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White Girl Immigration Problems

The oppression of a language barrier is not to be underestimated. As privileged white American people who idly study Spanish as a second language in public school, we take this for granted. Especially if you are, like me, decently educated and...

by Natalie Elliott
Dec 2 2012, 2:00pm

Photographs by Nicholas Pippins.

When my husband told me he was accepted into a Montessori training program in Italy, we celebrated. There is a helpless and largely undeserved glamor in the phrase “moving to Italy” that makes your friends—and especially your moms—cluck with envy. But then we learned that the city we’d be moving to, Bergamo, in the region of Lombardy, in the North, was comparable in size to the place we were living at the time. “Oh great,” I said, “We’re moving to Little Rock, Italy.”

Not unlike Little Rock, Bergamo is a quaint, beautiful shithole. Sometimes, it’s even breathtaking—fusty with its sense of medieval importance, tucked among the foothills of the Italian Alps, and so culturally insular that the only variety of ramen you can buy at the supermarket is Tex-Mex flavor, whatever that means. The number of Anglophones is few, and one feels compelled to befriend anyone who can speak English, even if he is only twenty-three, a lecture-prone asshole, or incessantly creeps on your girlfriend.

The oppression of a language barrier is not to be underestimated. As privileged white American people who idly study Spanish as a second language in public school, we take this for granted. Especially if you are, like me, decently educated and electively (though unsuccessfully) so unemployed as to deem yourself a “writer”—perhaps no other person feels the full-bore humiliation of not communicating quite like we do. Since I had no clear obligations in Bergamo other than spousal support and napping, a friend suggested that I take free Italian classes. Desperate to travel outside of Bergamo for any potentially enlightening activity, I looked to Milan, a mere 51 kilometers away, 48 minutes by train. This same friend told me about a forty-year-old squat called Leoncavallo, which I discovered offered Italian classes specifically for foreign nationals, whether possessing a residence permit or not. Having been denied a visa by the consulate, even though I am married to a person permitted to be here legally, and never registering with the Italian police, I am technically here under the radar.

In this region in present day, Leoncavallo is perhaps best known as a party venue. With its large chain of artfully repurposed garages and warehouses, it’s able to crowd in upwards of 5,000 attendees to weekly concerts and special events that last until dawn. During the week, however, it’s a much quieter affair. For one, calling Leoncavallo a “squat” is a misnomer. Nobody lives at Leoncavallo anymore. Its reputation is a somewhat convoluted oral history. As an institution named for the street of its original residence, since its inception in 1975, Leoncavallo changed not only its address, but its purpose and community services over time. What is largely agreed upon as its most significant milestone was the attempted eviction by myriad police powers between 1989 and 1994. After the property was sold to another real estate firm, dozens of police arrived to remove residents from the premises. In response, some of the Leoncavallo population lashed out aggressively. The remaining supporters established a precedent of nonviolence, and, with the public support of hundreds of protesters from the general Milanese community, agreed to negotiate peacefully with law enforcement. Thus, Leoncavallo was relocated to its current incarnation, a fortress-like 6,000 square-meter factory on Via Watteau.

Eventually, it reclaimed itself as a spazio pubblico autogestito—a self-governing space completely at the disposal of the public. Except, it seems, the public doesn’t always know what to do with it.

The first time I visited Leoncavallo, I wandered around my bus stop looking for the landmarks described in an email I’d received from one of the Italian teachers. He’d written, “Look for the graffiti wall,” and, forgetting that Europe is a place where graffiti roams free, I found a low brick wall covered in shitty white paintings that led me down a pedestrian path alongside an aqueduct. I stopped a nice young couple to ask for directions and nobody spoke English. After conferring with about three middle-aged men, the couple agreed to lead me to the space, asking different people for directions along the way. One blonde woman in sweats, speaking to me in English, said, “You might want to go in an ask that cafe right there. But don’t tell them ‘Leoncavallo,’” she cautioned, “just give them the address.”

