The boy—man, I suppose, but he’s closer in age to my son than me, so, boy—is 27, and he’s a reverse immigrant. Born in Calgary—but went back to his parents’ motherland before he was two and that’s where he grew up. Now he’s back. He speaks fluent Italian and awkward English with a heavy accent.
“Sexy accent, right?”
He’s home but he’s homesick. Funny, hey?
We are speaking the universal language.
I know nothing about Italian music, but Czesław Niemen—the Polish equivalent of John Lennon, I’m not exaggerating—has a couple of songs in Italian. I share them.
Then I struggle to remember… there was this song… Piazza di Napoli? No, Ragazzo da Napoli… zajechał… some type of car… and she was a gold digger and he was happy to take advantage of her… confused motivation, but her local boy—who was singing the song—was pissed, and it was Communist Poland, so don’t fucking judge her—but of course, the singer and the audience do.
I think it’s a Niemen song, because I don’t really know very much about Polish music. Niemen. Rodowicz. Czerwone Guitary.
Skip a couple of generations: Sztywny Pal Azji.
That’s about it.
I can’t find the song.
I send my dad a text late at night. It makes no sense, in two languages:
“In which Niemen song does it go—Na piazza neapoli… zajechał (some kind of car) nananana…”
But that’s all he needs.
“Mirafiori. It’s a type of Fiat. Ale to nie Niemen.”
He finds it on Youtube:
I forget about the homesick Italian boy.
I’m wallowing in… nostalgia?
Perhaps. Not really. It’s not my nostalgia. This is not my youth. It’s my parents’ youth. My very early childhood. These songs were my Raffi, my Mr. Rogers. My mom played them in Libya.
With Canada, came choice and English-language radio. MuchMusic and MTV.
And then CDs from Poland. But it still was Niemen, Rodowicz, Czerwone Guitary.
I’ve told you before, I have a complicated relationship with my fatherland. I don’t love it.
I also realize—I don’t know it. It’s frozen to me somewhere in a 1981 I didn’t even experience firsthand, snapshots of rather traumatic memories.
The artist is a decade or so older than me. She left Poland as a toddler. Doesn’t have the facility with the language that I have. Has a much stronger affinity to the country, the culture. A hunger for belonging that she fills there, not here.
A sense, maybe, that if she stayed there—she’d be complete? Or at least… belong.
Sean comments on it. I see it too. We talk about where her hunger comes from. She knows some parts of it, not all.
She asks me, “Where do you belong?”
And I don’t really understand the question.
I’ve spent the last few weeks preparing materials for a Diversity and Inclusivity panel. The exercise kicked my ass a little. Talking about trauma is retraumatizing. And in the presentation of the panel I moderate, and in the presentation of the follow up materials and resources, I’m trying to achieve something really big. I don’t want to preach to the choir and I don’t want people nodding their heads and feeling good about themselves.
I kinda want to traumatize them, to force them to have an “Aha” moment whether they want to have it or not.
You: How very manipulative of you. And you were also doing a panel on consent, I believe?
In the midst of it all, I watch Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netlfix with Sean and I realize in a flash that a) that is what I’m trying to do in this panel and these materials and b) it’s nasty and mean and traumatizing but necessary.
I want to walk you to the edge of a cliff and then shove you over and have you feel fear of death and maybe see your version of god. Then yank you back to safety—give you a few minutes to catch your breath.
And then shove you off the cliff again.
I write like that too. In the novels, after the last time I shove you off the cliff… I catch you. Soothe you. Maybe even give you an orgasm.
But this panel does not have a happy ending. It’s ends with an invitation to keep on shoving yourself (and others) off the cliff.
You are homesick for Colombia, for your Mom, your sisters. Home.
My ragazzo da Napoli is homesick for those same things. Also, the food.
My friend from Syria is going back home as soon as he can; he’s not even here while he’s here, and everything he’s doing here is about what’s back there. Home. Sister. Parents.
My parents are here—they were always there. I think that’s the thing. The place I belong, it’s not a place.
One of the problems with most attempts to “educate” people on diversity and inclusivity is that we fail to address, head on, honestly, that like attracts like.
We want to be with people like us. We are comfortable with people like us.
And an inclusive country/culture is one in which “like us” is just a really fucking big circle.
I like to think that I like variety, diversity, hanging out with people who are NOT like me.
Drill into that a little… and virtually all of my closest friends, loves, the people I spend the most time with… are like me in the ways that really matter:
They’re immigrants, third culture kids, queers, non-conformists, freaky artists, existential angsters… who don’t belong.
They’re The Other.
We’re all The Other together.
Like attracts like.
