Light and Space in the Piazza

In 2007, legal immigrants made up 6.2% of the population of Italy. The number of illegal immigrants was not clear. That same year, three-quarters of Italians surveyed thought that there were an excessive number of foreigners living in Italy.

The women didn’t belong. I registered that the first time I saw them – standing in clusters, chatting, some smoking, their backs to the passers-by. Yet for a couple of hours each weekday afternoon they took over the piazza, the square of the Sainted Apostles in the Cannaregio district. They made the space their own.

I didn’t belong either. Like the women, I was neither a true Venetian nor a tourist. Unlike them, my type had long been a common one: the aficionado, lover of the fabled city, who visited frequently and for as long as possible. My husband and I had arrived two days earlier for an extended stay, and we were still orienting ourselves to what was, for us, a new neighbourhood.

On this visit, we’d brought along my mother-in-law, a late developing Venice-lover. Rosabianca has a bad back and ruined feet, so she walks with great difficulty. That’s why I first noticed the women, twenty or so, grouped into a casual oval. Marco, Rosabianca, and I were returning from lunch at a cafeteria near the Rialto, not walking at a brisk Venetian pace but creeping along. So crossing the piazza, I had time to take a long look. The women weren’t Venetians: their winter coats were too puffy and stiff, the colours of their scarves indiscreet and bright, their boots clunky. And they were missing the self-satisfied aura. Their voices lacked the melodic intonation of the local dialect. The rhythm of their words sounded Slavic.

The air whistled in Rosabianca’s windpipe, her feet dragged. She needed to sit down. But the women both encircled and claimed the only two benches in the square. We stopped; Marco and I held his mother up. Did they not notice us? One turned and flicked her cigarette butt in our direction. Her eyes showed no recognition. The women seemed to shift closer to each other. We were facing a wall of backs. We hovered. “I’m fine. I can make it,” Rosabianca said. We shuffled on.

In Italy, the phrase scendere in piazza, literallyto go down to the piazza, has come to mean to make your protest visible, to highlight your political cause.

In Venice, the only piazza that is called piazza is Piazza San Marco: “Europe’s greatest drawing room,” as Napoleon called it. A square that elsewhere in Italy would be a piazza is called a campo, but it remains the centre of an individual neighbourhood, the meeting place. Children play, citizens stroll, teenagers kick a soccer ball. The campo can host a political rally, a temporary installation of art, a street fair, or a Carnival dance. The space is public, common to all.

Yet, each afternoon while shops and offices were shut and the locals at home lingering over their midday meal or relaxing into a nap, the women made the public private and gathered: their circle was a boulder in the river of tourists. For though it was a slow time of day and year, the Lenten wind bone-chilling, the visitors still came, particularly school children on field trips. Crocodiles of Italian or French adolescents flowed out the end of La Strada Nuova, the so-called new street built under Napoleon, then had to separate and go around the women.

I am an outsider, but one with connections to inside sources of information, the increasingly rare Venetians. This city is where my mother was raised and my parents met. Much of my extended family still lives here. They hang on; the next surge of rising prices and/or sea water could sweep them off, land them in dreary Mestre. Each year, the population of the historic centre of Venice declines. At 62,000, it is half what it was at the time of the great flood in 1966.

“Who are they?” I asked my cousin Mario, who lived close by. “Where are they from?”

“Illegals,” he shrugged. He summed the women up and dismissed them.

“You don’t see that many in Venice,” I said, “ – besides the Somali bag sellers.”

“Well, i vu-comprar don’t live here either.” Mario used the slang name, the do-you-want to-buys, for the black men who alighted beside tourist trails where ever they found a few empty meters, scattering their fake designer accessories, their shiny baubles, on canvas tarps. “Hey lady,” they called out in accented English. “Special deal,” flying off at the first sign of an indignant shop owner or (worse) policeman.

“The vu-comprar­ can’t afford Venice or even Mestre. They must squat somewhere. ” Mario said. Still he agreed that these women were different: they did seem to live in the historic centre, noting they’d been meeting in the Santi Apostoli for several years. “I’d guess they’re working off the books, living in their employers’ apartments,” Mario said.

I wanted to break through their defences and talk to them to get a sense of the lives they led. The urge intensified each time I walked past them in the Campo. Not only Mario, but all my cousins discouraged me.

