. Diana, his wife, has gained back some of the weight she lost; and he seems to have gotten official permission to drive a taxi within a certain zone around where he lives (as long as he paints his car taxicab-yellow.)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Just to say ..
I have talked to one refugee help organization and legal expert after another, and no one can give me an answer as to how to help the woman who had to falsify her Nigerian passport to avoid danger to her person and to get to the boat/raft that she came over to Italy on in 2012. The law says that she needs a valid passport from her home country from which she was escaping, otherwise she cannot renew her stay permit. This means after five years of residency here, she would lose all legitimacy and will be in danger of being arrested and possibly deported or being deprived of the ability to integrate, rent an apartment, or hold a job in Italy. Things are very bad in Libya right now, according to my friend Gabriella’s contacts at the U.N. They told her that this is not the time to try to get help from the Italian government because they are working to keep Africans from leaving Libya for Italy at all costs, and the conditions in Libya are horrific.

Am I alone in thinking that this is madness? If a person risks their life to escape a country, how can it be legal to make them have to return to face even more danger just to get a passport number for a bureaucratic form that needs to be filed at the police station?

My last call to OIM, Organizzazione Internazionale per le Migrazioni, led to the same conclusion; but the person I spoke to said she would try to refer me to an international lawyer.

Maybe the message that the woman received at the police station which was that you can only renew the Italian titolo di viaggio three times is false. Sometimes refugees are spoken to in a very dismissive way at the police station, and sometimes they are given discouraging messages to keep them from renewing their documents. If the titolo di viaggio is equal to a passport and if she applies for a new one in time, thus sliding under the radar a little bit, maybe she can be lucky and safe.

Plot twist: The Caritas lawyers who used to help us and had promised to send us copies of the kits that they filled out for permesso renewals in the past threw out the papers somehow. So as to not leave us in the lurch, they have kindly offered to help us again this year. I took advantage of this email chain to ask them what they know about the titolo di viaggio situation, but I am not holding my breath. I guess I have a guardian angel. Gabriella asked if she should prepare the Italian arance/oranges with a key in them to break me out of prison, which is where she is sure I am going to end up. I also asked for help from my student who is a law professor and a judge. She is trying to get me a contact who specializes in international law. I feel like if this situation got settled, I could sleep well for the first time in two years.

Emmanuel just called to see how I was. Sweet! As I tried to explain to Gabriella, no one is taking advantage of me because I love my group not because they are my group, but because of who they are as people.

Then Emmanuel called me three more times, after he called his lawyer ten times, in a total panic, wanting to present himself to the police to inquire about his case - which is a really bad idea. No news is good news for him right now. So I called Tina and Job and asked them to invite him to dinner and get his head straight. Last time he was in this mood, he left all his documents on the train. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

una Rompipalle di primo ordine
I am a first class ball breaker, and I know it.

But I woke up this morning with a feeling of dread in my chest. We never did resolve what to do about the fact that one of our refugee friends had to use a false name on her Nigerian passport to cross the desert during the war in Libya, making it look like she was married to a man she hardly knew so that she would not get raped like so many other single women who crossed before her. 

The law in Italy requires refugees to have a non expired passport from their home country to renew their stay permits here. The Nigerian Consulate in Rome won’t let her renew because the name is not correct and it shows up in their computer system. There is a way to start all over again with the passport, but only if you pay a lot of money in person to the Consulate in Nigeria. The only way to get back there would be to take a bus across the border from a neighboring country. When one of our group members returned to Nigeria for a few weeks to care for a dying relative, he came back with parasites and all kinds of intestinal distress and had to go into the hospital here to cure himself with antibiotics. Since the person in question is the mother of an infant, we can’t risk that the baby would also not have clean water to drink or suffer in other ways.

Hopefully, if we figure out how to fill out her renewal application for a permesso di soggiorno before the current one expires, she can still use the Italian travel document, which is set to expire at the same time as her permesso. But I don’t want her to get into trouble further down the line. It is also a problem for her baby, now that Italy requires new babies to have their own permesso di soggiorno and to keep it up to date. The baby won’t be considered an Italian citizen until she is 18 years old. And that is the case only if she maintains her residency and paperwork perfectly up until that time.

