I will smile if I am alive. If I am dead, only memories will be left.
Yes, this is Europe.
On my first day of work I did not know what to say, how to introduce myself. I stepped into the school hoping the lady at the front desk had seen the bus parked outside. She raised her head from the Tv programme magazine and looked at me. I feared more definitions than the actual words my mouth would utter. “Good afternoon. I came to pick up the kids…..” She kept staring at me, so I added: “…the Roma kids.” She spat the chewing-gum in a little bowl and picked up the phone. Without taking her eyes off of me she yelled “Send down the nomads, will you?”
It’s five p.m. The school bus approaches the camp slowly and clumsily, heavily climbing tons of rubbish piled up in the middle of the parking-site. Dozens of kids are hanging from the steel fence like little monkeys, screaming at us. In the bus the kids are already standing, waving back at those off the bus, yelling at each other, spitting, shoving, jumping on the seats and skipping the messy line formed by the children waiting to get off the bus. Like football fans, they sing all together their slogan: “Via Germagnano 10, Via Germagnano 10, …” The name of the camp, that is actually the name of the street where the camp is located, in front of the dog pound, in the northern outskirts of the city. Songs and then noise of slapping and punching. There is a second of silence when the bus driver pulls over and breaks so hard the kids are about to fall on each other and, when the door opens, everyone jumps out and disappears inside the camp. Sometimes a couple of children go to the pile of garbage, start looking thoroughly and ransack around. They pick up something and run away to join the others.
In the camp, fires are already burning, the sun has set and the freezing night is coming.
I turn around and go back to the bus when I hear someone calling me. It’s Marcus’ mother. She comes running, her face red with anger, shaking her long dark plaited hair and yelling at me with her Slavic accent. I stop, waiting to hear what she has to tell me. “You!” she starts, “You hit my kid. He says you hit him on the bus and you pull his hair”. I look at her in total disbelief. I don’t know what she is talking about. I quickly try to recall if something has happened on the bus that day that involved Marcus. There is so much scolding and attempting at calming the young wild crowd that it is difficult to say now what I have possibly told Marcus in that delirious trip from school. No, today Marcus sat quietly for the whole time and I did not scold him once. The lady keeps yelling at me. I hear other people approaching and other voices rise beside hers. In a matter of seconds I am surrounded by five adults, three men and two women who scream and tell me they don’t want to see me anymore on that bus. “You hit our kids, we’ll report you to the police, you understand?” “If I see you tomorrow on that bus it’s me who’s gonna hit you!” The situation is beyond my imagination, beyond reality. I slightly turn my neck and see the fence: I am inside. It’s their territory. I look back at them and don’t say a word. Then I breathe, and I say, in an incredibly steady and quiet manner “I would never hit anyone, I have never hit your children. Anyway, talk to my boss and let me know.” And I think “If you don’t want me on the bus why don’t you bring your kids to school?” I turn around and go back to the bus. Mario, the bus driver, has been watching the whole scene from inside the bus, the doors shut. He sees me coming, opens the door and lets me on. “Fucking gypsies, let’s go.” He says. This is exactly what I did not want to hear. Rage and fear melt inside my head and flow down my legs, I need to sit. I call my boss and tell her what happened. She laughs “You’ve had your baptism by fire.” Then she adds “Don’t worry, they just wanted to let you know that they’re watching you, they wanted to test your reaction. You did well.”
Contradictions and obvious lack of justice or fair treatment. Parallel lives, same city and opposite needs ad culture. I look into the gummy eyes of these scummy kids who bear names of American Tv series of the 1990’s and I wonder, eventually finding myself making arrogant and sarcastic comments because of ignorance and lack of understanding.
The Local Waste Disposal Agency is not far from the camp. Next to the Agency’s headquarters and facing one of the largest waste disposal sites of the region, there is a nice big yellowish building hosting a cafeteria and a sort of community centre for the employees. Waste collectors, drivers and other employees, all wearing bright yellow and green thick jackets, the agency’s uniform, are the main customers; they all know each other and stop by for a coffee, a chat, a quick glance to the Sports Magazine. When we end the morning tour, at around 9 a.m., we also come here to have breakfast. I think it’s one of the nicest and cheapest cafeterias in town. It’s always busy, from very early in the morning, when the waste collectors come and have a coffee after the first shift. You enter and the smell of freshly baked pastries and hot cappuccinos fills your nostrils and you soon forget the omnipresent stench of burning garbage that surrounds the area like a permanent fog. Sometimes the driver comes with us. It depends on who is on shift. Mario for instance never comes. He drops us off at the traffic-light next to the ring and goes to the bus deposit. Right away. Even that time it was freezing and pouring with rain, I had forgotten Luana’s kindergarten was on strike and we had to bring her back to the camp. Even that time he dropped us off as usual in the middle of the large jammed road and drove away. Luana holding to my neck, the cars driving past us and water splashing everywhere. No, Mario does not come to the cafeteria when his shift is over. Dino does though. He is a big smiling middle-aged man who always says shifts end in front of a nice cup of coffee. He is big and quiet but he giggles for nothing and is always very polite with the children; he says hello to them and never yells.
