REFUGE OR PURGATORY?

As my dear friend Lisa and I reminisce about getting lost this week, I am filled once again with deep compassion for what it must feel like to be a newcomer in a new land without the tools and the resources to negotiate an unfamiliar place.  In Florence Italy, two days after our arrival, Lisa and I optimistically decided that we knew how to get back to our tiny rented apartment after our morning wandering in a new section of town.  We were sadly mistaken.

Freshly arrived in a new place, our world was reduced to a tiny speck of what we knew within a vast sea of the unknown.  We knew our address, which is more than some of the people I interpret for do.  After two days of exploring, we knew where the grocery store was.  We knew how to walk back and forth to the Old City, the train station, and a couple other major landmarks.  We knew which bus number would take us into town.  So on a scorching afternoon after a long day wandering, we decided to take the bus home from town.  We had ridden it in once, and remembered where it had dropped us off.

It would be faster than walking the whole way, we reasoned, and our experience with buses is you cross the street from where you took it in order to catch the bus back.  But our bus number was not listed on the sign across the street.  We pondered that as we sweated and noticed how weary we were.  It must be around the corner, I reasoned, and so we walked a few blocks along where it should run.  No bus.  After a few more blocks in the heat of the afternoon, we decided to just walk home.  But by now we had somehow wandered off our bus route.  It seemed a long way to backtrack just to use the streets we knew.  So we forged on.  We kind of knew where we were in relation to our apartment.  But then again, we kind of didn’t.

We didn’t yet fathom a few vital points of information.  We didn’t know what we didn’t know.  For example, we didn’t understand how the buses run, how the streets work, the language, or even how to handle the heat.  We didn’t know where to buy water, or that stores would be closed from noonish until three or four in the afternoon outside of the tourist core.   And a lot of stores are closed this whole month for vacation.  We also didn’t know that our road is a short unknown one and that we were in fact getting less and less likely to find someone who had heard of it as we wandered further afield.  We didn’t even know that we were wandering away.

Our bus does not have a back and forth route.  It circles around and you always catch it on the same side of the street.  This makes sense to us in retrospect, because as we tried to find our way home along what to our unknowing feet seemed like straight streets, we were wandering in circles.  Streets we thought were parallel suddenly crossed each other before our eyes.  Streets we thought were north-south were arc-shaped and curly-cued to the four winds.  There were roundabouts but not in any particular pattern we could discern.  Some roads made pizza-sliced shapes and others just abruptly changed names from one to yet another male hero or saint.

We found the railroad tracks some way north of where we had started and were relieved to cross them.  Now we must surely be heading west toward our place, thank Madonna.  (The Mother of God, not the singer).  But as newcomers we did not know that north of the train station there is a major line that veers off to the east.  So when we crossed, we were simply continuing northward and further from our home.  Without knowing this, we felt sure that if we walked long enough, we would be bound to run into something familiar.

But nothing was familiar, and after a couple hours, my inner refugee was in a panic.  I was hot and tired. I felt nauseous.  I was seriously dehydrated and our water was long gone.  I had discovered to my ignorant surprise that all Italians do not understand Spanish, or speak several languages, or have any common language with me.  First shyly reluctant, then emboldened by desperation, I started accosting virtually everyone who crossed our path, and found out how to understand in Italian things like “I really don’t know, but I swear if I did, I would tell you!” and “Madonna, but you are far from home!  I have never even heard of that street.  Are you sure it’s a street?” and “It is nowhere around here so wherever it is you will have to take a bus.”  My favorite, “In Florence?  Are you sure it is in Florence?”  I was sure of nothing by now.

We started and stopped in our growing panic.  We had to do something besides continuing to wander aimlessly.  Should we just follow a street and if we get to another town, turn around?  How far apart are the towns anyway?  Should we hail a taxi?  We didn’t see a single one drive by and we had no number to call and didn’t really understand how to use our phones or even the calling code for Italy or whether we would need it using our foreign phones.   Why didn’t we have any of this figured out?  Why had we left our maps at home?  What the hell were we thinking?  I sat in the shade of a dirty little park – the first place in Italy where we saw any litter – and tried to get my roaming on so I could try to download and use google maps on my phone.

I clicked and squinted and watched the phone as if it might do something I didn’t know how to tell it to do, screen after screen, until despair and resignation set in.  My phone and my brain were both overheated and technology has never been my friend.  I felt beyond incompetent and helpless as I sat on that dirty curb in the heat, surrounded by the only litter in the country, incomprehensible graffiti on every wall and all the stores closed and shuttered for the afternoon heat wave if not for the month.  How could God let this happen?  We were never going to find our little apartment.  Not before I passed out or just fell to the ground and cracked my head open like a melon, fertilizing the street with my blood as many a street-named male hero was purported to have done through the long ages.

