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from the August 2005 issue

The Flies and the Web

I go back to the "hole." I haven't stopped thinking about it since the first time I went there. I want to slip myself into that crack in the wall, find out what they do in there, how they spend their time, what they talk about, what a life of starvation and ugliness is made of, where they get the strength to go on hoping. The unconscious? The unwittingly religious or fatalistic acceptance of the life they've been given? The deferred gratification typical of dreamers?

Prepsychological? Pathological?

Very rich and very poor people have the same instinct for isolation, perhaps aware that it is only by physically avoiding one another that people are able to maintain the illusion of mutual ignorance, as though other social categories served only to keep them far apart from one another, and camouflage the true protagonists of the conflict.

I make a note of new objects on the ground, a printer, bags of cement, tins of varnish, a bundle of sheets of paper that sprouts from the earth like the jagged edge of an enormous fossil shell. It'd be nice to pull them out and make a sculpture out of them. I bend down closer to see if there are any bits that might be recovered. As a child I was passionate about Robinson Crusoe, with his patient and ingenious ability to make tools and utensils with the ingredients supplied by the island, to transform and recover them for new uses, so that they could constantly find new lives.

On the balcony of the second house, the house of the working Romanians, the slum's "bourgeoisie," a woman is hanging up freshly-laundered shirts. There must be lots of women in that house, and you can tell how long they've been here from their appearance. The latest arrivals, still old-fashioned, wear woollen knee-socks and slippers, while the veterans, elegant and beautifully made-up, seem to sprout from the cracked walls like flowers.

On the ground floor of the house where the Bulgarians live, the doors are all shut, and the mountain of rubbish is growing, reducing the entrance passage to an increasingly narrow and foul-smelling strip. I call Zoia, and her faint voice replies to me from a long way off.

"I'm up here, I don't live on the ground floor any more," she announces, running down the stairs to me, her feet bare in her slippers. "I've moved to the upper floor, the one the mice haven't got to yet. There's a toilet, too, although there isn't any water. Do you want to see the new room?" she asks with a hint of an embarrassed smile. We zigzag our way up the stairs, taking care to put our feet on the steps that are still intact. On the long balcony, I recognize Rosen, standing next to an older man. "It's his father, back from Bergamo, where he couldn't get any work."

Rosen greets me vaguely, staring at a silver mobile phone that glints in the sun. We go in, two big bedrooms, one built inside the other, divided by a sky-blue blanket that I recognize as the one I brought.

In the first room, Rosen's father sleeps on a cot with a misshapen grayish mattress, and a few other people sleep on mattresses scattered around on the floor. There's no glass in the window onto the balcony, which is blocked up with a sheet of plastic and some newspapers. Zoia and Rosen sleep on a double cot in the second room. The rooms are big, with high ceilings. Many families have lived there, but not a trace of their lives remains apart from the outline of a brick fireplace on one wall. On the other walls, peeling and dirty, Zoia and Rosen have hung about a dozen posters announcing a conference organized in March 2001 by the Region of Lombardy, entitled "Milan meets Sardinia."

"We really wanted to cover the whole wall," says Zoia, "we wanted them all the same because it's nicer that way, but there weren't enough. And we ran out of tape, but at least this way we can lean the bed against the wall." A real bed raised from the floor, already there when they moved in. They went and got the mattresses from a dump in Bresso, known as an inexhaustible storehouse of very good stuff. Some of them were still wrapped in plastic. They were told about it by the Italian boss of a bar where, during the winter, the unemployed Bulgarians go to warm up. They had to take three or four buses to get them here, because the drivers kept making them get off.

There are rows of plastic bottles filled with water on a table in a corner, and under it are a few bags of clothes. There isn't even a chair, you either stand up and lean against the railing of the balcony, or you lie down on the beds, in the rooms that are plunged in gloom, even on a bright April day like this. In the closet under the stairs, Rosen has built a stove with some bricks, and in the evening the people who live in the house all meet there to warm themselves up and listen to CDs of Bulgarian singers. Last night a parcel of specialities arrived from Bulgaria-smoked salami, cheese and bread-and they had a party.

"It's our house, and we've grown fond of it in the end," says Zoia, revealing the window of little teeth that lights up her face with a faint brilliance, as though illuminated by a sad skylight somewhere inside

"I can't believe your lives back home are so bad that you'd rather live in a place like this, I've never seen anywhere so ugly and squalid, not even on the outskirts of African cities or in South America," I say, aware of the risk of giving offense.

"Yes, I can see that it might seem strange, but I can't go back to my city, people there talk, and by now everyone knows my story. Even Rosen would have problems staying with me."

"What about the others?"

"All the Bulgarians know this place, the rumors start circulating as soon as they arrive."

She knew of the existence of the hole from her aunt, who lives there with her husband. On Saturday their daughter comes to see them, a pretty girl with lipstick, along with a little grandson. During the week they live with the lady who employs the girl.