The group of Roma people living in Via Germagnano is of Bosnian origins, most of them have been in Italy for the last three-four generations and many of them went to the same schools their children attend today. After having squatted abandoned areas and buildings around town for years, they were transferred to a camp. After a while, the Municipality moved them again and assigned them two specific areas. Small numbered huts were built and the Roma people are given the authorisation to live there according to specific compliance criteria such as having applied for a permit of stay, sending the kids to school, etc.
“This camp is better than the old one”, Brandon tells me one day. “The old one was full of rats.”
“There are rats in this one as well” his younger sister adds. “You know,” she says looking at me, “he and the older kids hunt rats in the camp, the other day they got a half bucket full of them…Rats are disgusting.” She adds. I laugh. “Do you know why there are so many rats?”
Brandon looks at me. His leather jacket is too big for him and his bleached hair makes him look older than 10, but it’s his look and the expression on his face that increase his age even more. He smiles. “It’s because of all the rubbish. There are some people…” he starts and raises his voice so to make himself heard by the kids sitting at the back. “You know, there are some families who, when they finish eating, leave their leftovers outside. Two seconds and you see rats swimming in the dishes and pots half full of food…” He looks at the back and points at two little ones who are jumping from one seat to another. “Some people are very dirty and disgusting; the camp is full of rats because of them.”
The hierarchy in the camp is reflected on the school bus, everyday we have to fight with the kids who do not want to sit next to some others. Insults uttered in Bosniac against ancestors and spitting and punching as answers are ordinary business on the school bus, but, behind this behaviour, there are deeper reasons than simple children’s conflicts. Family relations and games of power present in the camp are felt so strongly by the children that they replicate what adults do, as if they shared the view that respect comes with hierarchy.
Via Germagnano 10 is one of the big authorised camps of the city of Turin and, with time, smaller unauthorised settlements have grown around it. These settlements don’t have access to basic services and are governed by internal rules. If people want to park their truck and live there, they have to pay a fee to the local “manager”. Not many people from associations let alone institutions are welcomed there; there are often harsh fights, killings and relations with the authorised camp are tense. Once a big fight broke in the unauthorised camp and the police had to intervene. However, the picture on the first page of the local newspaper showed the entrance of the authorised camp, where all the kids live. Excitement ran through the bus. “We’ve made the headlines!” “Look, our camp is on the newspaper!” The kids were overexcited. Then, one of the older kids picked up the newspaper. “Please read it loud!” The younger kids asked him. Dylan started reading slowly; he is 13 but he still cannot read very well. “A big fight broke in the camp…people were injured…knives were found…” The kids started talking to each other “Did you see anything?” “My uncle was there, I am sure!” “That’s what I want to do when I grow up, I am going to kick and hit all those who don’t agree with me! And then I will be on the newspaper…” a six year old with long dirty hair added screaming loud.
There are around 100 kids living in the camp, about 60 are of school age and 40 have registered for a seat on the school bus of the Municipality, on which no more than 30 people can sit.
In the morning we arrive a bit before eight and enter the camp. We make our way through the mud among unauthorised colourful caravans and the numbered huts built by the Municipality. We pass by all kinds of unidentified and recognisable objects, cars and cinema seats, broken furniture, wooden and steel sticks, plastic bottles, driftwood, dead rats, abandoned toys and lone shoes and we yell “School!! School!!”. People in the camp know us and groups of adults squatting around a fire burning in a barrel make small signs with their heads when we pass by. “Don’t call for school, otherwise no kid will come out, yell something else like “Candies” or “Fun Fair” and you’ll see how many kids there are in the camp!” one man tells us almost everyday. We go past them and continue walking around the camp. We see the children looking at us behind the small windows, running outside to tell us they won’t come. Teenage girls with their belly sticking out and a small baby holding tight to their long skirts come out to say hello and then disappear inside a hut.
