I am sitting on one of the blue shuttle buses going toward Boston airport. I am searching the pages of Europe, travels through the twentieth century, the book of Geert Mak, looking for a precise quote I intend to use in an essay I am writing currently. I find it, finally: “Blood is stronger than any passport” – one of the slogans of the Nazis in the 30s. I take my eyes off the book and start staring out of the bus window. I see a Smoking Shelter across the street, next to the airport. This is the first time I see something similar. It looks like a glass-cage; there is someone smoking there, but he stands out of the cage, out of the smoking shelter. Repeating silently the words “Smoking Shelter”, the words "Fallout Shelter" follow suit in my brain, like an association of ideas. Who knows, one day, smokers would have to buy or rent fallout shelters, in order to be allowed to smoke.
- “Excuse me, are you American?”. A female voice, in her forties, sitting next to me, asks me and takes me out of my shelter-like thoughts.
- “No, I am not” I answer, automatically and rather surprised.
- “You look Italian” she continues, making my surprise even bigger. I sense her Italian accent under her English words. “Italian from South Italy, Sicily or Naple”.
As she says Naple, a city that I love particularly, I start speaking her in Italian.
- “Non sono Italiano, ma parlo benissimo italiano” (“I’m not Italian, but I speak very well Italian”)
The lady stays puzzled.
- “Io sono di Napoli. Tu di dove sei?” that is “I’m from Naple, where you from?” - she asks me, stressing that "you" in singular, a gesture of southern familiarity and indiscreetness at the same time.
I stay suspended for a moment. And then: “I am from Albania and somehow from Greece as well”
We get off at the same terminal. She says something like “you don’t look like an Albanian or Greek”. She insists that I look absolutely from Naple, a Napolitano. Therefore, I understand that she is questioning me, indirectly, whether I am concealing my true origin. I feel amused and awkward at the same time. And then she suddenly says she has to run, because she is late and afraid to loose her Alitalia flight.
I look her running for some seconds, dragging her pink suitcase behind her; then I begin thinking how time after time there is someone, somewhere, who gets so much interested on how I look and where I'm from. In different countries and circumstances I have been defined as: Israeli, Arab, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian Gypsy (I don't know why exactly Hungarian), Turkish, Indian (this was quite recently from a taxi driver in Boston) and a bunch of other nationalities and origins. Actually, I could very well have been all these and even more - especially with a surname like mine that you can find a bit everywhere - East and West, North and South and in all three monotheistic religions. I never look like an Albanian, though. That's my destiny, it seems, to always be the Other.
At that very moment, I am walking inside the building of the airport, close to two airport employees, who are talking to each other, dressed in their orange uniforms; one of them is young and the other is pretty old - the one pushing a wheeled garbage can. Familiar words arrived then to my ears: in Greek this time.
- “Efyga giati peinasa” (“I’m going because I got hungry”) says the young one
- “Mipos eisai egkyos?” (“Are you pregnant perhaps?”) jokes the old guy – the one pushing the garbage can.
I smile listening to this joke; I have heard it ten thousand times in Greek, one hundred thousand times in Albanian; it's a very popular Balkan joke, a manish one usually; hearing it now here in Boston, at the airport, makes me smile. Makes me feel privileged to be able to understand people talking in different languages.
My American students usually don’t know foreign languages. But what incentives do you really have to learn a foreign language if you are born in a super-big and dominant one? You should feel a sense of lack and of missing something, a longing for escape, a longing to cross a border or a wall as an explorer, a bohemian or a refugee, in order to learn and love another language and even more than one.
At the same time, America is a country that has reconciled itself rather successfully with this “fatality of human diversity”, as Benedict Anderson names it. This is the source of strength and richness of this country. If America looses it, it’s gonna loose its soul, its gonna loose itself…