Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Renting in Livorno

When you come from a different culture and decide to make your home in another, part of the integration is for you to give up some of your ideals and embrace some from your new home. And sometimes, it entails putting sentiments aside and embracing logic, even if it feels unnatural to you. When we hear stories of racism and segregation in the news or we hear others share their experiences with us, as much as we hate the truth, the logical one in us can ‘make sense’ of the ill treatments received. This is not to say we accept it, but being human, it’s easy to understand that it’s human nature to be afraid of the unknown, and we (the ‘foreigners’ ) are to the locals, the unknown.

In all truth though, this mode of thinking can only strive when it doesn’t concern us directly. We sympathize, empathize and say, ‘well, they’re just being shallow minded, maybe someday they will realize that we indeed aren’t much different from them’. And somehow we carry on and push that thought aside. However, when we have a first hand experience of it, the tolerance level decreases greatly and we find ourselves thinking or even saying in irritation WTF!???!?! I found myself saying that a lot lately.

I’ve lived in this country (Italy) for well over a decade and I have always known that finding accommodation (among other things) was a major source of concern for most coloured people. I’ve never personally had to deal with that problem directly. In the past I have had coloured people approach me, asking to rent a room in my flat, or rather, to live with me pretending to be my sister (for legal reasons - not to violate my landlord/tenant contract) and pay me a certain amount monthly. These were honest hard working woman that I trust enough to keep their word, but I had never accepted such proposals for two reasons. First of all, I am not good at sharing my private space with people I am not intimate with, and secondly, I have been brought up to help friends NOT exploit them, and (maybe that’s a twisted way of seeing it), but taking money from someone to give them a roof over their heads, especially when I don’t really need the money, to me is a mild form of exploitation.

I have offered accommodation free of charge for brief periods until they made other arrangements. I clearly remember an Eritrean girl said to me once, in tears, “I hope you never find yourself in this situation“. That was after weeks of reminding her that I needed my space back and she had to leave. I had hosted her for almost three months until she could make other arrangements, but the period together began to rub on our relationship and I wanted her to leave because I thought it was better to loose a flat mate than to loose a friend. She eventually moved to a different city. I think asking her out of my flat served as asking her out of my life as well because I never heard from her again and don’t know what became of her.

Fast forward to today, or rather, back track to a couple of months ago. I got offered a new job and had to move to the city where I live today, I had a total of two weeks to find a flat for me and my daughter and it was in the middle of summer. It’s a seaside town and in summer houses are rented out to vacationers, so it was a difficult period. However, through my office, I was able to find temporary accommodation, in a dreadful flat at an outrageous price. I moved here and took the first three months to settle down and get a feel of the town before deciding on how to go about looking for a better, bigger flat.

What I met with in my search for a new flat took me by surprise. As in every Italian city, the streets are filled with stands offering free magazines that advertise houses for rent or purchase and I had always imagined that if I ever need to find a house I’ll just pick one of those and browse through until I find the right one, contact them, strike a deal and move to my new home, that’s the way it works. I have had the good fortune all this time to have my accommodation situation taken care of for me, so this is the first time I am doing it myself.

I found a few flats that I liked and had contacted the persons to rent from and they all either asked for outrageously higher prices than were advertised or told me the flats were already rented out. At first, I thought it was just coincidence, but after the 16th count, I got the feeling it was not. I began to talk to other people of colour about it and was surprised to find out that no one wanted to rent to coloured people. I didn’t want to believe it at first. I mean, it surely cannot be BECAUSE of our colour (?) Up until then, all the contacts I had made regarding rent was through telephone calls. I figured, they probably could tell from my accent that I was not a native, but I figured, if I showed up in person, regardless of my wonderful tan and my accent, they might be able to tell by the way I carried myself or by proof (I carried and was ready to show) that I was employed and legal, that I would be a reliable tenant. That didn’t really change much for me. Most of them didn’t even let me get as far as offering any proof that I can afford my rent.

At a point I had to be assertive and address the issue, that was when a woman said to me, “I honestly wish I can help you, it’s just that most of the home owners specifically ask not to have their houses rented out to foreigners, especially to coloured people.” I left that first office in a state of awe. It took me days to gather my wits. When I headed out again, I went for the kill. I told the agents right away that I knew that some house owners ask not to rent to coloured people but I’ve proof that I can pay, here is my employment contract, here is my office address and my Boss' name, where they can call and check and here are a list of reliable and respectable locals that are also friends that can and will be glad to be my referees. It didn’t help much. I was black and that was good enough to disqualify me.

