An Italian Education /Keeper of the Vineyards (prologue)
The following was written as a sort of ‘prologue’ to jump-start me in beginning my latest book with the working title of ‘An Italian Education’ which is set in Siena in 1977
By the time the Africans arrived in Siena, I’d fought most of my battles both in and out of school. It had taken a while, mind, and some had been hard won. I’d had to ignore all the disbelieving stares and to ‘unhear’ the predictably stupid remarks. There were times when I’d felt as if I were a one-woman show working a tough crowd of hecklers. But I’d pushed on through. I’d risen above it with, what I believed, was a quiet but determined composure.
It had helped that I knew what I was in for from the start and that my Italian was robust enough to defend myself. I knew that I needed to get ahead of things. I would have to manage the Italians before giving them even half a chance to manage me. I might be hi-vis but my strategy was to be deliberately low-key. So I was matter-of-fact about the raised eyebrows and I shrugged off the sniggers and murmurs with a bemused smile. The trick was to act as if a joke had just gone right over my head and I knew it, but I was nice enough to be OK with it. No need for explanations. Yes, I’d worked on that smile.
So you might even say that I had found my niche in Siena. I was the city’s first ever black school teacher. As the assistente inglese down at the high school, I was committed to improving mastery of the English language for all those bright young minds. Sure, I might have turned heads at first with the Italians, but as time went on, anyone could see, that black or not, I had all the makings of a dedicated language teacher. Matter of fact, there were moments when I half-believed it myself.
Over the weeks the shock waves that had spiked on my arrival in Siena had gradually subsided to ripples. You couldn’t miss me, and that was a fact. I was the only black face around and not just in school but in the entire city. Only now people knew where I fitted into the scheme of things. I might still be a talking point, but I had a real role in the city that everyone understood. Yes, things had definitely settled down for me. Now most people saw that there was more to me than that strange, wiry-haired, black girl who had come out of nowhere.
Finally it felt as if I had hit my stride. After an unpromising start, school was going swimmingly, and I had a tight, little circle of Italian friends where I could be myself and not the buttoned-down version I had created for public consumption. On top of this, my modest salary from the school was boosted by a constant demand for private English lessons. In Siena, it was fair to say, I had become the go-to-girl for English; and for once in my life I was in the money. Matter of fact I was planning a trip to Paris with my Italian pals on the strength of it.
I may have been feeling a little pleased with myself, complacent even. And why not? I’d sowed the seeds, cultivated them with care, and now I was reaping the harvest. I’d earned my little niche in the city. I could relax now and enjoy it.
Then the Nigerians burst onto the scene like tropical fish blasted out of the water. There were only four of them, but dressed in colourful dashikis and squabbling noisily in Yoruba, they spilled into the shadowy little streets of Siena like an entire circus parade. They were too loud and too bright and too foreign in every way not to be enjoyed as anything but a spectacle by the Italians, who stood back and stared at them, hugely entertained. Ma guarda che roba! Take a look at this lot!
And suddenly I felt all my early groundwork beginning to shift. I knew that those hard-line defences I’d hammered into place were about to be breached again.
For months I’d been playing down my blackness with the Italians. Months of side-stepping random interrogations into my parentage and exact country of origin; facts that total strangers felt they had every right to know and that I had an obligation to tell them. But I was ready for them. Ready for all that “yes, but where are you really from?” caper. I’d been playing that game too long and I wasn’t having it. It wasn’t up for discussion. I simply did not have time to be black on their terms.
It’s true, I’d say. I am the English assistant down at the liceo. And just so you know, I’m born and bred in England. And yes, I know, I’m black. How crazy is that? Then I’d pull out the other smile that I’d perfected. It was a tight, weary smile. I used it like a punctuation mark; a full stop that didn’t invite further inquiry. This and a slight arching of the eyebrows said: Now, let’s move on shall we? And to be fair, it felt as if most of them had.
Then along came the Nigerians with their loosey-goosey swagger; a riot of colours and noisy energy. And I knew that the carefully controlled climate I had created for myself was at risk. Whether I liked it or not their arrival was going to have a knock-on effect to my own peaceful existence in the city. They might be as foreign to me as they were to the Italians, but their collective blackness put mine right back in the spotlight. Not that I was kidding myself. It wasn’t as if no one noticed me anymore, but people had got used to seeing me around and my visual impact was no longer the sensation it used to be. And I suppose that I had got used to them too. The stares and the stage whispers were never going to go away; that was just Italy. I was learning to manage it better.
The truth is: I’d been prepared to take on the Italians but nothing had prepared me for taking on a group of Africans in Italy. And I knew I was going to have to fight my corner all over again.
The Libyan Sibyl by Guidoccio Cozzarelli (floor mosaic in Siena cathedral)
Yoruba carved heads
Yoruba hand-carved and painted drum
Piazza del Campo, Siena