“Nasty people,” the husband of one of my cousins said. “Why waste your time?” He went on: “Some of our politicians are finally waking up. These foreigners are threatening our way of life.”

His wife objected. “They do the jobs Italians won’t do.”

“You mean they undercut wages. Make life difficult for the honest working man. And they’re criminals. You read the papers – gangs, rapes, guns. It’s always foreigners.”

“Surely,” I began, “that’s a very small percentage…”

“Restrict them to certain zones. Put a big wall around like they did in Padua,” the man said, shocking me into silence.

Another evening, another cousin said: “We’re overrun; they’re everywhere. Ukrainians, Sri Lankans, Africans, Chinese, Roms, the worse… No end to them. Illegals.”

Extra-communitari,” his wife said, her tone corrective. “That’s what they’re called. Those outside the community.”

In 2007, legal immigrants made up 6.2% of the population of Italy. The number of illegal immigrants was not clear. In 2007, three quarters of Italians surveyed thought that there were an excessive number of foreigners living in Italy. In 2007, one third of those surveyed also thought immigrants posed a threat to Italian cultural identity. It seems that Italians have forgotten that their country was once the source of the largest per capita migration of free labour in history. Between 1870 and 1970, twenty-six million Italians emigrated.

Extra-communitari: outsiders. Literally in this case, meeting in a wintery square. We passed them on our way to a swanky restaurant patronized by those in-the-know, politicians and gondoliers. The wind that day was raw; stray snowflakes fell, melted on the grey stones. The women were bundled up: knitted hats and swaddling scarves. Yet they were more numerous than ever.

We were having lunch with two old friends, Bill and Franca. I thought they might have a connection, someone who could introduce me to the women. Bill and Franca are both professors who specialize in post-colonial – thus migrant – theory, and he, in particular, keeps up with the books by the new hyphenated Italians. But he could only offer a Senegalese novelist, a Chinese short story writer. “Both are legal,” Bill said. “Although the Italians view them as extra-communitari just the same.”

But it was the women outside that I wanted to know. “They won’t speak to you because they are afraid,” Franca said. “Any small complaint and they’ll be deported.”

“They don’t look frightened,” I said. “They aren’t hiding. They take over the piazza.”

“Obviously, their presence suits certain powers that be,” Bill said. “But don’t be fooled. They’re not accepted, or even tolerated – just used. And there is rising xenophobia and racism in Italy.”

In 2008, a so-called security amendment to an earlier anti-immigrant bill became law. This bill, Legge Bossi/Fini, was sponsored by the Northern Separatist and far-right political parties and was aimed at punishing and expelling illegals. Under the guise of law and order, the power of individual mayors was to be expanded. But already, six years earlier, Gentilini, the mayor of Treviso, had removed all benches in piazzas where immigrants gathered. He said he wanted to cleanse the city of “foreign dogs,” street peddlers, and homosexuals.

“Those women have reason to be wary,” Franca said.

“Why are you drawn to them?” said my mother-in-law, who loves to ask discomforting questions.

Why indeed. Why not the gypsies begging at the bottom of bridges? Or the lines of half-naked women lined up on the side of the suburban roads. “I’m not sure,” I said, though I had a suspicion. I see the world as divided between those who are at home and those who are not. My mother and all the members of her family were immigrants; my parents were immigrants, my husband, my sister, her husband, my friends. But my mother wasn’t a gypsy or a prostitute; she, like the women gathering in the piazza, had been a domestic. Conversely, I looked after my mother through the last four years of her life. And I had wished that I could hire cheap, full-time helpto share the strain. (I could identify with the exploiter and the exploited.)

It took me two afternoons to work up the courage to push my way into the circle. Two afternoons of hovering close by, hoping I would catch someone’s eye. Then I was going to smile and start with a “good day.” But on the first day, none of the women glanced in my direction. One of the school groups pouring through the square forced me up against the wall of backs. My right foot touched – kicked – a woman’s calf. She did not turn around. The circle contracted slightly. Away from me.

The next day, an old lady I often saw hobbling around the neighbourhood recaptured a seat on one of the benches. She was odd looking: scrawny, wearing too much pink powder and red lipstick, a poufy mink coat and a broad-brimmed straw hat with a red ribbon. She positioned herself a metre from the circle. She hunched over her cane and stared, with an angry intensity. The women ignored her. “How rude these foreigners are,” she said. (I was embarrassed by her words, but saw her point. There was insolence in their refusal to move.) The old woman croaked louder: “I need to sit down.”