So I got back on the streets again to talk to my kindred and basically what I found out dented my spirit. The common notion was that coloured people here are mostly illegal aliens, therefore potential trouble. But trouble in what way? There are loads of illegal non black Aliens, what makes them any less trouble than coloured people?(I shall have to research that!) I remember years back when I was looking to move from an old flat, a landlord told of having to send out a coloured tenant that had about 21 relatives living with him in shifts and causing the neighbours to complain. I didn’t get his flat of course because it was smaller than what I had in mind, although he was willing to rent. I had laughed at his tale because I didn’t really believe it. But I found out that there was an element of truth to it. These coloured people do indeed rent out sleeping spaces from several people at a price. What happens is, the lucky tenant has a contract that doesn’t allow him to rent out space to a third party, but doesn’t prohibit him from having guests, so they have these ‘guests’ come and go, thereby respecting their contracts. Which meant it was possible to find a person that had as many as 6 addresses where they lived one week here and the next there and keep moving around until it’s time to return to house number one, which very much explained why that man I had talked to, talked about his tenant having 21 relatives living with him.

The sad thing about this is that paying rent to these bastards doesn’t quite guarantee that you’ll indeed be able to use the space allotted to you for that period, and the thought out there is you cannot let the authorities in on it because you’d be in trouble for being a part of the operation at all. Interestingly, these landlords aren‘t only coloured people, even the natives take on these arrangements. My initial reaction was that this wasn’t right and the authorities needed to be notified of these illegal deals. However, I soon found out that no one, especially the coloured people are willing to be witnesses. It was hard enough even finding these living arrangements in the first place, no one wanted to find themselves on the streets if these arrangements were no longer available. We mustn‘t forget that renting to coloured people to a larger percent of the house owners is as good as renting to trouble. In fact those that were willing to talk to me didn’t want to be named or identified.

I currently live in a little rat hole of a flat. I won't bore you with the description. The walls leak in whatever the weather outside holds and I’ve had all sorts of creepies and crawlies visit, including a scorpion in my bathroom. Long story short, it‘s the worse place I have ever lived in, in all my life and all my travels, but I have been told to count myself lucky. LUCKY?

I have an appointment in a few days with another agent to take a look at a flat - the only agent thus far willing to go beyond the initial step of house hunting. I had spoken to her on the telephone and she didn’t seem deterred by my accent yet, I hope she won’t be put off by my colour as well. Of course, I cannot wait to get out of this rat hole and I hope I do soon enough. However, I have been forced to indeed count myself lucky. I do wonder at the big picture. Can anything be done at all, to change the attitude of most people towards us coloureds?