By the time we have finished the tour, the bus is already waiting outside the fence that surrounds the camp. The engine is on and the kids start running from all corners. They push and scream to get a seat on the bus, the boys smelling hair gel and the girls with tight braids and pink clothes. They know the bus will leave at 8:10 sharp, they know they cannot keep seats for their siblings or their friends and they know there are not enough seats for everyone so, every morning, there is a race to get the best places available or, at least, one. Sometimes we have to leave some children at the camp because there are no more seats available; however, most times we just let everybody on and tell the bus driver to write there are 31 people on the bus, included us. We should not do it for a matter of safety, but that’s the way it is. It also happens that the bus leaves half empty, kids come out just to see the bus leaving and there is no way to convince them to get on.
At 8:10 the bus leaves and we are off to the first primary school.
Every morning we go to the camp, pick up the kids and bring them to the 5-6 schools in the area. Most kids go to primary school, but we also have a couple going to kindergarten and a bunch of older kids who take the bus in the morning and come back on their own. In the afternoon we pick them up school by school and leave them at the camp. Fixed tour and fixed hours do not allow us to be flexible. There is no such thing like bringing them later or earlier in case there is an excursion or a strike, there is no way the kids going to the schools at the end of the tour will ever arrive on time, there is no day the kids going to the schools at the beginning of the tour will attend lessons until the end in the afternoon.
Samantha hands me a piece of paper written by her teacher. “Tomorrow entrance at 8 a.m. for excursion. Bring 4€.” I read it quickly. “Sam, you have to give it to your dad, you know we cannot bring you earlier with the bus.” She keeps silent. “Well, then I won’t go.” It is such a struggle to convince parents to let children go on excursions. It is not only for the money; very often mothers are afraid of letting their children go outside the school. We go to their caravans and try to talk to the women, who are the ones responsible for the children’s education. Answers are often the same. Worries shared by all mothers in the world and I find myself laughing on existing bias. “Accidents can happen.” “Who knows what they will do and where they will go. Teachers are humans, they cannot keep an eye on all the kids and I don’t want anything to happen to them, there are always bad people around. Once they’ve grown up, they can go wherever they want, but now they do what I tell them to..” and so on. “Come on, once they’ve grown up they’ll be married and have kids on their own, like you…” Women shrug their shoulders, aware their 10 year old daughters are already promised to one of the camp’s young boys and that within three years they will leave school, as themselves had to do few years back.
Kids are kids everywhere; there are nice and polite kids and kids that make you fear thinking of them when they will be adults. There are annoying kids, who always look for adults’attention and others who do so by behaving as bad as they can. Some kids are already grown-ups and some other will never mature.
Kids are kids everywhere, and this bus is no exception, although everyday I learn there is more about being kids that I’d ever imagined. This bus is a school for me too, especially because my role is not clear. I am not a teacher and I do not have the responsibility of teaching them anything the children do not know or representing some moral value they should stick to. However, unlike the driver, I do have a relationship with them, they talk to me and tell me stories. Most of the time though, they are the ones who teach me about the city and the world we all live in. On that bus I learn everyday. I am told how to start a car without keys, how to take a car sound system without smashing the whole thing. I laugh to the most inventive sexually related insults and I listen to heart-breaking love songs sung by the older girls. I always wonder to what extent these children are aware of what they are talking about.
“I know how to make drugs” tells me Chanel, a seven year old known for her school brilliant results and who was given this first name because of her mother’s passion for this symbol of wealth and prestige.
“Really?” I ask, curious to see what this conversation will lead to.
“And how do you do it?”
“Well,” she starts, explaining as if she was giving a lecture.
“You tap the wall with a small hammer and you break some of it. You take it and you crush it in small pieces until it becomes powder. Then you take a one dollar note, you roll it, you put it into your nose and you sniff it up.” She says proudly, at the same time showing me with the help of gestures how to actually do it.
“Really? Are you sure this is the way you do it?”
“Maybe it is something the older guys have told you to impress you. Have you ever seen somebody doing it?”
“Well…” she hesitates. “I was told….I mean…I’ve seen…It’s that way, believe me.”
“Wow! How strange. Are you sure?”
“I have tried!” she adds proudly.
“Really? Have you?”
“Yeah, with my friend Brenda. But it didn’t work. We could not get the powder up our nose.”
“Well, maybe because noses are made to breathe, you are not supposed to sniff things up your nose. Only air can go in and out.”
She looks at me as if I were stupid.
“No! It’s because we didn’t have the one dollar note. That’s why it didn’t work.”