As boatloads of desperate immigrants land in Italy, the debate is highly charged. One writer reminds his countrymen of their own emigrant past.
TURIN — Last month, after the latest in a long series of tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, the singer Gianni Morandi went on Twitter to remind his fellow Italians that they were, and still are, a nation of emigrants.
It was a pointed reaction to the many negative comments aimed at the refugees landing on our shores. The Internet quickly (and predictably) was flooded with violent attacks against the singer.
I am a writer, not a singer, but I have a personal experience to share.
I was a migrant myself. It was halfway through the 1960s, and back then we were more modestly called "immigrant" with an "i," while the word "migrant" today seems to conjure up some different race or people.
I used to live in the southern city of Reggio Calabria, where I'd started University before deciding to "migrate" north to Genoa to continue my studies. During those years, there were also many people who abandoned small towns across the south of Italy, aiming for a better job and some luck in Germany. They were the "emigrants," farmers and laborers trying to escape from the misery of hopeless rural areas, with little more than a cardboard suitcase and a flat cap on their head.
In Genoa, I was a passionate student of sociology, and read the great books of the American sociologists from the first half of the 20th century. Still, I wanted to acquire concrete experience in the field. I wanted to be an emigrant.
I asked my mother for help (my father was dead, we were a modest family, but not poor) in order to have this emigrant experience. I was well aware of the fundamental difference between those truly poor souls desperately leaving their country and me, "pretending" to be desperate too. I left anyway, as we say, on a study tour — with the 34,000 lira from my mother, exactly the price of a round-trip ticket in third class to Dusseldorf, the industrial city in what was then called West Germany.
I was leaving my country as other emigrants were doing, with just a little money and a couple of sweaters, socks and underwear, a few pieces of toasted bread, two jars of jam, and an Italian-German grammar book. But I also knew I had my ticket home.
I arrived in Dusseldorf exhausted by the long journey, dazed and uncertain. At the end of train platform, I saw words written in different languages, including Italian. "Welcome, workers. If you need support, we can help."
The sign was from the Kolping Haus, a charitable evangelical organization, which gave assistance to the thousands of Italians and other southern Europeans arriving in Germany in search of a job.
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Italian immigrants in Germany receive instructions — Photo: Bundesarchiv
They directed me to an attic apartment where I shared a room with 24 emigrants from different countries. The association gave me a credit of one German mark per day and taught me how to prepare the necessary documents needed to work at the factory.
I soon found employment in a steel mill. The alarm clock rang every day at 5 a.m., and I only returned back home late in the afternoon. I cleaned the cars and the warehouses, not far from the fires of the blast furnace.
There were no Italians working in my shed, mostly Germans, plus a Portuguese and a Colombian guy. Whenever I had a short pause, I hid behind a big iron table and read a few pages from my German grammar book. My German co-workers would verify my vocabulary and my progress: nose, hand, dress, to eat, to work, to talk. They followed me curiously, but they also treated me with some contempt, addressing me with words I did not understand and laughing at my expense.
One day, one of my bosses surprised me while I was working on my grammar book and took me to the front office holding my arm. The plant's director interrogated me, leafing curiously through my grammar book. In the end, they didn’t fire me, but told me to never bring the book back into the factory.
From that day on, I kept my language study to my home and little by little, my German was improving. One Saturday evening, I worked up the courage and decided to go out. Some German co-workers had invited me to come with them to a place for dancing — with many nice, single girls, they said with a wink.
A few minutes after arriving, as soon as the orchestra started to play a new song, I approached one particularly pretty girl. I was not much of a dancer, but she smiled at me, stood up and took me to the small space where couples were already dancing.
Suddenly a man approached me. "Nein! Nein!,” he said shaking his head, asking who I was. I told him — with my modest German — that I was an Italian student.
With a frown, he began repeating: "Nein! Nein!." He took my arm and walked me to the door, where he pointed his finger at a small sign. Unlike the one at the train station, I hadn't noticed this particular sign. But by then, I had learned enough German to read it: "Forbidden to dogs and Italians." I left immediately.
My "sociological project" lasted not much longer than two months. I had learned a lot indeed, both from my own experience, as well as the many conversations with the more permanent emigrants who'd come from Italy. And ever since then, I think of that "Verboten" (Forbidden) sign any time I witness disrespect against migrants who have come to Italy in search of hope, luck and a new life.
We too were migrants once. Some of us have forgotten.