If not now, when?

One American woman. Twenty acres and a 1650 farmhouse in Tuscany. Random introspection and hilarity, depending on the day.

09 June 2006

A mile in more comfortable moccasins, but moccasins nonetheless.

Her name was Ivete.

It is her voice that I hear in my head when I speak Italian badly, which is frequent. Because she spoke English badly, at times verging on incomprehensible for all but the most dedicated listener.

She was a woman who cleaned my house, many years ago. She was a part-time nanny/housecleaner for my neighbor, so it was logical to turn to her, when I needed an extra hand, when my travel schedule became so overwhelming that even basic household chores were too much in my spare moments at home.

She cleaned brilliantly. She had only a handful years on me. She dressed oddly and suited for labor, with no regard to color or fabric combinations; a woman clearly accustomed to hard work. Out of workboots and flannel, she might have been a somewhat comely girl.

She was eager and industrious. And friendly. On more than one occasion, she invited me to her shared apartment - which was in a comparably not-so-safe section of town - for a party. When I was unable to come, she brought pictures of the festivities to share with me.

I am ashamed to admit this: between her overzealousness to befriend me and the fact that I found her so challenging to speak with, I preferred to have her come when I was not home. (Well, okay, that and I hate the sound of vaccum cleaners. And I don't like people invading my personal space. And that nagging feeling that I should have been doing something to help her. In fact, I have always preferred that my cleaning ladies - even the unintrusive, perfectly-spoken ones, come when I am not home -- and yes, I realize prescisely how obscenely privileged and offensive that sounds, but it's honest. Maybe it's easier on both of us: I don't like the man that signs my paychecks standing around in my office while I work, either.)

She followed me in my move from the suburbs to downtown, though the drive from her house was a commute I myself wasn't willing to make. Perhaps it was because I was kind and paid her well, and also was quick to offer her appliances, furniture, clothes that I no longer needed in a much-smaller place. Perhaps it was because she needed the work. Perhaps it was because she liked me, and felt a sense of loyalty.

But talking to her made me so uncomfortable, because she was so hard to understand, and I felt that my lack of comprehension was embarrassing to her. She was struggling to learn English. Perhaps she also had a minor speech impediment, either congenital or simply that of a foreign tongue pretzeling itself to mimic and create unfamilar sounds. And then again, perhaps I had a hearing impediment, or a patience impediment. Or, E), all of the above. And she was so very eager to speak to me, to make me her friend.

In an elaborate ritual 'dance' dictated in part by schedules, we eventually communicated only in cryptic notes -- mine in SIMPLE EXPLANATORY English:


Her responses, labored over I'm sure, penned in broken verb-challenged English in the flowery script of one schooled in another country.

6 months after my move to the city one of those notes told me that she had to leave the country, as I recall, because of an urgent family situation of some sort. I never saw her again, though the next week I left her an appreciative farewell bonus and a small gift and card wishing her well. She left me my keys and a friend's name in case I needed someone else to clean for me, and her new address, encouraging me to visit her if I was ever in Brazil.

She was Italian. She gave me my first lesson in irregular verb conjugation -- pulire (to clean), pulisco - "I clean". She spoke fluent Italian (in dialect of some sort, I now realize) and Spanish and Portugese, and perhaps a bit of Romanian, I think. She probably had an advanced degree of some sort from one of those countries. I do not know whether or not she was in the US legally, nor any more of her story because, while I was kind, I was also distant. I never took the time to get to know her. Because it was hard. It wasn't prejudice, it was simply impatience coupled with discomfort. Because My Life was too Full of Very Important Things.

And now ... now that I am the outsider -- the "one of these things is not like the others," she who dresses oddly, the fish out of water, the American Girl with the past that noone knows and would be comically unimportant here anyhow, the one who speaks oftentimes incomprehensibly, the one who the locals avoid talking too much to because it makes them uncomfortable when they cannot understand me, I think of her. Of Ivete, and how incredibly brave she was - though I paid her bravery no attention at the time. To be an immigrant, to try to fit in, to make friends, to be working two jobs and barely earning a meager living in the hardest possible way, staying in a group apartment in a part of town that I would lock my doors when I drove through.

And she was always, always cheerful. And exceptionally, heartbreakingly brave.