All of our lawyers stopped helping us effectively, so I reached out to ARCI — a non-profit association to help migrants in Italy.  The contact I have, Alberto, is wildly busy, and I don’t always understand him on the phone; so I wrote to him on messenger. Then, when he didn’t reply this morning, I wrote an even longer request. He replied that we could talk on Monday. So I cheekily wrote him, excusing myself as a first class ball breaker. I should have said of the first order, but it came out di prima classe, like I was talking about airplane seats. He said not to be silly; he was just busy.

While I was taking to social media, F was driving out to Moro, our helper from last Christmas at the Red Cross, to bring some winter bedding and fresh towels to him at his group home. F said it looked like a pretty decent house for eight people. He has been waiting for his permesso di soggiorno for well over a year. It is a long time to wait for a permesso because he cannot work or do anything independently until he has it. Meanwhile, he has been doing a good job studying Italian, at least.

We got this doll for Peace. It was for Christmas, but nobody can resist opening these amazon packages from us if they arrive early.  It cries when you remove the pacifier. She is obsessed with comforting it and takes it everywhere. Apparently, the other doll she had from the donations did not interest her as much because it was a boy, according to Tina. But maybe it was because it’s head fell off and Tina threw it out. Whatever the case, this new one is a real hit! 

Sometimes I love, but it is a real love-hate relationship. They are the part of Amazon which is not really welcome at the family holidays because it gets drunk and talks politics, and puts its thumbs in all the pies. Also they do things like offer cosmetics that you can get at CVS for five dollars and offer them up for about 300 euros. No grazie.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Adulting it
T is 18. It is official! My scorpione bunny, the hero of my life, is now an adult. Not only can she vote in America, but she can get the buono for books that saves Italian kids a ton of money when they become maggiorenne.

Her friends threw her a surprise birthday party on Saturday night. We all deserve Oscars for the performances we gave. She was hella suspicious, but eventually we all worked on her long enough that, when the time came, she was actually surprised. They even had a secret meeting with me the week before. It was adorable. They wrote her personal notes and made her a dinner with a cake and everything! 

Then, on her real day, we went for dinner at her friend Saoirse’s house. Saoirse’s brother Turlough has the same birthday. Saoirse is leaving for Israel soon as part of her gap year experience, so it was really nice to spend time all together before she leaves. 

Some classmates took her out for tea after class. T’s favorite present from the family was a first edition copy of Virgia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. 

This cheesecake that Saoirse made was so good, that I almost begged her to scrap the gap year idea and run away with me.

I am such a proud mamma.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

figuring it all out
If you are at a point in your life where you are figuring stuff out, I am happy for you. Sincerely. Personally, I have no idea which way is up. 

Just when I thought we had all come out of the flu shot situation this year unscathed, I realized I had dropped the ball. I have had a bad cold for weeks like everybody else, and my mind has been foggy. Actually, the whole time we were in Florence to escape comics I was in bed with swollen ears. Sadly, the apartment we rented had terrible windows and the traffic noise from the motos and construction was worse there than the noise from the extra 240,000 people in Lucca for the festival. We ended up coming home early and letting T and her friend Saoirse have the place so they could go to Palazzo Strozzi for an art exhibition and eat out at some nice restaurants.

Anyway, I checked to make sure the babies had their appointments after the pediatricians did not want to give them the vaccines I had bought from my trusted pharmacy because they were not sure how long the mothers had been waiting on line, and thus had not had the syringes refrigerated. The babies’ doctors made them wait for an extra month until they got in a new supply at the clinic in November, which they said was about timing flu season. I don’t understand that part because the vaccine should be good for a full year’s worth of protection so there is no reason to wait until it is closer to Christmas time. But maybe they didn’t get their delivery of the vaccine before November, and so they were just saying that. Meanwhile, I kept hoping that they would not catch anything from the big church sermons on Sunday or from any visitors to their houses.