Of course, finally beholding Leoncavallo, I lamented that I could ever be so foolish as to assume some public-park graffiti could be the real thing. Every single surface, inside and out, is covered in vibrant, pointlessly weird street art. Its gates look like it could be the entrance to that neon lair where the teen members of the Foot Clan skateboard in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But the inside, despite its lack of heating, is relatively cozy. There’s a cafe tended by a jovial Bangladeshi man, where everyone from old hippies to young college students arrive to socialize and chainsmoke. The center of the common room is designated by a banner reading “Free Internet Zone” and also serves as a lending library and video rental, which means there are some low, scribbled-on particle-board cubes filled with outdated sets of encyclopedias and a VHS copy of Yentl. Beyond this, a handful of African dudes man a couple of ancient Windows 95–based PCs where they check Facebook and goad each other. Nearby, folks gather on benches to play chess or hang out, in front of what appears to be a factory-sized smelting fire that’s tended by a mustachioed man in a windbreaker, dismantling a rudimentary shelf to serve as firewood.

The Italian course is taught in a small classroom off the side of the common area. Though scheduled at 8:30, it begins whenever the volunteer teachers arrive. In the meantime, the common area fills up with students waiting for the door to open. Inside, there’s one white board in front of a long table with two smaller tables behind it. My first class, I’m paired with a female journalist at one of the small tables. She doesn’t teach me in any regimented way, but encourages me to have a conversation only in my paltry Italian. She fills in my blanks by writing in a Sharpie over the typing on a piece of printer paper, which she gives to me to keep for reference. I learn quickly this way, and I’m kind of thrilled.

The second time, however, I’m one of twelve students. The teachers are different than the first class, and they divide the students according to skill level. Needless to say, I’m put at the dopey table, with a strapping young Egyptian guy who’s been in Milan for all of a month, a shy Ghanaian who doesn’t speak at all, and an excitable Bangladeshi man whose phone keeps ringing during the session, much to our teacher’s chagrin. This time, we newbs are asked to fill out a form that asks for our country of origin, if we’re here legally, if we’re married, if we work. Despite seeming a little invasive, I later find out the these forms are mostly used as literacy tests. The Ghanaian man, for instance, struggles to fill his in. The Bangladeshi attempts to assist, and grows increasingly frustrated when the man balks over the space asking for his years of education. “You mean you didn’t go to school at all?” the Bangladeshi asks in Italian, all exasperated and judge-y. The teacher finally intervenes, chanting “Piano, piano,” a calm reproach usually reserved for children, pushing her outspread hands down over and over again as if she’s playing one. 

Thus begins the class. The teacher pulls out a workbook and refers to it faithfully in teaching us the aspects of introduction. She makes us shake hands and say our names to each other. I find myself flushing, growing angry at this. After all, in Monday’s session, I felt like I was explaining the nuances of the Mexican food I miss so badly, and here I was reduced to reciting my name over and over again and inquiring after the well-being of a table full of confused strangers. But suddenly I become conscious of the fact that—maybe for the first time—the supposed value of my Americanness has been obliterated. I’m not a college-educated white female who’s had five years of Spanish and two of Latin, whose Italian acquisition should be rapid and enviable—I’m dumb in the tongue of this place. I can’t even comprehend half of the infantile questions my teacher is asking me with slow and probing patience. I’m just another anonymous immigrant who has no idea what’s going on, and who’s woefully trying to figure it out.

As facile as this epiphany might seem, think about how easy it would be for me, as aforementioned white American woman, to never put myself to this position. It’s a more diminishing insult to the proud American psyche than, say, being christened a “white slut” by a drunk Parisian Turk in passing—which was, at the time, an impeccably accurate assessment. It’s undeniable that even my very delivery to Leoncavallo’s door by two caring young Italian professionals would have been significantly less guaranteed if I weren’t this thing that I am.