Some of you used that word to describe my move here. But it isn't. By comparison, not even remotely close.

I do not know if she is still there, but today, I sent Ivete a postcard in Brazil inviting her to come visit if she ever makes it back to Italy; an invitation very long overdue. And I really hope she will. Perhaps she will be as challenged by my Italian as I was by her English. And even if she speaks English in exactly the same way, I suspect I will be a better listener this time.


Blogger Annika said...

Like Depeche Mode said, I'm not looking for absolution, forgiveness for the things I do... but before you come to any conclusion, try walking in my shoes. Try walking in my shoes. You'll stumble in my footsteps, keep the same appointments I kept, if you try walking in my shoes..

I think that it's not until we have tried being the foreigner that we can finally fully understand the foreigners we have met.

9:07 AM  
Blogger Judith in Umbria said...

I'm glad you thought of this.
I haven't referred my experience to the experiences of immigrants in the US, but it is valid. My own foreign friends spoke very good English and I did learn much of their previous lives.
I have said of this experience that it is like not having a past. Even among expats, no one knows who I was, how I lived, what my life and my ambience was like. Italians mostly seem not to be curious about it. If it isn't about your family, it isn't important. There is one outstanding fact of this life. One has no power. You got used to having sway in one or another part of your life, or perhaps you had some generalized strength to affect lots of things. And then you come here and it disappears.
In a country and a life not your own you have to live newborn and create your space and weight in the ways allowed in the new place. Fortunately, most of us have a clue about how to start, but the possibilities aren't the same and it is all too easy to collect little failures.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Laurie said...

Viagg. and Judith - I have a little file I call "expat words of wisdom"....into which I have just cut and pasted some of yours....thanks for putting into words what I often feel and am not so able to express. (And have been trying to express since the GTG) Now off to translate this into italian...eeek... so that I can share it with my DH.

3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A brilliant post. Your best ever. Full of insight and lessons for us all ... proving, yet again, that humans beings benefit immeasurably from living at least two years, "off tribe," and preferably alone. You've leapt forward several lifetimes .. or more likely, finally remembered the former lifetime lessons in a very conscious way. Awesome!


5:39 PM  
Blogger ElleStarr said...

You are not brave so much in the going and the being, but in the admitting of things that maybe aren't the best part of yourself. Good on ya for that!

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I think "brave" comes in lots of different dressings. Brave is a kid who gets a shot and doesn't wail the whole time. Brave is a soldier sent off to war. Brave is a mother who admits she had no idea what she is doing. Like many words in English, one word means many things. I do believe that you are brave in your undertaking of this adventure. And maybe it's relative. You, in making this journey, in tackling the everyday challenges that clearly come your way, are braver than I could ever hope to be in the scope of international travel. I caught two snakes, a toad, and a bucket full of worms for my little boy to play with this week. Brave, in a completely different context. Don't dismiss the hugeness of your undertaking. Where many have wished and hoped and dreamed, you have gone and done and seen. Be proud of your braveness. And pass it along. See, now you recognize it in others where, without your experience, you may not have.

8:10 PM  
Blogger Viaggiatore said...

Annika, Judith, Laurie, McCats, Elle, JillyBean, and those of you yet-to-comment: your thoughtful words of encouragement inspire me to more readily recognize the value of connection. There are not words sufficient to thank you: for being on the other side of the satellite link; for reading, for commenting, for sharing a little bit of yourself in exchange for what I put "out there." If this experience has taught me anything, it's the value in letting the walls down a little: your responses are the reward for that risk.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: you all collectively are the bees' knees. Which is to say, even if I can't see you, the thought of you makes me smile.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Cupcake said...

Speaking of making connections and all that stuff, how is your delivery dude?

8:16 PM  
Blogger Judith in Umbria said...

Well, you know my dear, you are not so shabby yourself! Did you ever get the phone message I left you?

11:32 AM  
Anonymous julienini said...

Lovely heartfelt post, V. This is what blogs are for! Brava.

11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing I love about you is your ability to take a step back and reevaluate yourself and others when new or different information presents itself. I wish I had that kind of perspective and inner strength. For me, brave is posting here among all these bright people without spell check capabilities.
Love you,
Unassuming Princess

3:11 PM  
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