Like relaxes with like.
And I guess that’s why “inclusivity” is the better word than “diversity.” It expands… like.
Does that make sense?
My kids have lived a lifetime in the same place, in the same house. I’ve given them—what I didn’t have. Just in case, you know, that was the better thing to give them. I’ve had to fight myself to give them this. I don’t want to root. My default, preferred, nurtured mode is to keep on moving.
But I wonder if… my rooted kids will be less resilient.
Drop me into a new city, country, hotel, group, party—and I’ll assess, in just a few minutes, the rules and power dynamics of the room. And decide how—if—I want to play them.
I don’t always love doing this. But I know how to do it. Pretty much flawlessly when I apply myself. Practice makes perfect.
The people in the room will enjoy their experience with me very much. And I’ll probably enjoy them. And I won’t think of them again when I leave. It will be easy to leave. Easy to walk into another room. (Also, easy to pass through that room without connecting with anyone, almost invisible, like a ghost, I can do that too.)
(I am probably exaggerating for poetic licence. I’ve lived in the same place for 13 years now. I will be here for at least 10 years more. I think it’s for the children, but I suppose it’s for me too. But I think… I think if you yank me out of this soil and transplant me somewhere else… you’ll find my roots were very shallow. And they’ll thrive elsewhere. My kids? Their roots are deep, deep, deep.)
The ragazzo da Napoli…
Him: You know I’m not actually from Naples? I’m from…
Jane: Hush. Don’t give me facts that fuck up the crafting of my narrative. You’re not longer real–you’re a character in my story, and you need to be a homesick, naive boy from Naples for the story to work.
Him: You’re a little strange.
Jane: Roll with it.
…is too young, I think, to really know how rooted or unrooted he is. And he thinks that I’m making a simple thing too complicated. Home is home, and also food, and speaking of, what Italian food do I like to eat, did my mom learn to cook Italian while we lived in Rome?
I think the answer is probably no—I don’t think of Italian food when I think of Italy. We ate, in Italy, Polish food. Potatoes, beets, and all the meat you could dream of: kotlety made with ground pork–mmmm, schabowe. A post-Muslim country pork orgy–except when the Jewish emigrants and Hungarian expats came over. Then, gulasz. Beef strogonoff.
“And in Libya?”
Sardines, saltine crackers, rice that had to be sifted for maggots. And caviar.
But that’s another story.
While in Denver, I make a friend who sorta lives in Orlando, but travels all over the United States for work. Orlando isn’t really home, even though his parents live near there. The rest of the family is in New York. The move to Florida was their big emigration.
I find it a bit odd that an African American family would move… like, South. You know?
He asks me if he can go “angry black man” on me for a while. I consent.
… and I can’t tell you, I can’t imagine…
But I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be from someplace that causes you pain with its history and politics, I know what it’s like to not belong, I know what it’s like to have a very complicated relationship with the place that’s supposed to be home…
In immigrant and ex-pat communities, you’re generally supposed to be extra-proud about where you’re from. It’s sort of the thing, right? Identity. Patriotism. Bla bla.
Political dissidents tend to walk a more complicated line, of being simultaneously proud of what their country was/could be and critical of its current politics.
“We’re all political dissidents now.”
Third culture kids occupy a different place still. We are, I think, hyper-critical of everything. The old home, the new home, all the homes in-between. Because our experience of the foibles of the homeland, wherever it is, is untempered by love and romantic attachment.
We love, I think—our parents, our friends. The aunts and cousins we visit when we go back to our parents’ home. The people we meet in our new homes. But places, countries?
I don’t know.
Ender: Can you turn down the volume on that song?
Flora: Or, like, stop listening to it on a loop?
Cinder: Just find her headphones.
Sean: She’s sorting something out. It’s part of the process. Let her be.
(My Greek chorus.)
I’m sorting out this:
My Poland is frozen in this moment, in which one could go to jail for listening to this song:
But people listened. Gathered for live performances of it. Fought and died for the right to, you know… THINK freely and critically and be able to express those thoughts in art and in life.
They fought… for the right to WORK, really. The right to live, exist… unfettered by oppressive dogma.
Watching the perversion of all of that by the current government of post-Communist “free” Poland is disgusting.
And the third culture kid says, “What is there to love in you, Fatherland?”
And answers, “Nothing.”
The ragazzo da Napoli shakes his head.
“My head is full of stereotypes about broody Slavs, moody Jane.”
“My head is full of stereotypes about Italian dagos. Do you drive a Fiat by any chance? A classic 1978 Mirafiori?”
“Shut up. And stop playing that old song. Let’s go eat.”
“No. It’s no good here. Sushi?”
