Tina Marisa Rocchio
Preface to the exhibition: A Roman Experience, Reflections on Immigration, Isolation, Otherness
“When I Left Home—home! what remnant of home there was to be called home—the smell of saffron and freshly ground flour still filled my pores.
With a rucksack of roots, an extra tunic, a pair of sandals, and a head scarf, I set out.
Small figurines of animals known to me and carved in ebony line my left pocket. Prayer beads line my right one. I fidget with them as I walk. My shoes prepare to bear the unbearable in the coming days.
The dust on my skin is familiar, the wind’s song, the noises from a distance all find a home in my brain’s facets of memory.
We walk—I meet others—we all walk in silence. We are the strong, the capable, the eager, the hopeful, the dreamers. We will make a difference and prevail. We will provide for our own.
I have never known what it is to be a minority, to be the one to speak a foreign tongue, the one with the outlandish dress, the one whose skin differs from most.
I have never pondered what are different from that I knew tasted like; what the wind on another continent felt like; never felt pangs of hunger for what’s known, what’s familiar, what’s friendly.”
“I have lived here my whole life and before me my parents and before them their parents, and so on and so forth. We have roots here.
See that shop? That was once my uncle’s fruit and vegetable shop. Look at it now – a bunch of Sri Lankan immigrants there now. Just listen to that racket! They never stop laughing!
Smell that? That’s my neighbor. I used to have a nice Sicilian family living next door. They weren’t the easiest to understand either but at least they ate at normal hours and cooked with normal ingredients! The grandfather passed away and his son up and took the family north—said it was getting to be unlivable here with all these foreigners moving in! He decided it was time to go somewhere where he could live and work unperturbed! I don’t know what he thinks they’ll find! It’s not like in the North they’re any better to the Sicilians than we are to the Africans.
I much preferred Sicilians to this man from Pakistan or Kurdistan or Afghanistan, one of those places over there! When he’s not praying, he’s cooking, it seems. And smell that! Have you ever? It’s all those herbs and spices and vegetables they sell now at the market. All their stuff from all their countries. I have to walk twice as far to find a local vendor of local goods! This country is going to Hell in a hand basket, I’m telling you!
What? Oh, yeah, that old line? Italians emigrated all over the world? We were the ones who they shut out of clubs, apartment buildings and restaurants? The ones the Want Ads excluded? ‘Italians Need Not Apply.’ ‘No Italians Allowed.’ Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it over and over. It’s what those bleeding heart leftists go on and on about. Or the parishioners who come every year at Christmas and Easter to ask if we’d like to volunteer our time to serve hot meals at the train station to the likes of these guys over here. But I didn’t emigrate, did I? No.
I’m right here, tried and true Italian. That wasn’t me on those long boats, so why should I feel any empathy at all for these others invading my Rome? My people have been here for over five generations! Get them up and out, I say. Rome is for the Romans.”
“I’m trying to recite my prayers quietly to myself because I feel as though my neighbor gets angry every time he hears me praying.
Usually prayers calm people—whenever there is the call to prayer in my country people pause, even if only for a second, and acknowledge a higher power to our own. Here, church bells clang incessantly and yet, no one pauses. No one looks up or bows their head. And on and on they clang.
It is right to recognize our humility, our humanity. We must live in respect of others and of God. We must treat our brothers as we ourselves would like to be treated. But the man next door, as much as he has two arms and two legs, as I do, and two eyes and two ears, as I do, he does not appear to me as brother. As hard as I try to communicate with him, he ignores me or throws up his hands at me. Sometimes, when I hear he is coming out of his door, I open mine to smile at him and he turns the key and runs away down the stairs. It is hard to treat others humbly and with humanity when they refuse you. I try, I fail, I feel defeated.
I miss the big sky and the earth tones from home. The bird’s song is different here—more aggressive and threatening, or am I imagining it? I spend my days from dawn until dusk on busses and metros and in line from one public office to another. They do not ask my name or where I am from as if they want to know me. They don’t. They want to shuffle me. They want to move me along and push me out. I don’t know where is next but I know it won’t be as frightening and solitary as here. My nights are spent in line at the train station. There Italian brothers and sisters with some foreigners who speak in English serve me hot meals. They do not know me and I do not know them. I try to smile, they’re looking down the line to the next to serve. We are shuffled again. The food is so different from what I know. I eat out of hunger, I hunger for what I know. My biggest fear is that that hunger will, eventually, turn my hope and my will to dust.”
“My neighbor is learning a little Italian. Seems the parishioners who bang on and on about the hot meal service also started teaching the poor souls Italian. At least now I can ask what it is he’s cooking all the time. He even brought me a taste. Rice with some saucy stuff on it. It wasn’t exactly a Sunday dinner but it didn’t taste half as bad as it smelled!
Turns out he’s a doctor, too. Studied medicine but never got to practice it. It seems war broke out, he lost some family and the rest, I guess they say, is history. We’re not friends, mind you, but he’s a nice enough guy. Says his name is Sam. That’s easy enough. Says it’s short for something but I didn’t catch what. Seems he speaks English and German and he’s hoping to head north from here but, in the meantime, he’ll learn Italian and wants to know if I want to help him practice. Ah, what the hell? Who else do I have to talk to? If he wants to come over and watch the game every so often, why not?”
“Turns out my neighbor is my brother, after all. He speaks loudly and uses his whole body.
Sometimes he hits me in the shoulder to get his point across. It’s a very odd thing but I notice other people do it, too. Sometimes I see two men walking and talking and then they stop. They stop in the middle of the sidewalk to finish their conversation or to make a point. If anyone is walking behind them, he simply has to go around them. It is funny to see how other people get on in the world.
I gave my neighbor-brother some rice the other day. I didn’t tell him but I do worry about all the pasta he eats. I don’t understand how an entire country can survive on wheat alone. If it’s not pasta, it’s pizza, and if it’s neither, it’s bread.
I have begun Italian conversation with him. I think tomorrow I will bring him pictures of home so we don’t have to talk about—and over—the TV!”
Tina Marisa Rocchio identifies strongly with her Vermont background—defiant, community-oriented, straight-shooting nature-lover to the core—but is equally at home in Italy, having lived between Rome and Tuscany for her entire adult life. A graduate in Comparative Literature and Italian Studies, Tina has spent over 30 years promoting Italy and all things Italian through various activities and to various constituents. Peeling back the layers of cultural nuance of Italy, her writing offers anecdotes and insights to this complex and sometimes counter-intuitive culture.