There's a third floor above Zoia, and a new Bulgarian family with two children recently moved in. The younger one, about eight or nine, spends his days begging at the station. They don't come from the same region as Zoia, they're from the east of the country, south of Varna.

Zoia describes her day to me: she wakes up in the morning, makes the beds, washes her face, then sends the men away so that she can wash the rest of her. When everyone is washed and dressed, she makes coffee, heating the water on a stove improvised from a tomato can full of alcohol, and they all drink together from little plastic beakers which they take from the church dispensaries. Although they get up early, it's already time to queue up at the church for lunch.

In the afternoon they walk along the roads around the station in search of work.

"We've asked in every single street," she says disconsolately. At about five, still walking, they cross the street to St. Francis's dispensary and after dinner, on the street, a great crowd forms, smoking and talking, filling the footpath and turning it into a piazza.

Then she and Rosen walk home, crossing the Corso Buenos Aires. They stop and look at the window displays, go into the shops, ask prices, sometimes they even try on some clothes, before going back to the hole, far more exhausted than they had been when they were working.

"Have you ever wondered why many foreigners come to Milan?" Martin asks me on the tram one Sunday morning. "Because it's full of churches handing out clothes, it's fantastic business. You come in on the coach from Sofia, ninety euros, you wander around the churches, fill ten bags, in the evening you take the coach again and go home, and when you're back your own country you sell what you've brought with you. Everyone does it, but the Ukrainians are the specialists."

"I know everything about this place," he says, getting out at the end of the line, meaning he knows everything about this oblique square, where the city ends.

"There's a drinking fountain here and over there, you see those tents on the lawn in middle of the square? Those are Bulgarians who come here just to steal. They buy a little second-hand Fiat and go around the supermarkets stealing alcohol." Every group has its own speciality, he explains. The Africans steal perfume and body-care products, the Moroccans pick pockets and steal cars, the Bulgarians and the Romanians specialize in alcohol, whisky, gin, vodka, all stolen to order, and supply many of Milan's bars.

"You can sell just about anything to the Hotel Garibaldi. In the evening they drop buy to pick up their orders, salami, Cascaval cheese, wine, the next morning they go to the supermarket and bring you whatever you asked for, half price. You'll find a bit of everything in my room, it's like a shop." At night, in Piazzale Cuoco, the boys offer themselves to homosexuals, before beating them up and robbing them.

With his energetic gait and deep voice, Martin guides me through the places where colonies of illegal immigrants congregate, invisible to those who don't know where they are. It's a bit like going around with someone with a sixth sense. We walk past the vegetable market, shut today because it's Sunday. By the wall, a young Bulgarian, naked to the waist, is painstakingly dismantling a fridge, removing all the metal packing, which is in great demand in the huts as insulation against the cold. The piles of rubbish are a treasure trove of building materials for the village on the plateau in front of us. The steps leading up to it are made of bits of tin and wood, some of the huts have doors and windows, and others are completely covered with plastic wrap to make them waterproof.

It's a Bulgarian Mafia village, says Martin, they control all the trade in the city from up there.

On holidays, when the vegetable market's about to close, Ukrainian and Moldovan women come and stuff bags full of leftover fruit and vegetables to sell them on at the Central Station, where their compatriots meet. He's seen them turning up plenty of times with fully-laden, heavy bags, when he was sleeping in the flowerbeds there.

He says he feels sorry for the newcomers who have no idea what life in Italy will be like, but he also hates meeting the ones who are doing well and don't care about their fellow countrymen who haven't been so lucky. Sometimes people he knew in Bulgaria have pretended not to see him. He's even bumped into the leader of the Muslims who persecuted him in his own village.

"He's doing a lot better than I am. For them Italy is a paradise, but for Martin there's nothing. I get everything wrong, I was supposed to go to Norway or Germany, there were some great pastors from my church there, true friends. I only came to Italy because I saw lots of buses leaving and everyone getting on them."

Milan, he says, is like a spider's web, and the foreigners are the trapped flies.

There are people who have been there for five years, and haven't had a day's work. He knows them all, because you always see the same faces at the church kitchens.

"We're like robots, you know robots? In the morning you open your eyes, you see light and you say, 'I'm hungry,' you make yourself a cup of coffee, you wash your face with water that you collect in the evening from the sprinkler in the lawn out there, and you bring it home in bottles. At half past eleven you line up to get food from the monks of Santo Antonio or in Piola, a perfect canteen, best in the whole city. You wait half an hour, you show your card to a fat nun, you go into a big hall, wait another half hour and when the door opens, you buzz, squeeze against the door with everyone else to go in. When you've finished eating, home to sleep, at four o'clock wake up again, go to St. Francis's, line up, wait for the door to open, show card, wait till second door opens, once again everybody buzzes to get in, sit down at the table and wait for them to bring you your food."

