This place is full of mysteries I cannot explain. Let me rewind and rephrase. It all started because I wanted to get coffee from the French-looking Italian man named Paolo.
About two hours ago, three strange men with clipboards rang my outside door bell. It’s connected to a video-like system that lets me see and hear who is outside before buzzing them into my building. Normally, I wouldn’t be afraid of any of this. But about two months ago, our school sent an email saying not to open the door for strange men who looked official. They pretend to be gas men (here, heat, electricity and your stove are powered by gas–hence the gas men), asking to be let in to fix a problem with the gas. Once you let them in, they drug you and steal your belongings.
With this warning, naturally I refused to open the door. Instead I stared at the men through my video screen and texted fellow classmates, “The gas men are at my door!”
The screen went black, and I thought they left. I went back to watching Fresh Off the Boat (which is now my officially my new favorite television show for many reasons. One being that it almost fully accurately depicts my childhood as a first-generation immigrant, as well as pokes fun at all the stereotypes. I remember getting teased at school for my smelly Indian food, and me begging my mom to let me eat the school lunch. It’s ironic now because I love to cook what my mom made, and it’s valued here in this foodie bubble world I’m participating in for the next 7 months. I also remember being so scared of my report card that I tried to change the grade, but I actually changed it for the wrong semester. Now we laugh about it, with my mom saying that I was so naively innocent that I couldn’t change the correct grade from a C to a B. Anyway, tangent ending now…).
But then, my doorbell buzzes. I am in complete panic-freeze–like fainting goat video panic.
The buzzer rings again, which triggers my full-on panic into action. I realize that my show is still blaring at high volume. I hit the spacebar, throw my computer to the couch and dive for the light switch with agency–as if my diving would give me better chances at aiming for said light switch. I am now in complete darkness, as I tiptoe to the door and quietly turn the covering on my peep-hole. They ring my neighbor’s buzzer, and he answers. It’s a good thing that they are loud because I can make out the few words of Italian I know. Something about me and it’s important and Saturday and 10:30 or 11. The conversation lasts a long while–at least seven minutes. They say good evening and trudge down the steps. All I can think of is, “Thank god I didn’t open the door,” and “Man, now I have to wait to get coffee.”
Which leads me to my next story. After calming down from the semi-panic attack I just incurred, an episode of “FOB” later, some green tea, and some soothing Yo Yo Ma cello
later, I decided it was safe enough to open my door and enter the world.
I don’t know if I said this before this post, but there is this specialty chocolate-coffee-tea-beer-sweet shop about two blocks from where I live. The owner–Paolo–and his mother own it, and it is possibly the quaintest store in Bra. About every month,
my Italian improves enough to hold a conversation about a sentence longer than the last visit.
This time, I got there at 7:36 (the store closes at 7 p.m.) and thought I was out-of-luck because the metal shutters were halfway closed. I saw a man in there, talking to Paolo, and I thought, “to heck with it, I need my coffee.”
I attempted, the you’re closed? question in Italian. Paolo paused his conversation with the man who gave me the courage to walk in. Paolo responded, “Prego, prego.” Though I can’t remember the exact words, he said something along the lines of please come in, everything’s alright. After that, he went back to his Italian conversation with the man who had dark hair, black-framed glasses, and a familiar look and sound to him–not Italian, but something… else.
I tiptoed over Paolo’s mother on the edge of the counter–her ample chest was very prominent today in a tight black vertically-lined sweater. I proudly asked her in Italian for 300 grams of a Mysore Indian blonde roast. I was lost in caramels when I heard an American accent trigger a sense of familiarity.
The man said, “It’s nice to see another American.” This is a dead giveaway that they go to UNISG, normally. While all of this was happening, Paolo is giving me a metal cup of Indian beans to smell and approve. I say, “va bene,” as I inspect the coffee label and pretend not to be nosey.
Then, the strangest of things happens. The man who prompted my courage to walk into the store, the man who spoke fluent Italian, the man who was mistaken for Italian but had a familiar accent was not only a former student but a Malaysian.
For those of you who don’t know my rich and confusing cultural heritage has Indian, Malaysian, and American all in the mix. Long story short, I’m Indian. But I associate with being Malaysian-Indian from the U.S. because my mother was born in the country, met my dad (born in South India), and I was born on American soil.
When I heard Malaysia, I couldn’t stay quiet anymore. I swiftly turned around, and asked where? Turns out, he lived in Malacca, has an Australian mother and graduated from UNISG a few years go. He’s working here with a few other former students. For reference, Malacca is about a one-hour car drive from my mom’s “hometown” of Seremban–which is also where my cousins currently live.
The American guy is actually a professor from Boston, who teaches writing at MIT. I’ll have him for a writing class in a few months. We chatted a bit as he bought some Ceylonese black tea. We split grissini and parted ways. Though this may seem like a mundane series of events, I truly believe that if the gas men hadn’t come, I would have missed that one piece of familiarness that made me smile. I mean, come on–what are the chances of me meeting another Malaysian in Italy? Before you answer that with an, “Urmila, you’re in an international school. What did you expect?” I just want you to hear me out for a second. This isn’t the first occurrence where time and place have opened up a series of strange cultural mixes. Just last week, I went to an InterNations event with a friend. She spoke Italian with her mother. Her mother spoke French with me, and my friend and I spoke English. This is all happening in the back seat of a German Mercedes SUV through the streets of Turin.
That’s just one example. I could go on, but I’ll spare you the boring details. Today has been a pretty big whilrwind of activity. In a meaning and representation class, we discussed the value and interpretation of “authenticity” and what it means to be “ethnic.” After that, I had a lovely lunch in the sun. It was quail with poached quail eggs.
We then shot a rap video for an editing techniques class. Because of my BJJ rap, my group thought it would be a fun idea to make a veggie rap. It was so much fun. I’m so happy to be around others that aren’t afraid to let their silly side show.
Tomorrow, I’ll be on the edge of my seat because
a) I have a big presentation
b) I’m going to Lyon with a few friends.
Top that off with having two amazing conversations with good friends from back home (one who recently moved to California and another who is visiting me in July), a long list of travels planned including my brother coming to visit and going to Fez with another dear friend, and you’ve got the perfect happy dumpling recipe. Oh, also anyone in Italy know where I can get an all-black gi? My instructor said I can keep my orange MMA belt (win), but I’m going to have to switch to a single-color “kimono.” I guess my old school was just too nuanced to be accepted into Italian structure.
Until next time,
Urmi the Wormi in the Italian mela.