Several of the women looked in her direction. There was a long moment’s hesitation, then a bleached blonde in a camel-coloured coat shrugged and got up from the bench. The circle opened to let the old woman through. She didn’t let them get back to their conversations, at least not all of them. She made the usual comments on the weather. A couple of the women standing closest answered. The old lady complimented them on their Italian. “And it is such a difficult language,” she said.

If she could penetrate the perimeter, I could too. The third afternoon, I strode up to the blonde, who seemed to be a leader of sorts, and tapped her hard on the shoulder. When she turned, I asked: “Are you Ukrainians?” Sure that they must be. On Strada Nuova a poster advertised a day for “domestic workers” on the Lido, featuring Ukrainian dancing

“No, we should be so lucky. We’re from Moldova,” she said, throwing me off. (I had thought it was the name of an imaginary country.)

She was turning away again. The women closest to where I was standing had resumed their conversation. The circle was closing. “I’m a Canadian writer,” I said hastily, loudly. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” The Republic of Moldova is a landlocked country, sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. It is the poorest country in Europe with the lowest GDP. According to the World Values Survey, its people are the unhappiest anywhere. And according to the United Nations World’s Migration Report, on a percentage basis, Moldova is the second biggest exporter of migrants

When the Moldovan women started talking, they didn’t want to stop. Only two of the group had “papers,” they admitted. But their status had never interfered with their finding a job, because they all worked, or had worked, as badanti – caregivers to the old. And Venice was filled with the old and dying. “They need us,” said one woman with dramatically pencilled eyebrows. “Their families don’t want to look after them.” Then, more to her friends than me, “I hate that word – badante, minder – as if we watched dogs. It devalues what we do.”

Nadea, the bleached blonde in the camel coat – who close up looked older than the others – shrugged, “As long as the pay is good…”

“How much does one earn? Approximately?”

“Here a badante gets from 800 to 1000 euro a month, plus room and board.”

“That’s the minimum, or should be,” the woman with the dramatic eyebrows said. “Wages are going down because there are too many of us. The Italians know they can get us cheaply.”

“You only get 750 euro in the country.”

“ Or 600, if they can get away with it. And it’s awful being out in the fields.” Sofia, who had light-grey eyes and looked as if she were in her mid-twenties, was standing on my right. “No one to talk to, nothing to see. Better to be in the city.”

“And Venice is so beautiful.” The words slipped out of my mouth.

“That’s for tourists. It means nothing to us,” Nadea said. “It’s not our home, not our city.”

A tall, dark-eyed woman added: “Moldova is beautiful, the green hills, the deep forests. We don’t want to be here.”

They all agreed that they had no choice. There was only corruption and deprivation at home, poisoned land and abandoned villages. And no Orange revolution, as there had been in the Ukraine, no reforms in the foreseeable future. The Communist leader had recently been re-elected. “Our government does nothing for us,” one woman said.

“There’s an embassy in Rome, but the so-called diplomats never stand up for us or for our rights.”

“We have to protect ourselves. No one else will.”

“We are educated women, but in Moldova we can’t earn enough to support our selves, let alone our families.” The dark-eyed woman, she told me her name was Elena, had been a medical technician. “I analyzed blood, arranged transfusions,” she said. “I earned about 50 euro a month.” Sofia had been a hairdresser. Others claimed they had been teachers, accountants, or nurses. One woman said she had owned a restaurant. “Big place – we had my daughter’s wedding reception there,” said Nadea, the unofficial leader.

“I was a professor of English literature at the university,” said Nadea, proving her claim by switching from Italian to English. From then on she always addressed me in English, correct, fluent English, delivered in an upper-class British accent, with only a shade of a difference, a whisper of a Slavic intonation. “My area is the 19th century novel,” Nadea said. “George Eliot…Thackeray, Vanity Fair.” Nadea no longer worked as a badante. Since the previous spring, she’d supported herself as an English tutor to the children of certain lucky Romanians and Moldovans who had residency status and thus could keep their offspring with them. “They see English as the future,” Nadea said. “And they pay me 10 euro an hour.”

