Italy 2014

Day 4: Florence through the Eyes of a Bangladeshi Migrant Worker

A handsome lad with an attractive woman, both with cool shades and a nice smile took a selfie together. They checked the selfie right away and confirmed that it perfectly captured their coolness as a couple; kissed and left walking full content. While I was observing and giving my running commentaries about them and other tourists, Caitlin, with her amazing wit, pulled several dialogues from movies that perfectly fit the circumstances, be that from Manhattan, Simpson or movies by Fellini, Wyler or Nolan.

That was us killing time on top of the Piazzale Michelangelo, with a breath-taking view of Florence right in front of us, its distant mountains, hanging clouds, sunlight playing peekaboo through clouds lashing over a swath of lush green, and the magnificent city of Florence taking pride of its Duomo.

Florence is wonderful, breath-taking, and full of energy! And David is one of the most wonderful arts you could ever see in life.

I arrived with Prof. Cooper from Parma. The train ride was short and one and half hours just flew by chatting together on topics that ranged from migration, China, graduate life, travel stories and what not! We stopped at a gelato store by the river and took a selfie together! We wandered through the maze of old alleys, were carefree to get lost several times, and often found ourselves in front of historical icons. Prof. Cooper, who came to Florence twice before, showed me the famous bridge Ponte Vicchio, Duomo, some delicate artisan shops where he shopped and at the end, took me to an amazing dinner. He booked the restaurant beforehand. A nice couple from Naples and Rome runs the restaurant. They were happy to have a loyal customer back and treated us with the first-class service. The description of food was delivered with care and details that included the origins of the truffles, cheese, beef, and wine, their kind, specialties, and the art just kept entertaining us till the end of the sumptuous dinner. I can’t thank enough Prof. Cooper for treating me to such a rich and interesting dinner, no doubt one of the best in Italy. The dessert was just the right touch a food lover can expect at the end. I highly recommend anyone to visit the restaurant if you have a budget for over 100 euro for two. It’s a small restaurant with home-cooked food, menus based on what’s available for the day. I bet, no one will be disappointed. Also, I got to realize how wonderful a person Prof. Cooper is!

Later Prof. Cooper took the train back to Parma. And I head to my hostel and met Caitlin, one of my friends who is working in FAO in Rome. She came to Florence to hang out with me and we had such a good time together, walking around Florence, dining together at different restaurants, chatting and bugging each other all the time. We spent quite a bit of time on the bridge looking over the beautiful Ponte Vicchio, drinking wine and arguing about the human cost of historical progress and how does fit into our appreciation of historical icons. The night view of the bridge is so beautiful.

We did so much, walked a long winding path through the narrow alleys of Florence, ate with full of heart, and truly revelled in the beauty of Florence. But we also wondered that this Florence must be a different kind of Florence among the hundreds of migrants from Bangladesh, North Africa, and East Asia, seen almost everywhere eking out selling souvenirs on the streets of Florence. For them, Ponte Vicchio must be just a trading space, looking at Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo must be a luxury of time, and the river Arno cutting across Florence must remind them of the rivers back home. Life is sometimes impressively shocking in perspectives.

I met Shakib (original name changed). He has been in Italy for three years. He recently received the legal papers that allow him to work in Italy (though he is pissed because he needs to reply for his card as it didn’t print his signature right). He had to pay around 8000 euros for getting a sponsor who could help him apply for such legal work permits. He works part-time at a kitchen and part-time as a street hawker. He is a nice young fellow, aged 22. His monthly income is around a little over 500 euros. Monthly expenses: rent is around 150, another 150 for food, and 100 for cell phone bills. The rest he gets to send back home. According to him, there are around 3000 Bengali migrant workers in Florence. There are many more from Morocco, Libya, Turkey, China… many of them have no legal documents and living a difficult life. He took me to a vending machine for tea and coffee, treated me a lemon tea that he and many other workers find helpful for Italy’s winter, and gave me a gift, ‘Charki’ that he sells on streets. There at the stall, I met Tamim and Mushfiqur. Tamim recently came to Italy, crossing the Mediterranean Sea on a boat. It takes around 2000 euros to pay for much migration. He seemed a bit depressed and the struggle on his face to adapt to this new environment was clearly evident.

When I asked Shakib how the Italians treat the Bengali migrant workers, he was surprisingly appreciative of them. He said that most Italians appreciate their hard work and the migrant workers feel that they have a lot to learn from the local Italians. I was glad to hear that. He regretted that I was leaving Florence tonight, otherwise, he would have invited me to stay at his place.

For Shakib, it’s an uphill battle. He wants to save money and start the business of a restaurant or bar. However, his mother forbids him from selling alcohol. He wishes he could earn a diploma in Italy, without which, he realizes that it would be hard to improve his lot. But he is looking forward to giving his best shot. He said, “deshe onek dushtu chilam, porashona kori nai, shobai tai pathae disey. Akhon cheshta koira jaite hoibo….” [I was wayward son back home, didn’t care to study and that’s why my family sent me to work abroad. Now I have no choice but to struggle…I’ll keep trying hard]!

Day 1 : Rainy Parma

The window I kept looking through to see outside the plane was too small to compare with all the windows that I get to open around me every moment during my travel. Wandering through the alleys of old cobbled roads, starring at the aged gorgeous architectures, and that state of a curious mind – waiting to be surprised by what lays ahead, around the corner of the street, are simply mesmerized momentary windows of bliss that opens up to me again and again in serene excitements. All my short conference travels have been sweet windows to a life that I always longed to live. In Parma now, I am living that life again.

Chatting with my professor over good wine, cheese, and local food, I also got to open the window of his life in front of me. It appears that almost all of us in academia have very similar but an exciting and modest life that is relived anew through new generations of graduate students. The experiences my professor shared with me are the experiences that I look forward to having as an academic and to some extent, I am indeed living that life day by day through every academic travel.

We went to a very good restaurant last night. We walked a bit to find it out but the town is small enough for us not to get lost. The food, I must admit wholeheartedly, was one of the finest of its scale I ever had. Three types of tortellini – zucchini (the best one), sweet potato, and mushroom – pasta with mushroom (gosh! The mushroom itself had such an unforgettable flavour), parmesan cheese, salad and wine…and over an hour of frank chat about the life of an academic! The restaurant is called Trattoria Corrieri, I would highly recommend to check it out.

It seems like Italians have a culture of going to a coffee shop and stand at the bar to quickly finish their coffee. Such a bar setting for coffee allows the clients and servers to interact much more closely than what we witness in North America where coffee tables are like distant private islands. Also when it gets busy, it’s funny to observe that various people in small groups of two or more whisper to each other talking privately standing at the bar for coffee. Each of their stays is short enough to reveal a pattern, people enter the coffee shop, whisper while taking sips of espresso and leave…repeat…(think of it as a staged drama with different characters doing the same thing repetitively)! Well, I’ve seen cafes with regular seating arrangements too.

Besides the usual stuff of attending a conference such as meeting new people, chatting about each other’s research works etc. one thing to make a note of is the wonderful performance of Giuseppe Verdi by two performers, a pianist and a clarinet player! With several courses of sophisticated Parma cuisine, the night was simply perfectly good for me that I walked back to my hostel whistling during the entire walk.

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