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from the September 2016 issue

From “Goldfish Don’t Live in Puddles”

Marco Truzzi dives into the daily life of a boy living in a Romani camp.

What’s the point of stars
If you don’t want to see?

—Romani proverb

My father stopped being a gypsy in the spring of 1987. As for the hows and whys that led to his decision—or, according to his point of view, how this simply happened to him—we’ll get to that later. For the time being, all you need to know is that my father stopped being a gypsy when I was seven years old and he was thirty. Up to that point, we’d had a few things in common, one of them being that neither of us had ever been to school. This is an important fact to mention not so much for biographical reasons, but so as to realize what a crucial role compulsory education played at the exact moment when my father’s existential horizons—and, by extension, our family’s—were completely transformed.

On the contrary, the moral of this story is that our people and the gadjé simply can’t stand one another. We’ll probably never learn to coexist peacefully. It’s important to make this clear right at the start: this story won’t culminate in some unexpected twist.

It seems only fair to mention that.

 

No, that’s not true.

The moral of this story is that everyone should be proud of who they are even when this proves difficult, even when it’s painful, because when all’s said and done, everyone would be better off if they did.

 

My father stopped being a gypsy a few days after some people from the nearby primary school paid our camp a visit. I had always given school a wide berth: I had no idea as to what went on in there and my parents never bothered to explain it to me. The men and women in question had been accompanied by a few policemen with whom we’d already dealt for various reasons (it wouldn’t be polite of me to dwell on what those reasons were). Thus, these people showed up at our camp in the spring of 1987 to ask my parents why I wasn’t attending school.

The four policemen had kept close together, pairing off while standing in front of everyone.

The tall policeman had knocked on our kampina door, which had long needed to be repaired; it was a miracle it even managed to stay shut. I had tried to tell my Grandpa Roman that we’d need to fix up our trailer sooner or later. He would always say: “When the time comes, when the time comes,” at which point he’d give me a few pats on the shoulder and go back to smoking his pipe.

In any case, the tallest policeman knocked at our kampina door and I saw him just in time. I immediately went to hide inside the water barrel we kept next to the door. I knew it was empty because the other men in the camp in addition to my father and my grandpa used it to shave in the mornings.

The tall policeman had had to knock three times before Grandpa Roman emerged from behind the caravan to see who was making all that racket. Before those people had showed up, the camp had as always been full of women who went back and forth with baskets full of clothes in need of washing or drying—and men discussing the changing of the seasons while shaving in the middle of a circle created by six kampinas where, although no one knew why, a wooden crate and a broken mirror had been set up, which the men used as a communal bathroom. However, when all those gadjé showed up, the camp emptied out in a heartbeat, following the long-established rule that whenever policemen set foot in the camps where we lived, it was always a harbinger of bad news.

“You sure are knocking on that door a lot, but there’s really nobody inside,” Grandpa told the tall policeman.

“We heard some noises, so there must be someone in there,” the short policeman standing behind the tall one chimed in.

“Sometimes these damned modern trailers creak and squeak at all times of day and night, even when there’s no one inside. That’s just how they’re made; besides, they’re old and we’re poor people,” Grandpa said, assuming the plaintive, beseeching tone I had often seen my mother employ whenever I accompanied her when she went to manghél in town.

“That may well be,” said a third policeman, who was neither tall nor short and had hitherto stood aside. “Regardless, I’m telling you there must be someone in there since we even heard voices. Trailers aren’t usually known to speak,” he concluded.

Grandpa then leaned his ear against the door. At that exact moment, I could also hear my father mumble something about someone being at the door and that it would be best to keep quiet until they were gone (mumbling loudly was one of my father’s chief characteristics). Grandpa turned to face the policemen.

“Can’t you hear there’s someone in there?” the tall policeman asked.

“So there is, so there is,” he replied.

He then turned to face the kampina and gave the tin door a resounding kick, barking a few words of that strange language he was fluent in, but which my parents could only understand. Nobody had ever taught it to me.

“Get out here, you fool. They know you’re in there . . . is that any way to behave with policemen?” Then he shouted even louder, but this time in Italian, winking at the policemen.