Where work's concerned, no one ever tells you yes and no one ever tells you no. Come back on the eighth of May, come back in two weeks, show up around the twentieth. The days pass, the weeks, the months and even the years, and if you don't have the inner strength to say 'I don't want to live at the bottom, I want to fight the war of life,' you end up drunk and drugged, that's normal!

Many unemployed foreigners start drinking or taking drugs. Martin has observed this. He has a Ukrainian friend who's been looking for work for months without finding any, a boy with an engineering degree waiting for a reply to his request for political asylum; Martin has never asked what kind of problems he had in his country, because it's indiscreet to ask questions, you just don't do it, many of them are phony political refugees.

To keep his anxiety at bay, the young engineer started smoking hashish, and since his supplies dried up his hands have started shaking. After three years in Italy, Martin has a very good idea what goes on in the heads of a person who sleeps on the ground, a man destroyed by hope. The city squeezes him like a lemon, and drinks the juice that comes out. He too has spent two winters in the street, as cold as if he was living inside a fridge. He's fallen ill, but after ten months of tests and treatment at the Luigi Sacco Institute he's better now, the people at the hospital have told him he mustn't think about his problems, that all his symptoms are the result of "psychological stress." Apart from his left eye, through which he can no longer see anything. He lost it in a factory making shop-window dummies for Armani, he learned the work immediately, they'd said well done, Martin, off you go and do it on your own, and a compressed-air machine blew up right in his face.

Martin's a "perfect" bricklayer, he says of himself as though talking about someone else, his hands are precious and he's a good metalworker, he can solder, but more than anything, he's a master plasterer, a shame that the factories here are completely automated and he doesn't know the machines.

"Now I want to beat Milan, it's the war of my life." Why shouldn't someone like him be able to have clean clothes and in the summer, when it's hot, go to the seaside with his family?

Now that his health tests are OK, his refugee documents are OK, he's ready to look for work and then set up a house and family here, "thank God." He's already decided that on Sundays he'll take his wife and daughters to visit the museums, have picnics in the park and go on long walks in the city.

We've returned to Central Station where, on Sunday, the flowerbeds of the avenue that runs alongside it swarm with blonde Ukrainian and Moldovan women with big hair like spun sugar, and ill-shaven men dressed in leather jackets over threadbare pullovers, a dense and animated crowd, a secret fervor of meetings, conversations, deals, love affairs, smiles flashing gold in the sun, sometimes the whole mouth, like vanguard of bodies caught mid-mutation.

A tall, rosy woman cuts the hair of a square-faced man sitting on a bench, two boys part the crowd with a cart full of (stolen) beers selling at a euro apiece, others sitting on the ground sell music tapes and CDs or cheeses, salamis and sweets that have come from their countries on buses. Around the lines for the buses waiting to fill up with passengers for Kiev, Sofia, or Bucharest, packages are being loaded on, full of goods for the families who have stayed at home. In the middle of this peasant crowd, happy to be there and needy for everything, the most varied trades flourish: little Italian men offer hospitality to foreign women in exchange for sexual favors, Ukrainian or Romanian hustlers offer their services for a hundred euros, Bulgarian con men sell tickets for the Milan underground, perfectly forged in Bulgaria.

Martin and I stop to drink a coffee in a squalid bar-restaurant on the corner of the square. Martin points out Fernando, the boss, a fifty-year-old Neapolitan with a pockmarked face, all dressed in white as though at the seaside. He's standing in the bar doorway, next to a black girl wearing a boob-tube and a micromini. All the foreigners know him because he recruits laborers for the building sites, and everyone knows he's recently opened a big discotheque outside the city.

We find Ivanov, one of Martin's roommates, sitting at a table, with a long beard and a defeated, desperate appearance. I met him during my visits to the hole, and he proudly showed me a photograph of his "villa" in Bulgaria, a modest house, but brand new, just finished. Ivanov made the biggest mistake of his life in coming to Italy, but he's here now, and he can't go back empty-handed. He's chasing after Fernando, who's hiding from him to avoid paying him. Ivanov worked for him for two months, and has only received twenty euros so far. It's Fernando's tactic, Martin explains to me, he always says he'll pay you next month, you get fed up waiting, you change jobs and forget about it, so he has a constant supply of new workers who end up costing him a tenth of what Italians, or foreigners, normally would.

Aside from being a temporary dwelling for the homeless, what is the hole but the perfect spatial representation of what an immigrant must be, a worker to be squeezed or spat out, like the shell of a pumpkin seed?

From Quando sei nato non puoi più nasconderti [When you're born you can't hide any more] (Rome: Nottetempo, 2003). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright © 2005 by Shaun Whiteside. All rights reserved. This novel was filmed under the same name by Marco Tullio Giordana and released in 2005.

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