“Maybe… or, there’s this new Afghani restaurant I’ve found. They cook with love, and the whole family works there. It feels like home. Let’s go there.”
Here, if you want to learn how to play Ragazzo da Napoli, you can do so here:
(The music is actually a cover of Italian singer’s Drupi’s 1978 hit Provincia.)
And here are the lyrics (my shitty English translation follows):
Ragazzo da Napoli zajechał mirafioriC a C a
Na sam trotuar wjechał kołami,C A d G
Nosem prezent poczułaś, już taka jesteś czuła,d G d G
Że pomyślałaś o nim “bel ami”.d G C G
On ciemny był na twarzy, a prezent ci się marzył,
Za dziesięć centów torba w Peweksie.
Ty miałaś cztery złote, on proponował hotel
I nie musiałaś zameldować się.
Ty z nim poszłaś w ciemno damo bez matury,F G C a
Koza ma prezencję lepszą niźli ty.F G C a
Czemu smutną minę masz i wzrok ponury,F G C a
Ciao bambina, spadaj mała, tam są drzwi.d G C a
On miał w kieszeni paszport, sprawdziłaś a więc znasz to,
Lecz on nie sprawdził, ile ty masz lat.
On mówił “bella blonda”, a zobacz, jak wyglądasz,
Te włosy masz jak len, co w błoto wpadł.
Jak w oczy spojrzysz teraz swojego prezentera,
Co dyskotekę robi i ma styl.
Straciłaś fatyganta, chciał kupić ci trabanta,
Czy warto było za tych parę chwil?
Twój ragazzo forda capri ci nie kupi,
“Buona notte” pewnie też nie powie ci.
Jeszcze wierzysz, że dla ciebie śpiewa Drupi
Ciao bambina, spadaj mała, tam są drzwi.
Poznałaś Europę, więc nie mów do mnie “kotek”
Ja nie wiem, co volkswagen, a co ford,
Nie jestem tak bogaty, nie wezmę cię do chaty
I przestań mnie nazywać “my sweet lord”.
Ty nie będziesz moją Julią Capuletti,
Inny wszak niż ja Romeo ci się śni,
W żadnym calu nie wyglądam jak spaghetti,
Ciao bambina, spadaj mała, tam są drzwi.
Gdy ci pizzę stawiał rzekł “Prego, mangiare”
To pamiętać będziesz po kres swoich dni,
Tęskniąc za nim, jak panienka za dolarem.
(original line: Tęskniąc za nim, jak złotówka za dolarem.)
Ciao bambina, spadaj mała, tam są drzwi.
The boy from Naples rode up in a Mirafiori
He rolled the wheels ride onto the sidewalk
Your nose smelled a present—you’re just that sensitive
And you thought about him “bel ami”
He was dark on his face, and you were dreaming about that gift
A ten cent purse from the duty-free store
You had four zloty, he was suggesting a hotel
And you didn’t have to show your documents to get in
You went with him into the dark, lady without a high school diploma
A goat has better sense than you
Why such a sad face and a grim gaze
Ciao bambino, fuck off baby, there’s the door
(“spadaj mala” is more like “get out of here, little one,” but “fuck off baby” is the intended meaning)
He had a passport in his pocket, you know because you checked
But he didn’t bother to check your age
He said, “Gorgeous blonde,” but see how you look
Your hair’s like flax trampled in the mud
How will you know look in the eyes of your [hometown boyfriend]
who throws dance parties and has style
You lost a serious contender, he wanted to buy you a Trabant
Was it worth it for those few moments?
(Trabant=shitty East German car, “spark plug with a roof))
Your „ragazzo” won’t buy you a Ford Capri
“Buona notte” (good night) he won’t tell you either
You still believe it’s for you that Drupi sings
Ciao bambina, fuck off baby, there’s the door
You got to know Europe, so don’t call me „kitten”
I don’t know the difference between a Volkswagen and a Ford
I’m not that rich, I won’t take you in
And stop calling me “my sweet lord”
You won’t be my Julia Capuletti
After all you dream of a Romeo different than me
In any case, I don’t look like spaghetti
Ciao bambina, fuck off baby, there’s the door
When he bought you pizza, he said, “Prego, mangiare”
You’ll remember that to the end of your days
Longing after him (chasing him) like a chick chases the dollar
(alt line: Longing after him (chasing him) like the zloty chases the dollar)
Ciao bambina, fuck off baby, there’s the door.
More about my struggles with the Fatherland: Dear Fatherland: the pallbearers were probably not skinheads, but I don’t know, and reflections on grief, roots, and love
—->>>POSTCARDS FROM CUBA
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