I already knew from Jennifer that Wisdom had no problems, but I did not make sure that Peace’s mom had baby tylenol, tachipirina, in the house and that she knew how to dose it properly. Neither did her doctor, apparently, who also failed to fill out her medical computer chart to show which vaccine she had. He did tell her to expect a fever as a possibility. Well, Peace got a high fever. I spoke to Tina that day, but she didn’t tell me about it. Then Job told me that when he was changing her, Peace was trembling. By the time Tina got back from shopping, Peace was having convulsions. Later I saw that the box of medicine was old and the handwritten instructions from the doctor were also based on a weight she had like six months ago. I almost lost it when I got the call from Job saying “the medicine you gave us was bad and Peace is in the ambulance.” I mean she didn’t even take the medicine I bought, but it was my recommendation that they all get the vaccine. Poor little girl, she had to stay in the hospital all weekend to get her fever down. Now she is fine, and Tina has new fever medicine and clear instructions for the future. She wants me also to speak to the pediatrician before the next appointment. They did get good, free care in the hospital. Yay, Italy! It was horrible, though. I can’t really handle this level of responsibility for so many people sometimes.

Paula, a woman who is moving back to America to help with the resistance (seriously, she is), asked if we wanted any of her stuff for the group, including a bunch of furniture. The laws are such a pain about driving permits for moving vans and everything here, that I told her I would just take blankets and winter clothes. Then Jennifer and Emmanuel and Moro asked me for kitchen stuff, so I had to revise everything I had said. Moro actually told me he would take any single item that I could ever get because if he couldn’t use it personally, he knew someone who could. That was sobering to hear. We also got the  kind of fit pants that Emmanuel and Job prefer and some lovely scarves for Tina and Jennifer from this South African lady who is always helping out named Geraldine.

T is so sad about what is going on in America that she has decided to apply to universities in Holland, as well. I can’t blame her.

Just look at these cute photos of everybody!

Here is F strolling around the supermarket with Peace.

T is a little disappointed that Peace has lost her dumpling cheeks and round little belly, but there is no denying that she is growing into a little stunner.

Don’t Emmanuel and Job make those suits look Boss, though? I think the Property Brothers out there in L.A. better take a seat and let these brothers take over.

Jennifer looks great in the scarf and was thrilled with the boxes of plates and glasses and kitchen utensils she got (though in their house and in Emmanuel's they have no heat.) Now she just needs the real estate agent to come through with the new house. Her current one is still covered in mosquitoes, even in November.

Peace is working part-time as a DJ because she has to spend the rest of her time preparing for pre-school.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

After all that, T did really well on her SATs. I said something like yay, awesome while we were coming to the end of our daily up-at-dawn walk around the walls of Lucca, and she gave me a whithering look and said, that is not a good reaction. I still don’t know what the cavolo she wanted as a reaction, and I swear I am too tired and whithered to worry about it. If you want to have any verbal back and forth with an almost 18-year-old, you have to get up very early, go to bed early, and have a very low bar of expectations. 

Before I forget, Wisdom’s penis appears to be not massacred after the circumcision situation. I would hate for you all to be worried about that any longer than you had to be. Jennifer didn’t end up picking up his passport from the Nigerian embassy because he was too traumatized after the procedure. Let’s not think about it anymore. 

The other night I went out for pizza with three friends. I know this is not earth shattering news, but when one of friends won’t go out on weekends because she has long work hours and spends weekends exclusively with her husband, and the other two are a cat lady with slight agoraphobia and a single mom who rarely gets any time to herself — this is an O-ccasion. Also throw me into the mix and you have a hormone cocktail with a horrible curfew so that I can schedule in a laugh or a bicker at dawn with my equally hormonal walking companion. Anyway, it was more or less like The Golden Girls if they were slightly younger and yet still believed that staying out until 10:30 PM on a Thursday was revolutionary. They didn’t even order a drink.

The best part of the night was when Patrizia wanted to share something that she said she felt really ashamed of. We all put our heads together over the table and she stage whispered that she had bought a jar of nutella, the famous Italian chocolate hazelnut spread that most kids eat for breakfast or snacktime here and has about a million calories per serving. She said she ate it with a spoon right out of a jar and that it was completely gone within 24 hours. But the best part was that she looked us dead in our eyes and said, “but if you don’t feel guilty about it, then it doesn’t count” and cackled like the wicked witch was having at Dorothy. It was great.

If you want to know where I am at mentally. This is the kind of post I put on Tumblr when I am really bored:

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 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.