About 1.2 million people, one third of the working population of Moldova, has emigrated (32 percent of the female migrants went to Italy; 72 percent of the males to Russia). These migrants send home over one billion American dollars a year, double the state budget.

The next afternoon, the women greeted me with smiles. They had the impression I was a reporter writing an exposé on the life of the clandestini, the illegals, in Italy. I had the chance to tell them that I wasn’t that type of writer, that I was thinking of a short story or a mood piece, but I didn’t. I was afraid they would think my interviews were voyeuristic. (Where is the line between curiosity and voyeurism?) They had no interest in me; they asked me nothing, not even my name.

For the first ten minutes, a number of the women complained about their jobs and their employers. The ex-hairdresser said her boss had accused her of stealing her keys when they were in her purse all along. Another woman spoke of how her signora measured out her food. “She lets me have a sliver of cheese.” Then they gradually drifted into smaller clusters, chatting away in their own language, which, they informed me, was not Slavic but Latinate.

I asked the five still standing around me about those they had left behind. “We’re here for them,” said Nadea, “Stasia, tell her, how you send half your salary to your younger brothers and sister. Sofia, tell her, how much do you send?” Nadea went on, interrupting conversations. Tell her. Tell her. And each one did. They all deprived themselves for their families back home.

“I support five people,” said one. “Otherwise, they’d go hungry.”

Beautiful, dark-eyed Elena had a five-year-old daughter living with a sister and her mother. “I first left her when she had seventeen months.”

Nadea pointed to the woman with the dramatic eyebrows. “She left a child of eight and one of thirteen. And the woman she’s talking to: fifteen-year-old twins. More than half of these women had to leave children.”

“I talk to my little girl,” Elena said. “With the cell phone, almost every day. And I go back for visits.”

“Tell her how often,” Nadea said.

“Once, I did it once so far. I went for four months after my last employer died. I’d go more often, but it costs so much money. You have to save up, not so much for the trip or the presents. No, for the man – how do you call him? The man who smuggles you back into Italy. Hidden in a truck or a boat.”

My mother had worked at menial jobs in Canada. Several of my female cousins had worked as maids. My spinster aunt had been a badante for twenty years, until she retired in her early seventies. But in my experience, it was the men who had to leave home, sometimes for years at a time, to support their families. In the twenty-first century, women, mothers, crossed the world in search of work. They looked after other people’s children or parents and were forced to abandon their own.

In Moldova, one in nine children grows up with no parents. Many young teens are left completely alone. Moldova is a major source of women and girls trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.

According to the NGOs working to save trafficked girls, the parentless children are particularly vulnerable to sexual slavery. The women in the piazza strain to keep the links open, to protect and shelter their loved ones thousands of kilometres away. But they must suspect that their sisters and daughters could be in danger. They themselves were too old, too educated, and too tough to be targets. After all, they are courageous enough, some would say insolent enough, to meet under the light of day. They may be outside the community, but they claim a physical place at its centre. Meanwhile, their compatriots, the Eastern European and African girls, are let out at night to sit on folding chairs beside isolated country roads or to pace by freeway off-ramps.

During the day, the prostitutes sleep on pallets in bare cubicles. The Rom have encampments, shelters made of scraps of lumber, cardboard, and plastic. The Somalis squat in abandoned warehouses or unfinished buildings. They all remain on the outskirts, beyond the city’s walls, not invisible – but not conspicuous either. The Bossi/Fini amendment imposes sentences of between six months and three years, as well as a fine of between 10,000 and 50,000 euro, for anyone renting accommodation to illegal immigrants.

I imagine my women spread in apartments throughout Venice. I see them alone in narrow rooms crammed with unwieldy, old, dark furniture, staring out of a single window at a bare wall. My images of the others’ living spaces are based on newspaper or TV accounts: Twenty Illegals Rousted from Warehouse; Arson at Romanian Camp. But I know the rooms of the badanti. On one early trip to Venice, while my aunt was away caring for a sick relative, I had stayed in my aunt’s room, had slept in her bed. The walls had loomed too high and too close. I felt as if I were in a prison cell: I could not catch my breath. And though my aunt was an Istrian refugee, she was an Italian citizen. (Poverty and class can also turn you into a stranger, squeezing you out to the edge.)

