The background to this piece begins with harrowing images on the news of migrants trying to reach the shores of Italy.
They are Africans, who are intentionally leaving elements of their identity behind, in order to embrace another “better” identity; one which has yet to evolve. This sparks my own deep memory of comparable cramped conditions and movement with Italian migrants fifty years ago, where I recognise that I was an observing participant. There is something about the vulnerability and unknowing identity crisis while in transition that elicits an authentic and passionate voice – recognising people’s hunger to learn during life-changing experiences.
The pivotal and symbolic power of a Mortadella sandwich brings some clarity to part of a five-year-old child’s journey, when it seemed unclear at the time why I should be “returning” to a place where I was not born. The taste and smell become a symbolically powerful reminder of when I felt like “the other”.
A childhood journey
My personal experience was set, for the most part, inside a moving train and not on perilous open seas. However, to a young child of almost five years old, a three-day journey from the north of England to the south of Italy was no less than all the following: noisy, wobbly, screechy, smelly, hot, uncomfortable and very tiring. The noise of the overcrowded and jolting train is unlike the tumultuous invading roar surrounding a boat crammed with African migrants. However, the bumping of bodies and smells could be a similarity that attracts empathetic understanding. As I would occasionally feel protective hands swoop me up, preventing me from being sandwiched between jostling travellers and their luggage, I now imagine a rescuer’s strong hands around an African migrant child today, swooping the child out of a dangerous boat. The constant movement of my train journey enforced unspoken rules of close contact with others as acceptable and to be expected. The same unspoken rules, when no one minds the fragility and temporary loss of dignity, are represented when human bodies are also pressed together in a boat.
The Italian migrants had waited 11 months for this “transitional–reversal culture” experience. They had not yet settled in their new culture and wanted to revisit the culture they had already left. Perhaps the African migrants may have waited much longer prior to making their transitional journey and most may never plan a return journey. I became a natural observer to both verbal and non-verbal communication in a train, where similar-minded people, including my mother, conversed for hours. Many of the conversations I witnessed revolved around work prospects and future consequential living conditions.
“Is this really what all adults want to talk about?”
Slowly, I was filling my emotional reservoir, which I would tap into half a century later! Much like any other migrant child, many things about this journey left me feeling perplexed. Not only was I realising that I was a “first-generation child” of post-war Italian immigrants in Yorkshire, but I was also the “only” child on this journey. Not only was I not “returning” to my place of birth, like the other Italians, but I was also travelling “away” from the birthplace, where I did not fit in. During dialogue, not only was I being associated with an Italian father who had apparently abandoned us, but also my mother’s tone of voice now appeared to alienate me.
I suddenly began to feel uncomfortable again. At this tender age, my senses observed and memorised through smells, sight, mannerisms and any experiences of “oddness”. The “oddness” was when many “aunties” and “uncles” appeared at London’s Kings Cross station. This drawn-together community, with unpolished accents, so typical of my grandmother’s region of Puglia, trickled slowly from all parts of the country to unite like a river in London. We were heading to the south of Italy on the same train, which indicated that we would be in close contact for many, many hours. I suppose the bonding of numerous people closely together can manifest “relatives” by commonality and the African migrants on boats would adopt new “relatives” too, as they head for the south of Italy.
Perhaps these adults on my journey were not aware of how their glares, during discussions of the “unwanted daughter” of my Italian father, would be forever etched on my mind. It was child’s wisdom to conveniently flop over some luggage and continue “wobbling” into the “hotter” country, where noises and smells soon began changing. The train’s brakes screeched in the searing August heat as we came to one of its scheduled stops. I was soon taking my first bite of a mortadella sandwich, after a platform vendor waved his arms with some authority, holding up the enticing food.
An aromatic smell penetrated every space of the train as each person ate with some sense of achievement of surviving the cramped conditions so far. I felt truly “Italian” when I ate the tasty mortadella, but then felt like “the other” once again, as the adults began conversing in their native Italian language. This was a culture travelling together to the country they had once left. The symbolic power of my food represented my duality of being between two countries and two cultures.
I began picturing my grandmother waiting for me in the south of Italy, to share one month of my young life, after her 11 months of waiting to listen about her granddaughter’s life in another country. The African migrants today may not have such symbolic luxury food on their sea crossing, but there may be some relative, already on the Italian mainland, who would be waiting to discover if they had “made it”.
The symbolic power of movement with food brings with it a union with journeys in the Bible and receiving manna from heaven. The manna may be represented by any food that nourishes the body and soul; the “mortadella sandwich” is representative of identity – my own identity at that time, but also of everyone sitting together. It resembled achievement, comfort, commonality and communion. The power of smell and taste embraced the learning that could only take place in the seating of a particular journey, like Jesus feeding the people when they were sitting down. They would all take something different away from his teaching, but all were united symbolically by the taste of fish and bread. There is hope in the sharing of common food, which theologically can mean new life and experience in this cross-cultural encounter.
Born in the UK, Maria Casiero (a first-generation child of Italian immigrants) never fully embraced the value of her bicultural identity until mission involved her working with non-native English speakers. As her ministry is now broadening, a contextual bond is emerging with children of African migrants, both in Italy and the UK.
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