And on that note, I should mention that I’m not just the only white or North American person in the class—I’m the only female student. In any of the sessions I attend. I ask and find out that only 5 percent of Leoncavallo’s Italian students are female. The reason is usually chalked up to the fact that it takes place late at night during the week—8:30 to 10:30, and women are more interested in attending morning classes at other institutions. I’m not so sure that I believe this reasoning, unless we’re speaking completely from a childcare-issue standpoint. (The original Leoncavallo, by the way, offered a free daycare for working mothers.) If anything, I would venture to guess that most women, if they’re anything like me, are actually just terrified of sitting in a room with a bunch of North African men.

As an American, perhaps even an American hyper-conscious of racism in my own country, it’s embarrassingly easy to latch onto the nonchalant flair of European racism. After all, nobody owned anybody here—they just got pissed when their working-class neighborhoods gave way to working-class immigrants, and when their job security was demolished by their own governments, and people with brown skin were able to get work before they were. Then this “other” population became the bearer of the culture myth of “crime” in Europe, which is, frankly, a joke, compared to any withering Rust Belt burgh in the U.S. And even that—hailing from the holding-steady number five “Most Dangerous City” according to Forbes magazine—I can safely say is another myth, because it’s not violence that ever actually touches we white suburbanites more than to swiftly remove our purse while we stumble to our truck parked across the street from the bar. What I mean to say is: Yes, I’m racist. Racist in the sense that I’m an educated, furiously progressive white lady who believes that every soul deserves respect—except maybe millionaire Republicans, rampant child-touchers, and skinny deadbeat whitetrash men with 400-pound girlfriends they leave locked in the bathroom for weeks—who still manages to rattle with perceptible anxiety whenever I’m alone in a train car in the middle of the night with one or more nonwhite men.

About six years ago, when I was way more exciting, a friend and I had stayed up all night partying in the Place de la République neighborhood of Paris. The uptight dudes we were hanging out with ungenerously turned us out of their apartment at dawn, and we were forced to wander around the sidewalk, jabbering incoherently and waiting for the metro to start running again. Nobody was on the street at this hour—kind of a phenomenal sight for such an urban berth. Then one guy, a lone black man, wearing a pullover sweater and grinning from ear to ear, sauntered up to us, singing to himself. Maybe we ignored him; I don’t know. But he stopped in front of us, still smiling, grabbed me by both wrists and began slamming my back against the wall of the building behind me. He kept singing. My friend started shrieking at him in French, I in English. He just kind of laughed and kept shoving me. It was Lynchian. She held up her cell phone and dialed the police, shouting, “I’m calling the police right now!” The guy looked at her with only the slightest regard, perhaps knowing that French police are basically nonexistent at that hour. After a moment, he let me go and walked on. The whole encounter lasted maybe two minutes. It was obvious that he wasn’t trying to actually hurt me—and he seemed so strangely celebratory; he could have just been happily geeked out of his mind. But more likely, it’s always seemed to me, he saw two very intoxicated white girls acting like morons in the middle of the street and saw an opportunity to fuck with us for fun, maybe to even consciously seize upon the general fear he knew would have possessed us in such a vulnerable, witness-less shadow of the morning. I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to have learned from that episode—from my kind of needless paranoia being all but justified.

When I go to these classes, I don’t spend the night. I don’t have any steady friends in Milan and it would be too expensive to crash in a hostel when the city where I live, with my warm husband in it, are so close by. I catch the 11:40 train from the Milan Centrale. It’s the last train of the night back to Bergamo, it makes eight torturous stops, and nobody’s hardly ever on it. In these cold months, I wait around for an hour bundled like a homeless person, sipping espresso purchased from a coin-operated machine. The Centrale station is, by my feeble appraisal, a perfect cross-section of this populous Italian metropole. Exiting the station on Monday night, I count no less than 25 vendors, blankets neatly spread in a grid along the square in front. They are mostly South Asian, all men, hawking pashminas, knockoff wallets and belts, battery-operated robot toys, and remote-control airplanes. Milan is the second-largest city in Italy with the highest immigrant population—it’s the financial capital of the country. Having lost their factories between thirty and forty years ago, Milan had no significant labor incursions to sustain in the recent crisis. Their real estate market has plateaued, not plummeted. If there is any work in Italy, Milan is where you come to get it, no matter where you’re coming from.