In the end, Grandpa went back to where he’d come from—the plastic chair on the other side of the kampina, where he usually spent his mornings counting the cars that sped down the countryside highway, which ran alongside the wide irrigation canal in front of our camp.

Ensconced in my hiding place, I carefully raised my head so my forehead protruded slightly out of the barrel to see what was going on.

My father had opened the door by then. He had no choice.

At the time, I wished he hadn’t answered the door looking like that. I don’t know why, after all I was used to it. But something told me stepping outside in his underwear and undershirt wasn’t the most appropriate choice at that specific moment. Behind him, my mother—who usually liked to laugh a lot—was already in tears and had joined her hands together, acting in that pitiful way we did whenever we came into contact with outsiders (especially with people in uniforms).

“So you are mister . . . ?” the policeman in front of the door said.

“We haven’t done anything, it’s just jealous gossip spread by bad people who have it in for us,” my mother immediately cut in.

“Pipe down, woman,” my father said, running a hand through his long hair, suddenly looking alert and adopting a penetrating gaze.

He struck a pose—as though expecting that tall policeman to give him the most important news of his life, regardless of the fact that the hand he’d held out to greet the cop was the same hand he’d been using to scratch his ass up until that point.

“Pipe down, woman, it’s not like we’ve done anything wrong. We’re good folk and we don’t go round bothering other people, no we don’t.”

“Do you know where your son is right now?” a tall woman said, butting in, looking as thin as the trees that separated our camp from the road.

The woman had stood on the sidelines until then, alongside a couple of other men no one had ever seen before. They all looked like government officials of one sort or another.

“That lazy scoundrel, if I catch him I’ll give him a good hiding, what’s he done this time?” my father immediately exclaimed in a single breath.

My mother instantly raised her voice and amplified her weeping. “We always tell him to be a good boy and not to go round bothering people,” she said, almost throwing herself at the policeman’s feet, who in turn took a step back.

“But it’s all useless, he won’t listen to us. Oh, but when I catch him this time I’ll take my belt to him, I swear I’ll give it to him good. It’ll hurt so bad he won’t be able to go around causing his usual mischief for at least a couple of weeks,” my father concluded. Then he raised his voice ostensibly. “Do you hear me Damian? You better not show your face because nothing will save you if I get my hands on you.”

I knew it was all an act because we’d been through this many other times. My father had never used his belt on me like some of my friends’ fathers did. He put in a good performance that time because the tall, thin woman screamed in dismay and almost fainted.

“Did you hear that? That’s how those unlucky little wretches are treated here,” the woman said, turning to one of her colleagues.

In the meanwhile, my father had started yelling, “Grandpa! Grandpa!”

People in the camp had by then gone back to their usual comings and goings since everyone had understood that the police had come for us and weren’t looking for anyone else. It was as though the kampinas had breathed a collective sigh of relief. Everyone was minding their own business again.

Grandpa slowly came back to the front of the trailer while puffing on his green wooden pipe.

“What do you want? Clean up your own mess,” he told my father.

“Have you seen Damian around?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Who else should I ask? The two of you are thick as thieves.”

I had in fact been spending a lot of time with Grandpa Roman. We didn’t get up to much, I simply liked sitting at his feet and staying still, where I was safe. Grandpa wasn’t a chatty type. He would sometimes spend an entire hour in silence while he fiddled with his pipe, or dragged his chair back and forth as he searched for the most comfortable spot on the uneven patch of earth—which my father somewhat exaggeratedly called “our garden”—with his gaze fixed on the horizon beyond the row of trees. Suddenly, Grandpa Roman would put out his pipe, clean the tobacco out of the bowl by tapping it against the sole of his shoe, and, clearing his voice, he would begin to talk about the old times, which only he knew about. I could only imagine how there had once been a time when the people in our camp had been allowed to live with dignity—that’s exactly how grandpa put it, with dignity—when we could roam the land with our tents and kampinas, when we never staked a claim to any one place and no one was as happy as we were. I could only imagine it because the reality I lived these days was quite different and it was best to keep the gadjé at arms’ length.

