She isn’t exactly a star. But if you watch the local news enough, you can catch her hosting her own segment. Never more than twenty minutes long, the piece that sticks in my memory the most is one she made about eating organic food.
“I saw you on TV the other day,” I tell her in French. “You were great.” Looking somewhat embarrassed that her tenant has seen her at work, she thanks me. “I’ve been eating too much pasta lately!” Though this is clearly not the case, I smile uncomfortably, not sure where to take the conversation next.
In the six months we’ve been renting her apartment, this is the first time Maria is visiting us. Relying exclusively on bank transfers and communications routed through the building’s doorman, Maria has been a typically absent landlord, busy as she is with her broadcasting career and two teenage children.
Spying a copy of my new book Israel vs. Utopia sitting on our dining room table, she asks me if I’m a writer. “Oui,” I reply. “Je suis un journaliste.” Pronouncing the first word of the book’s title, “Israel” aloud and nodding her head, she asks me a question I’m not prepared for. “Why is that Jews and Muslims always have such big families?”
For the second time in a matter of minutes, I feel uncomfortable. As she looks me straight in the eye, the way a good reporter ought to, she has me at a loss for words. I’m too surprised by her cluelessness to issue a smart reply. “Uhh, the same reasons Italians have lots of kids,” I mumble under my breath, in English.
“Quoi?” Maria asked in French.
“Pardonnez-moi pour l’Anglais,” (“Sorry for my English”) I tell her. “Mon Francais n’est pas tres bonne.” Some cop out, but it appears to work. She buys my excuse, and stares at me somewhat pitifully. Her French is much better than mine. Luckily, we stop talking about ethnicity then and there and move on to safer household matters.
His English isn’t very good, but the guy sure knows how to communicate with dogs. Whenever he sees me taking Pixel out for a walk, Antonello turns into a canine magnet. Within seconds Pixel is at his feet, wagging his tail, as though he and our doorman have known each other for years.
However, get on the subject of politics, and Antonello is a completely different beast. Seeing me carrying a camera one day, he asked if he could take a look at it. Not realizing it was still on, I handed it to him, displaying this campaign poster on its LED screen.
“I am Lega Nord,” he said, rather nervously. One of Italy’s biggest rightist parties, and a member of the present governing coalition, the Lega Nord (Northern League, in English), is well-known for its anti-immigrant platform.
“What interests you about this poster?” Uncomfortable at the scrutiny but determined not to take an easy way out, I told him the truth, at least in an autobiographical sense. “I’m Jewish. The refugee ship evokes memories.”
Antonello cleared his throat. Then, after a moment’s silence, he began to speak again. “You Jews are alright,” he stated, looking me right in the eye. “You people work hard, you study, you obviously have money. But these Africans and Muslims, they’re lazy and they’re poor. They come to Italy and cause lots of problems.”
I don’t know why I expected otherwise. By the time I figured out how to formulate a proper response in Italian, Antonello was gone, headed down the hallway towards Viale Andrea Doria. If only I’d worked a little faster, to remind him that Jews aren’t foreigners in Italy, that we’ve been here for well over 2000 years.
It’s not a neighborhood we know well. Even our cab driver has a difficult time finding the address. After passing a corner apartment building surrounded by high walls, topped with barbed wire and shards of broken glass, my wife calls Maria, and describes the scene. “ Yes, that’s my home,” she tells Jen in broken English.
The purpose of our visit? For the nine months we’d been renting her apartment, Maria had been wanting to introduce Jennifer to her daughter. “She wants to be a designer,” Maria would repeatedly tell Jen. “She speaks much better English.”
And now, finally, we find ourselves at our landlords, so Jennifer, a professional designer, can share her career work experience with Maria’s daughter, a high school junior.
Unsurprisingly, Jennifer and Maria Jr (we never learned her name) speak little about Jennifer’s work. Instead, the young Maria spends most of dinner translating her mother’s anecdotes about our food. Where each dish comes from in Italy, where the produce is sourced. I’m reminded of Maria’s organic food feature.
While Jennifer is busy with the ladies of the house, my attention is turned towards Maria’s son, also fluent in English, who can’t stop talking about how international the student body in his business college are. “Lots of people from the Middle East,” he says, rather uncomfortably. “They all come to study here.”
For a moment I think he’s making some kind of reference to us. But that’s just my ethnic paranoia getting the better of me. If only I could ascribe such self-consciousness to his comment. I keep my thoughts to myself, though.
When the food is this good, though, and the subtext of everyone’s interactions, their conversations, so fraught with every conceivable kind of significance, I resign myself to being a good listener.
Finally, Maria’s middle-aged boyfriend, silent throughout the meal, joins the conversation. “You find them everywhere – Milano is full of them. These are the rich ones. How else could they afford to go to college here?” Overhearing the conversation, Maria joins in. “Their kids outnumber ours in city schools. It’s a big problem.”
A woman friend of Maria’s sits to my right. Having lived in New York for the last six years, she can sense the discomfort Jen and I are feeling talking about Middle Easterners. “Do you and Jennifer plan on having any children?” she asks us, brutally shifting the topic of our dinnertime conversation. I fantasize about replying, “Yes, lots of them. And we’ll be sure to make them attend Milanese public schools.”
I’m too polite to ruin the good vibes, though, no matter how tense I feel inside. “Probably not,” I tell her. “We have two lovely dogs whom we consider our kids, and we both have aging parents to care for, in Israel and in the US. Besides, we have so many friends here, in Europe, with great kids like this. And we’re not sure we could manage more than we already do.”
It’s the last week in December. The heating hasn’t worked all week. The weather report says this is the coldest weather to hit Europe in decades. I’ve sent a long email to Maria in perfect French, which I worked on for over an hour, explaining the situation with the cold, asking her if she can do anything about it.
“No,” she writes back. “There’s a dispute with the property management company, who say they informed me in advance of the interruption, in order to do maintenance work. They didn’t, of course. ” Angry and cold, I wrap Pixel and Raster in additional layers of clothing, so they can brave the snow outside.
As I’m wont to do on their midday walk, we turn left, on Andrea Doria, heading in the direction of Milan’s central station. At the end of the block stands a small pedestrian island planted with grass. On its northern side are billboards designated by the Comune specifically for campaign posters for national political parties.
Most of the time, these posters sport the names or pictures of candidates competing in local elections. However, one party, the most popular in Milan, almost always eschews pimping city council members in favor of its trademark issue, immigration. Their branding is crudely effective.
Their tails wagging, my dogs begin to bark. Despite the heavy snowfall, they can see a large dog squatting in front of row of Lega Nord posters. Having learned to always take my camera with me wherever I go, I start shooting. “Per favore,” implores the dog’s owner, shocked by what I’m doing. “Per favore.” Too late.
I’m always amazed at how those expressing their xenophobia just assume you’re as subject to it as they are. They seem to have no conception that to some of they seem hateful.
I agree. It’s always surprising how unselfconscious folks like this can be. Unfortunately, I think it is also indicative of how mainstream their opinions are within their immediate communities.