Italy Day 5: Aquino to Telese Part 2
The four of us stood in the cramped corridor, as the train rattled on. When it pulled into the station, we moved our belongings to the other side of the carriage to allow the waiting passengers on. The young African helped me lift my bike, and awkwardly, the incident on the platform still in my mind, I smiled to show my appreciation. At the next station, when we had to move the bikes again, I thanked him. Soon, we began talking.
He told me he was from Ghana and had been in Italy for nine months.
I asked if he’d come by boat.
He was a tall man, with a fine face and an easy, friendly manner.
I wanted to know about the crossing, but when I questioned him, he said discouragingly,
‘That is a long, long story. It would take me a long time to tell you that story.’
I asked again, but he shook his head, his whole body answering.
I readjusted my grip on the bikes. The others were standing behind me listening. The wind blew loudly through the rolling carriage.
After a while, I asked what he thought of Italy.
He hesitated, then said,
‘It is better than where I come from,’ but he looked unsure. ‘There are problems here you know. I don’t speak Italian. It’s not easy to find work and we are below the Italians.’
Looking back I should have taken the opportunity to ask what he thought of Europe, what his hopes were but instead I enquired whether he thought he was better off in Italy.
‘Hmm I’d say it’s about 50, yes 50% better here than where I was before. It’s not easy you know.’
Then he added.
‘But it’s definitely better than a group of men turning up at your house in the middle of the night,’ he paused. ‘It wasn’t safe for me to stay anymore.’
I nodded concerned. I was straining to hear him. The beer we’d drunk earlier had gone to my head and I felt unsettled. Ten years ago I researched the experiences of Somali refugees settling in Bristol, and I told him that while I did not know what he was going through, I understood it wasn’t easy.
‘I can see you understand,’ he said looking me in the eye. ‘You are not like the Italians.’
We were interrupted, when through the wind and clanking carriage we heard the man in the black cap shouting at the conductor in the carriage next door. We stood awkwardly listening. We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was apparent the man was still angry. Reminded of the differences between us, I looked at the young man in front of me concerned, but he only smiled apologetically.
I asked him his name. He told me he was called Paul. He wondered if I had any children and then told me about his wife and five-year-old son at home.
When we reached Paul’s station, I handed him my card. The man in the black cap passed us as he was getting off the train.
‘Allamagne!’ he said contemptuously, pointing at us.
‘No, English,’ we explained as if it were somehow different.
He made a joke. His companions laughed.
The man’s presence was unnerving but I also understood his frustration. Although he was unduly aggressive, there was a truth in his accusations and it was impossible to defend our privilege. It was obvious from the isolated men we’d observed walking along the roadside, that in Italy the Africans lived on the edges of society.
I watched the group as they walked along the platform. Paul waved. As the train pulled away from the station, the conductor stuck his head out of the window and called to the man, ‘Take it easy. You need to take it easy.’