“Stop filling his head with all that nonsense,” my Grandma Luce would always say in the end, addressing my grandfather. “Besides, you’re filling it with things that never happened. Who do you think you are? I’ve been washing your clothes and cooking your food for so many years that I can’t even remember how long it’s been and you’ve never done anything apart from sit there and smoke your pipe.”

At which point, Grandpa Roman would get up and go for a walk to avoid arguing with her, probably heading to pay a visit to his friends on the other side of the camp, or anywhere that was sufficiently far away from Grandma.

“I don’t know where Damian is,” Grandpa told my father. Then, darting his eyes toward the barrel where I was hiding, he added, “I haven’t seen him around here in ages.”

“Useless as always,” my father said, stepping toward him menacingly.

“Don’t you dare take that tone with me,” Grandpa replied, pulling a branch off the log that my father had been promising to chop up for the fireplace for over a week now (a job he’d kept putting off for so long that by the time the weather got warmer we didn’t need it any more).

“It’s not my fault if you can’t get your son to show you some respect,” Grandpa added.

My father went red in the face, but was forced to backtrack.

Grandpa headed back to where he’d come from in silence.

“Do you think you could put some pants on while we talk this over and make yourself a little more presentable?” the tall policeman asked my father, who was wandering around the camp in his underwear.

Turning to my mother, who’d taken advantage of the mayhem to slink back into the trailer, he yelled, “Woman! Bring me a pair of pants.”

“Which ones?” a voice called out from the inside.

Fuming, my father rushed inside the trailer and slammed the door so hard behind him that you could hear the bottles on the table—there were always bottles of all types on our table—fall to the floor.

The policemen and the others were left standing in silence in our front yard. They couldn’t possibly know that my father only owned a single pair of trousers and that he would thus find them quickly. That is, my father only had one pair of trousers he could possibly wear on such a, shall we say, formal occasion.

This was one of those formal occasions.

I remember those trousers very clearly: they were brown, bold-ribbed corduroys with bell-bottoms, which my father thought were superbly elegant because they were creased down the middle. This was why those pants were part of his Sunday best, which he only wore on special occasions, such as a relative’s wedding or paying a visit to the Municipal warehouse to ask for some gravel so he could fill in all the potholes that sprang up in the camp when it rained.

At the time, my father only owned three pairs of trousers: bleached jeans, all of which had been irremediably cut to varying lengths: one just above his ankles, which gave the impression our house had just been flooded; another pair had been cut off at the knee, which made my father look far younger than he actually was; finally there was a pair that hung at groin level, which he only wore on very hot days. That was why my mother asking “which ones?” had pissed him off so much: because there was only a single pair he could possibly wear on such an occasion. Sure enough, after a few noisy minutes, my father emerged from the kampina wearing his favorite white t-shirt and brown corduroys.

“As we were saying . . .” he said, addressing the policemen.

“Actually we weren’t saying much of anything,” the short policeman said. “We asked you about your son and you don’t even seem to know where he is right now.”

“I’ve already told you that I’ll teach him to respect his father once I catch him.”

“That’s not why we’re here,” the thin woman interjected again. “We haven’t come to encourage your penchant for violence.”

“Can someone tell me who this person is?” my father asked, not deigning to glance at the woman, but instead directing it to the policemen, the only authority he recognized.

“This person,” one of the other men present explained, “is, or rather should have been, your son’s principal last year. If you even know what a principal is, or for that matter, that children are obliged to go to school in our country, and not roam the streets begging.”

I had never begged in my life, but merely accompanied my mother when she did.

“My son has never gone out begging!” my father said, employing all his self-control to suppress the temptation of laying his hands on the man. The policemen stepped forward and blocked his path, grabbing him by the shoulder.

“Let me go,” he told them, “I’m not going to let this guy stand here and make an ass out of me.”

“Whether he’s making an ass out of you or not isn’t the real issue,” the short policeman said. “Fact is you’ve not been sending your son to school and it’s taken us two years to find him, but we got there in the end. Damian should be going to primary school, but he hasn’t even spent a single day there. Thus, you have two options: either you start sending your son to school, or we’ll deem you unfit to care for him and act accordingly. We will then take him into our care,” the policeman concluded on a polite, but firm note.