Monday, 1 March 2010


The other day, my daughter said something quite disturbing. For the past year she has been asking me questions about her looks (how different she is). When she was three, she came home one day from nursery school and said to me
“Mamma, is it true that you are black?” I was amused. I asked her what she thought and she said
“I think you are brown. Mattia said you are black and I told him you that are brown.” With that, I knew that it willl be just a matter of time before the you-are-different snake pops its head up again. It’s been two years.
Well recently, she has gotten into fights a lot too often with the boys in her class and although her teacher had trivialized the whole thing and had told me she was simply a difficult child, I found out that the boys in question had called her Bistecca (steak - for the colour of her skin), ricciolina (nappy head - for her hair) and cacca puzza (smelly shit - for…heaven knows what).
Anyway, on this particular day, I had picked her up from school and we went grocery shopping before heading back home, and while we were stuck in traffic, I was listening to Sarah Brightman, my mind was wondering in all directions when suddenly she said
“Mamma, I am not black.”
“Yes principessa, you are not black,” I responded, (she loves being called a princess ever since she learned that my paternal family were at a time rulers in my African hometown).
“And I am not white,” she added, again, I shook my head.
“No principessa, you are not white either.”
“I am Mulata,” she stated.
“Yes you are Mulata.” This has been a conversation we have had in the past, so I was certain this line of conversation was closed until she added
“I don’t want to be black because I don’t want to be a cacca puzza like black people are.” I felt my rage rising slowly but I kept it under the lid.
"Is it true that we stole this car because black people are theives?" (refering to my car of course). My tolerance lid popped.
“WHAT?” I barked.
“I didn’t say it,” she defended quickly, “Mattia said that black people are cacca puzza (smelly shit) and that I am a negra femmina (female negro - usually when Italians use the term negra it carries an offensive denotation), and that blacks are thieves."
For the next sixty seconds that felt like more like sixty minutes, clearly and harshly, I defended my being black. She began to cry. When the anger cooled down, I felt bad, then sad. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I cannot say I perfectly understood what it was like for her to continually have to defend being related to me. I had taught her that there was nothing wrong or superior with being either black or white and more so being a mixture of both. What I had never envision nor planned to tackle was the possibility of her having to deal with defending my race and embracing her white Italian father’s race.
“I’m sorry,” I eventually said. She gave me a puzzled look. I knew she didn’t understand what I meant. We have always had an understanding with her, never say you are sorry about hurting someone until you fully understand what is it you are sorry for, otherwise the ‘sorry’ would only be a cute cover for a wound that would rot under the cover until it leaks out, bigger and uglier than before.
I was sorry for not preparing myself for the roller coaster of emotions she would be dealing with for being different. Granted, she is lighter-skined than I am and could pass for another non black race with her hair heat straightened. But she is too young to have that option (or I purposely choose to let her embrace who she is from the very start).
When we got home, I tried as best as I could to explain to her that there will always be shallow minded people like Mattia who are just not intelligent enough to appreciate the beauty of our differences. And that she must concentrate in embracing her being different rather than defending or running away from what makes her different. I also told her that I loved being black, I didn’t want to be a Mulata like her or white like her father (and it’s the truth too) and that she MUST learn to embrace who she is AS SHE IS and not crave to be more like me or more like her father because her being different is what makes her special. Now, that doesn’t mean the problem has been solved. That doesn’t even mean it’s a reliable solution but for now it works for us.
What bothers me though is that I am still not prepared to handle what will come next, and I know more will come. I know that I need to educate myself on what being Biracial feels like.

©Naan Pocen

Friday, 5 February 2010


Excerps from my memoir.

“Go home, stranger; your roots are buried somewhere else.”

Those were the words that were spoken to me on a park bench on a humid October afternoon, three years ago. I had just returned from Chiavari where I had met with my lawyer to go over certain personal matters. It was not a happy day, and the weather didn’t help my mood much. I had left my car in the parking lot of the school where my daughter attended. I had gone in to pay her fees and when I got back to the car, someone had parked right behind mine, blocking my exit. I was already late for my appointment and the trains were not reliable, so I decided to leave immediately. When I got back later on, the gates were shut (rightly so too), so I waited in the park for the gates to open, so that I can get my car and go grocery shopping before coming back to get my kid and head on home. I was there for barely ten minutes when this old man came and sat at the other end of the bench where I was.
“Ciao” he said to me cautiously. I’d seen that caution before. It’s a mixture of mistrust and curiosity. He didn’t trust me for my coloured skin but he was curious as to whether I could be solicited. It took him but just a moment to indeed solicit my ‘services’. I looked at him. I was almost void of emotion. My trip to the lawyer had sapped me of any I had left. He mistook my silence for calculation.
“Look, I can pay you right away if that’s what you are worried about,” he said, leaning towards me. I looked at myself and wondered if by some weird chance I was dressed as a whore and was too preoccupied to notice it. I wore a pair acid washed jeans, a pair of deep blue Lacoste sneakers and a sky blue and white raglan sleeved t shirt. My hair was in braids and in a pony tail. I had no make up on, not even a shadow of a chap stick and I had been chewing on my lower lip all afternoon as I normally did when I get nervous.
I ignored him, I dipped into my pocket searching for my last bit of caramel as I felt my nerves on edge. He pulled out his wallet and ruffled through his bank notes. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince himself that he indeed had the money or he probably thought it would be an effective temptation on me. I suddenly felt a rage overtake me and I bit into my caramel to stop myself from lashing out.
“Che denti!” He said and started what sounded like a cross between a cough and a cackle. He was laughing.
“So, what do you say?” he asked me after he was through with the annoying laugh.
“How about I pay you to lick my ass?” I said as lewdly as I could manage. I brought out my wallet and ruffled my bank notes in his face before ignoring him one last time. That was when he said to me
“Go home, stranger; your roots are buried somewhere else.”
“Get used to me here, old man ,because I am as Italian as you are and intend to be twice the shit head you are.” With that, I got up and headed to my car, hoping I’d find the gates opened at the school.

To be continued….

©Naan Pocen