It really hit me then.  This wasn’t just a vacation story in the making.  This was the beginning of a freak death story for the local papers.  I was going to die on the street of heat exhaustion and dehydration and my friend’s cheery concern only made my impending ignominious street death scene the more painful.  Her unflagging optimism was salt in my wounds.

“Well, soon we will be home and then we can relax.”

I had to grit my teeth not to snap aloud at her unwarranted encouragement.  As time went on, it only got worse.  I began to have a series of snide verbalities walking silently alongside me as she encouraged onward.  “Sure, she lives in the desert.  This heat is nothing to her. I come from the rain forest.  I’ll be the one to die first.”

Her cheery commentary and looks of concern, along with her clear ability to outlast me and eventually get my body to the morgue, probably making friends with the mortician, became unbearable as the hours slipped away.  Finally, I snapped.

“You need to accept the fact that we may not make it home, Lisa.  People do die of heat exhaustion, you know.  We have been out here for hours with no water, no map, no way to get home.  Okay it’s the birthplace of the Renaissance, but there are no taxis in this hellhole.  Taking a bus is pointless because we would just get on and then get off in a random location.  So please don’t mention home again!  I want to be cremated.  See if you can get a discount as the process feels like it has already started.”

At that moment a bus stopped across the street, not our number, but my friend darted valiantly through traffic to ask the driver for help.  As it turns out, he didn’t speak a word of English.  And why should he?  Our being lost was certainly not his concern.  He had a bus to drive.  And as Lisa had actually stepped onto the bus, he simply drove off with her in it.  I saw her through the bus window pointing vigorously toward me and talking with eager rapidity.  The bus driver glanced at me for a moment but did not stop the bus.  I stood like a statue staring from across the street as the bus drove a long straight (for Florence) stretch of road and eventually disappeared around a distant corner with Lisa aboard.

My mother taught me as a child that if you get lost, you stay put and eventually someone will find you.  I felt very much like a lost child as I stood on that corner, seemingly abandoned by the Madonna, laughed at by all the saints in heaven, somehow deserving this fate or it wouldn’t be happening, and perilously, unutterably alone in the world.  I stood there on aching feet, the sun broiling me alive, staring toward the point where my friend had disappeared.  I had time to contemplate many things, including whether nervous sweat smells better when enhanced with the seafood and garlic emanations from yesterday’s supper.  The jury is out on that one.

More importantly, of course, I contemplated how very, very lonely and scary it is to be a newcomer in a new place and know no one.  And amidst all my self-concern, my heart went out once again to all the brave and scared travelers who are not choosing a vacation but are wrenched from their homes due to global conditions.

Laugh if you will at lonely scared sweating me, a pathetic excuse for a human being, a single, individual, scared rabbit of a person, on a chosen vacation with a dear and trusted friend, and laugh if you will at the deep instinctual fear I experienced.  But also please try to extrapolate to the millions and millions and millions of refugees who die in the desert or drown at sea or are killed trying to cross the border into countries they would never even wish to live in, if their home countries could provide them with decent living conditions to raise their families and live out their lives in peace.  It is impossible to really fathom how many people, each one living their subjective reality within their own bit of flesh as we all do, are forced to emigrate due to the harsh conditions of global politics and the global economy.

Much later, doing an impressive slow trot like a trustworthy desert camel, my friend reappeared from around the corner. Still smiling.  We would have clung to each other when she reached me, but the heat made that impossible.  Our peregrination did come to an end or you would not be reading this.  But that is not how it felt at the time.

We trekked on from there until we found two open stores.  Neither selling water or anything to drink.  I didn’t even ask to use their WC, thinking I may need to drink my urine later.  One had a Pakistani worker who spoke some English and said she had never heard of that street or any of the other major streets I could name.  She directed us next door to a Persian shopkeeper with a little internet by the hour cafe.  He sat on a stool in a little cage in the back like a bank teller in a Western movie.

I tried English on him and he just shook his head.  I tried Spanish and and he also shook his head.  Not knowing Farsi I tried to make up Italian using a Spanish base and adding in some hand gestures.  I stretched out my vowels like a luxurious cat, while hardening my d’s and relishing anything with a c, sc, ch, or cch in it. I told him in my Spitalian that we were lost.  He shook his head.  I said we were abandoned.  Same thing.  He was looking more awkward by the minute but I refused to leave.  I couldn’t take another step without help.