My father was silent for a while.

“You have no right to take my son away from me,” he eventually said, “and I can leave this place as and when I please, at which point you’ll never see me again.”

“You can’t do that, we’ve opened a file and your son will have to attend school wherever you take him,” the woman said.

“Nobody came to tell me anything. If I’d known, then Damian would have gone to school, just like everyone else,” my father lied.

I can say from experience that this lie represented his last line of defense, since he wasn’t used to lying and preferred to use force when it came to resolving matters (whether it was brute force or the force of his reasoning).

“Very well . . .” the tall policeman started. “So now you know and starting from next week your son will have to attend the D’Annunzio Primary School.”

“And what’s that?” my father asked.

“It’s the primary school on the other side of town.”

“What are you talking about, you dummy? There’s another school that’s a lot closer than that, I know.”

“Firstly: you’re in no position to call anyone ‘dummy.’ Secondly: if you knew there was a school nearby then why didn’t you enroll your son there? Thirdly: you should choose your words carefully since you’re not the one who’s going to be making the decision.”

My father calmed down a little.

“Well, if you’re so smart then you tell me how my son is going to get to school, it’s not like I have a car . . .”

“Don’t worry, the school bus will come to pick him up. All you and your wife have to do is ensure he’s ready to be picked up every morning at seven o’clock on the dot.”

My father looked ponderous. I knew exactly what he was trying to work out in his head. If he refused to send me to school, this would at the very least mean we would have to leave the camp, which would leave us with the ugly feeling we would eventually be found again, just like the police had told him. On the other hand, sending me to school wouldn’t present many problems save for the fact he was currently short of cash, which he’d need to buy my schoolbooks, pencils, and all the other equipment he’d been told was associated with the idea of going to school.

“And what about the money? Who’s going to give me the money to buy him the things he needs for school?” he asked in the end.

“The books are free,” the principal said, “and we’ll take care of the rest.”

“I’m the one who looks after my son,” my father said proudly.

“As you like. All we care about is that your son is where he belongs next Monday: in his classroom,” the policemen said.

My father nodded his consent.

“Are we done here?” he continued, with one foot already inside the kampina.

“Yes, we’re done,” the tall policeman said. “Just do the right thing and nothing will happen.”

My father stepped back inside the trailer.

The policemen and the others stood there for a while examining their surroundings. The camp was once again deserted, as though it had been uninhabited for a long time. There were no sounds or noises coming from anywhere, not even our kampina. There was so much silence I could hear my heart racing. That drumming sound would bounce around in my ears and fill my head, as though it were the only sound that existed in the whole world. Sometimes the same thing would happen in the dark, on some nights when I didn’t manage to fall asleep, when the only thing I would hear was the ticking of the old alarm clock we kept in the kitchen, on top of the little color television. An alarm clock you couldn’t hear during the day, but which was incredibly loud at night. That was how my heart was beating on that day of March 1987.

Thus, hiding inside that water barrel, I had looked on powerless while my father beat an honorable retreat and a deal was struck, committing me to something called “school,” which up until the age of seven, I’d happily only heard about from the half-disgusted stories told by the older boys in the camp.

“You’re in a pickle now,” my grandfather suddenly whispered.

I looked up and saw he was sitting next to the barrel and smoking his pipe.

“How did you know I was in here?” I asked.

“Well, my boy, I’ve lived so long I can see things other people can’t. But if you really want to know, I’ve seen you use that barrel as your hiding place before.”

I’d been found out. There was no point in staying hidden. After all, all those people—the police, the principal, and the others—had left. I lifted myself out of the barrel, so my head and half my torso emerged out of it.

“Which pickles are you talking about?”

My grandfather looked at me. He puffed on his pipe and said: “What I mean is that you’ll have to grow up in a hurry. And you will. Just like all the others before you who set foot outside this camp to obey the laws of the gadjé. But I’ve got hope, I really do.”

 

From Non ci sono pesci rossi nelle pozzanghere. © Marco Truzzi. By arrangement with Nabu International Literary & Film Agency. Translation © André Naffis-Sahely. All rights reserved.

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