It’s also a traditionally conservative place—pure Berlusconi Country. During the bitter mayoral contest of 2011, Berlusconi’s party protegé, Leitzia Moratti, built her reelection campaign almost entirely on a platform of racism and expunging the city of its immigrant influence. According to one article, Berlusconi appeared in a web commercial arguing on her behalf, “If Pisapia wins, Milan will became a Muslim town, a Gypsyville of Roma camps, a city besieged by foreigners.” Well, Pisapia did, of course, win the runoff, becoming the first leftist mayor in twenty years. And this is just more evidence of the level of willfully impudent lies Berlusconi tells—because it already is that city, as it should be, indicated by every financially successful metropolis on the globe. According to a recent stat published in the prominent Turin newspaper La Stampa, immigrant-earned revenues account for 5.7 percent of Italy’s GDP, and with nearly two immigrant-owned small businesses opening for every single Italian-owned one in the last nine months, these populations sound like the only thriving entrepreneurs left to keep the Italian economy solvent. 

Leoncavallo has offered the immigrant Italian classes for nine years. It was one of the first free courses available to illegals in Milan. In a way, these classes marked one of the most significant shifts from Leoncavallo’s pointedly anti-Fascist, pro-arts agenda to its expanding role as a multicultural haven. As one teacher explained to me, this is the marvel of a social institution like Leoncavallo, “It’s always a mirror for the community.” Whatever Milan needs, a space like this will step in to provide. And it’s true that the immigrant community that frequents Leoncavallo, whether in the language classes or the common area, possesses a charming kind of bonhomie. Sometimes it’s on the level of locker-room teasing, but everyone is astonishingly kind to each other. When I remarked to one of the teachers, in private, about this friendly disposition, he explained that “There’s a natural selection that occurs with the students who come to this class. They have to be motivated people, and obviously want to study.” He also pointed out that the majority of immigrants who arrive in Italy have obtained a level of education even higher than that of the average Italian.

One night, after class, a fellow student, from Egypt, now working as a painter in Milan, leads me through the metro station to my correct train. He thanks me decorously for coming to the class as if it was his own invitation, and says he was glad to have met me. This is a man who knows full well I’m married and only living in Italy because of my husband. Despite the easy paranoia through which I might be inclined to read this situation, there’s no strangeness or subtext. He’s just genuinely glad to meet a new person in his Italian course, which has, for years now, served as the hub of his social circle.

At the Centrale, I spend the usual hour standing around, watching a crew with a giant spider-like cherry picker remove a swimming pool–sized Longines ad from the terminal wall, collapsing enormous plastic sheets that depict Australian actor Simon Baker gingerly touching a horse’s face. When the train arrives, I board too early and sit in the bottom of the double-decker commuter—a strategic position I’ve chosen, believing that’s usually where women and grannies sit, not in the upstairs. Only one man enters, a middle-aged pudgy Moroccan fellow wearing a nice topcoat and carrying only a small Zara shopping bag. He asks me if this is the train to Bergamo, so we have to make perfunctory eye contact. We don’t speak again until the last three stops, an hour later, when he stands up, pacing, and asks me again if this is the right train. Though I’m sure it has nothing to do with me, he looks far more agitated than I am, and I assure him, yes, Bergamo is the next stop.

Later this month, I will have to return to the US. My husband and I are running out of money, even with the under-the-table work I have in Bergamo. His studies are such a demand on his time that I have little choice but to go back within my 90-day Schengen window and piece together as much work as possible, so as to keep him in groceries until July. So I’ll travel to America, live with my in-laws, and work to send money to my husband for three months, after which I will then be allowed to return to him. This doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to be my life, but it is. Whatever entitled, ignorant, or pathetic version, evidently, I’m also one of the other kind in the end.



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