I unrolled my vocabulary, growing more plaintive by the minute, trying not to cry as my hands made butterflies then mosquitoes in the hot air.  “We are off our way, misdirected, missing, godforsaken.  We don’t know – our street.  Where, where our street?  Here we are, me must go – there!  Felice Fontana!  Felice Fontana!  Close to Neri.  In the West!  I think the West quadrangle rectangular square plaza of the municip-commun-city.  We are what is the word?  What is the word?!  We don’t know!  We don’t know!!  We need assist – succour – help!”

By now I was raising my voice, going up and down scales, tasting each bitter syllable before spitting out my Spitalian through the bars of his cage into his face.  Small wonder he started leaning further and further back on his stool until he had to hold onto the counter with one hand so he didn’t fall over backwards.  He kept both eyes on me while shaking his head distrustfully without uttering a sound in any language, looking more and more like a Persian-Italian deer in the headlights. I think he must have been moments away from hitting the panic button under his counter and having the Polizia resolve this.  Or pulling out a weapon as a last resort to make me leave.

Finally a young Spaniard in the cafe, who probably doubted that I even spoke Spanish until I happened to blurt out a whole sentence free of my made-up Italian, stood up and told me in Spanish that he could help me.  He did not know where any of the streets were, but he said he could interpret Spanish to Italian for me to an older Italian man acquaintance of his in the cafe, the only local around.  I gratefully accepted.

Via my new interpreter, I said our street name, but my new Italian friend didn’t know it.  I said Francesco Redi, the nearest larger street.  The old Italian shook his head and told the young Spaniard with a look of utter yet friendly disdain, “Redi – Redi.  No!  No no no no no!  No!  What street does the signora really want?  Maybe Neri?  It is in the tourist area.  Neri.  She must want Neri.  Neri sounds like Redi.  She is mixed up.  No?  Sure?  Well then.  But no, not Redi.  I think not.  Maybe the train station Rifredi?  Rifredi is close.  Tell her she must want Neri or Rifredi!  Not Redi!  They can’t be near Redi.  That is too far.  They can’t walk home from here.  No!  No no no no no!”  Peering into my red and sweaty face with curiosity, but carefully directing all his speech to the Spaniard.

This went on until I had repeated the name several times, really relishing the name as if he were my beloved and not just a familiar street on the way to our apartment, “Francesco Redi.  Francesco Redi!” The longing in my voice was real.  The intonation somewhat contrived, borrowing from Mamma Mia.  I used a variety of hand gestures combining belly dancing and my early childhood hula dancing classes.  Carving messages of HELP ME in the air.  In the end, I convinced him that although I was as lost and helpless as an infant, I actually did know where I wanted to end up.  He shook his head mournfully at my folly, but eventually directed me, via my interpreter, using many repetitions.  We shook sweaty hands and parted forever.

I cast my last glance into the tiny internet cafe, at which it only now occurs to me I probably could have map-quested or googled instructions to our apartment, or had a taxi called.  I saw the Italian still shaking his head as he turned back to his computer screen, while the Persian owner hid warily behind his grated counter, eager to see the back of me.  The young Spaniard walked me to the corner where by now Lisa had gone to accost passers-by in English as a back-up plan to my internet cafe effort.  From the looks on their faces, they seemed to suspect she was a beggar.  No one consented to speak to her.  Our Spanish friend pointed out to us the first few turns in our journey home, repeated the rest of our turns, and wished us godspeed.  We shook his hand in deep gratitude.  I would have cried with relief but I felt I couldn’t afford the loss of more vital salts and fluids.  And to be perfectly honest, I was not yet convinced in my heart that we would ever make it home alive.  But we did.

So once again I have been granted an experience that is a mere drop in the bucket of what it must feel like to be a refugee.  A miniscule drop. I have the incredible luxury of being able to eventually laugh at my misadventures, because we know that the worst vacation experiences make the best vacation stories.  There would be nothing funny about today if I had to live it over and over for years, knowing I had to stay here to send money to my family, or that my war-torn land would never embrace me again.

I have a homecoming on the horizon. There is no homecoming for the vast majority of refugees, as the home they left behind has also left them behind.  With that in my heart, while I will always have a giggle rise in my throat at the image of Lisa disappearing around the corner in that bus, I connect with immigrants and refugees across the globe in that recollection. Her sweet face seemed to be the beloved home country disappearing out of my sight, and the relentless bus driver the global economy carrying her out of my reach.