Friday, November 10, 2006

Different faces

There are some advantages (not too many) to being in an overcrowded train hurtling through tunnels.

This morning, on my way to work, a group of about 15 men boarded and, because there was no other space, were all crowded into ‘my’ part of the carriage, which was already full. There’s no such thing as ‘no room’ on Italian transport. With no room to move my arms or to turn away and no outside view other than darkness, I was restricted to looking at the people who were similarly trapped immediately before me. There were Italians, Bangledeshis and others whose nationality I couldn’t identify in the absence of anybody holding a conversation. As the train continued its journey, I couldn’t help looking at their features. Some were dark and others fair. Some were white and others brown or olive-skinned. Hair colour ranged from jet black to grey, and from wavy to straight, thick to balding. Most people had dark brown eyes, at least, as far as I could see.

Really, God can do an amazing job of work with two eyes, a nose and a mouth!

A couple of days ago, I stopped at a market stall to make a couple of purchases and, without thinking, automatically spoke in English. It had registered, subconsciously I suppose, that the stallholder was from Bangladesh, so it was no surprise that the discussion was in English. We ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves because, as I pointed out, having lived in Africa and working with Indians, I’ve learned to bargain rather than pay the ‘best price’ that is at first on offer.

Within a very short time, the first stallholder had been joined by two others, also Bangladeshis, and the bargaining continued in earnest. Fortunately I’ve had plenty of chances to see that pleading, on one side, enormous poverty and possible destitution if I don’t produce the money, whereas I will be reduced to penury if I do, is all part of the process. The truth was that they and I knew that and just enjoyed ourselves. In the end, both the Bangladeshis and I parted in good humour, all of us thinking we’d struck a good bargain and had outwitted each other!

It saddens me that nationality can sometimes be divisive and that skin colour and language can be a cause for discrimination. The beauty of living and working in a multi-national environment means that differences don’t have to be important except that they indicate the possibilities for sharing culture, traditions and experiences.

When I was home in England during the summer, after visiting some Indian friends of mine, I found myself on an unfamiliar station. I wasn’t sure how to reach my platform, so I decided to ask for directions. Living in Rome, I’ve become accustomed to many different languages amongst people who are obviously all Europeans. I suppose that there must have been an underlying feeling of still being in Rome because I automatically approached a woman in a sari because I knew she would speak English. It was only afterwards that I realised what had happened. In fact, the woman was as pleased that I had spoken to her as were the Bangladeshis at the market. They were a very concrete example of just how, if we are not careful, we can be drawn into our own self-made ghettos and never break out of them to learn and value each other.

God does wonders, not only with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but also with tongues and voices!

God bless,
Sr. Janet