by David LaBelle
Preparing to navigate the narrow, stone streets between the apartment I’d called home the past four months and the Santa Maria Novella train station, I stood on the sidewalk with three large suitcases and a stuffed, 50-pound camera bag. My situation suddenly felt hopeless. Try as I might to stack and organize in a way I could pull everything to the station alone, I couldn’t make it work. I sighed, considered I might have to wave the white flag and call a cab, then whispered my favorite Italian word, “Allora.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a homeless friend carrying a quart of cold beer on his way to a nearby park appeared. He smiled and nodded. “I’m going home, back to America, I told him, or at least I am trying to.”
In limited, broken English he asked if I needed help. “I don’t have any money to pay you,” I explained. “Oh no, I help,” he smiled, “no money.”
I could have kissed him.
I’m going to the train station, I advised. “No problem,” he assured. He grabbed two of the heavier bags, stacked them and realized he couldn’t carry his cold beer.
“I can’t let you do this,” I tried to explain.
He looked down, sat his beer behind a chained bicycle in front of the apartment and said, “It’s ok.”
I felt conflicted, fearing another homeless person would likely pass, see the cold beer and feel the windows of heaven had opened.
Together, on the warmest, most humid day since my arrival, we managed the awkward load to the train station. At the station, I told him I wanted to make one more picture of him, which he allowed. I fished around and found about three euros and tried to give it to him.
“No, No,” he said, waving his hands. He beamed with the opportunity to be of service.
I don’t mind telling you, my eyes watered as I thanked him and hugged him goodbye. I reached into my bag and found a bag of peanuts I had bought for the trip and insisted he take them and the few euros. “Buy yourself another cold beer, please.” Grudgingly he accepted the small gifts and disappeared, heading back in the direction of the park where he would see friends and eventually sleep on a piece of cardboard.
One could easily be intimidated by this man’s wild appearance, but from the first pre-dawn morning we met and connected over a cup of coffee, there was nothing but tenderness and kindness in his dark eyes.
Like so many I met on the streets of Florence, he is trapped in a place and a system, unable to go home or get the documents to work legally. He has been without shelter and a home of his own for 8 years and likely will be there many more. But he is a humble, grateful man, who looks out for his friends, even those that do not speak his language or understand his culture.
On the steps of a museum, a bridge over the Arno, a street corner in Prato, and in front of a bustling train station, my eyes filled with each embrace and emotional goodbye. These people, despised by some and clinging to shreds of hope for a better life, greatly enriched my life and I pray I did the same for them.
It’s my nature to smile at people I pass on the street, regardless of where I am. In some places, people receive a smile more warmly than in others. Florence wasn’t a place where eye contact and smiles were often reciprocated or even appreciated, especially when the one smiling was an American with a camera. More often than not, the lips on faces didn’t move and the eyes spoke of suspicion, fear and sometimes, even contempt. Thankfully, there were exceptions, usually from the older folks, parents carrying children to school on bicycles or immigrants.
After all, appreciation for another human being, regardless of appearance, nationality or cultural background is far more valuable than the tourist euros exchanged on the street. The warmth and comfort of a sincere smile transcends the barriers allowing friendship and connection. Many are afraid or too busy to engage a stranger with a smile, but some are trusting and realize, regardless of our many differences, we are born of the same Father.
Of those strangers on the streets of Florence who did make eye contact and return sincere smiles, several enriching friendships began that sustained me during my semester-long visit to this ancient city. (I know there are a lot of people here – locals, immigrants and refugees – who are not so kind, nor should they be blindly trusted. A few sour encounters with unfriendly folks proved this to be true. I was continually reminded how the camera is an enemy to those with something to hide.)
For the many who spend their time on the streets, it’s a tough and challenging life. Most I spoke with are conflicted and homesick. They are grateful to Italy for opening her arms and providing refuge, but they ache for their home country and families.
(Italy is known for many things – art, history, culture, automobiles, leather, wine, food, fashion – but it should also be known for its benevolence in accepting more than a half million refugees over the past three years, mostly from African countries. Italy has a big heart shown by accepting the burden many others have shunned.)
To say this issue is complex and complicated would be a gross understatement. My heart hurts for the native Italians who have watched the face of their country change so dramatically over the past fifteen years, but also for the strangers, those souls fleeing danger, oppression and seeking a safer and better life.
I, too, was a stranger here, though not without hope of returning home. Italy allowed me to live in her house and enjoy her beauty and culture, and she was a gracious host.
During the Kent State Florence student and faculty orientation, it was said we may leave Florence but Florence would always be in our hearts. There was much truth in this prediction. I will miss many things about Florence and Italy, but perhaps my greatest sadness will be for those people on the street who befriended me, those souls I will likely never see again.
Leaving Florence after more than four months, I want to share with you a few of the immigrant and refugee faces which enriched my life during this wonderful adventure. These are faces from places like Bangladesh, Gambia, Senegal and Romania, mostly Muslim faces. They are faces belonging to sacrifice and struggle, but also to hope.
I will miss these friends. I pray each finds peace, hope and is able one day to go home.