On the third afternoon, a woman I had not seen before swept in and captured the group’s attention. She was tiny, lost in a bulky mink coat. Unlike the others, she wasn’t wearing gloves. Her hands flashed through the air as she talked. She wore a large ring. “The coat used to belong to her employer’s wife,” Nadea told me. “You know, if an employer will vouch for you, you can be granted residency. As simple as that. Of course, they prefer not to, so they can pay you less. So you have no recourse. But this one is a widower, and she has improved his life so much that he sponsored her. She has been able to bring her two children to live with them.”

“Does she have a husband in Moldova?” Nadea shook her head. Seeing the expression on her face, I added: “And what about you? Are you married?”

Elena, who had also hung back with me, said “They’re good for nothing – our men. They smoke and drink and don’t work.”

“Too much vodka,” Sofia said. “My father and uncles all died in their forties.”

“My husband is a journalist,” Nadea said. “He used to write for a newspaper in Chisinau. He kept on even when it wasn’t worth it. Then he was laid off. Now he’s at home with our teenage son.”

“Typical,” Elena said. “You clean old people’s bottoms for three years, and he stays home ­– all comfortable – and waits for the cheques.”

“It’s not so simple,” Nadea said in English to me. “My husband feels diminished already. He’d be doubly humiliated by a job that he saw as beneath him.”

“And you aren’t?” I said.

“And then to change country? To go where he would be nobody? He said he was too old to start again.”

“But it’s all right for you?”

“I do what I have to do.” She gestured to the group clustered around the woman wearing the fur coat. “We all do… we women.”

As I was saying my goodbyes, shaking hands, Elena said, “You should write about us. We are a million in Italy.” Did she mean Moldovan women? If so, she was obviously wrong. Was she referring to all the Eastern European migrants? One of the other women had quoted a million to me two days earlier. Perhaps they both inflated the number so as to claim significance – we are a million. We claim significance. We claim space. Here. In your piazza.

I didn’t go down to the piazza on the fourth afternoon. I sat with Rosabianca at a little table in front of a café on Strada Nuova. It was still too cold to be sitting outside, but Rosabianca needed to smoke. So bundled up in coats and scarves, we watched the flow of never-ending tourists – all the world visits Venice. Rosabianca pointed her cigarette towards Campo SS Apostoli. “You’re done? You got what you wanted?”

“As much as I’m going to.”

I saw myself lying in my aunt’s bed.

I saw a woman in a narrow bed. A small dark room, a window facing a blank wall, a narrow bed with mint green cover. A woman in her early thirties, straight dark hair and opaque eyes. Elena’s eyes. On the bureau, stuck into edges of the silvered mirror, photos of a little girl. That was it: the possible plots were either sentimental or melodramatic. I made my bed, but she didn’t make hers. And she is forced to lie in it. “They have difficult lives,” I said, between sips of rich hot chocolate.

Wheezing, Rosabianca lit another cigarette. “Nothing unusual in that.”

“Their positions are so precarious,” I said later to Marco. “And some – OK not all – some of the Italians are so disgustingly hostile to the illegals.”

“It’s a crowded country,” he said. “Not the space there is in Canada.”

In the following two weeks (until we left), I frequently crossed paths with various members of the group. Each time, the woman saw me, and I, at first, did not see her. I’d be walking in diverse corners of the city, from Piazzale Roma to the Giudecca, and I’d feel a tap on an arm or hear a cheery buongiorno. Then I’d realize that Elena or Sophie or Vivid Eyebrows – one of them was standing in front of me, waiting for my acknowledgement. I knew them, yet I couldn’t pick them out of the rush of people coming towards me. Often, they were in a shadow – in a doorway, under a portico, or in the back of the café – and the sun was in my eyes.

During the afternoons I had interviewed them, they’d been angry at Italy, Moldova, their men, and their lot. They were eager to talk, but the tone of their voices told me that they categorized me with the ignorant and the spoiled. But now they reached out to touch me, insisting on the connection.

Over the next few years, I made several attempts first to write a short story and then to do a news article. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I owed them. “You should write about us.”

We claim significance. We claim space – in your mind. And in the piazza.

Caterina Edwards is an award-winning writer with a passion for the city of Venice and the topic of immigration. Her seventh book, The Sicilian Wife,was published in the spring of 2015.

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