Migrants (final part)

It’s cold, I feel the wind sneak between my scarf and the collar of my coat and in a thousandth of a second reach my whole body. The icy air sends a shiver down my spine. It’s late, I’ve been waiting for you for at least ten minutes. I decide to call you, even if it means having to take my hand out of my coat pocket to get my phone, which is in my bag. The gesture costs me the exposure of my limb to the cold air. This only adds to my nervousness. I search through the latest calls, your name is the first on the list. I call you. The phone keeps ringing off the hook. On the fifth ring, you finally answer.
On my way” you say quickly and hang up. I realize you were sleeping. So it will take you a couple of minutes to get ready, added to the fifteen minutes to get here. Time I’ll have to spend sitting, in the cold, on a bench in front of the car park of the company I work for. If only I had a driving licence, if only I had been able to become an independent woman all these years in Italy.
Tisha kan e hajrit“, I wouldn’t have had to wait for you in the evening, cold, sweaty, after spending five hours cleaning the offices and bathrooms of the company. But no, in Italy, the only goal I managed to achieve has been to become a cleaning lady. All I did was clean. First the houses of our kids’ friends, then those of even richer people, where I understood the meaning of the verb “to live” and then the leap, the last step. A real contract, no more black money left in an envelope over the kitchen table. Now I’m also paying retirement contributions. A legal work contract, after 25 years in Italy.
They say it’s never too late. They also say that money doesn’t make you happy. They should experience what it’s like to live without it and spend a live breaking the back to earn just enough to survive. I think back to what my dreams were when we arrived here. I even thought I would complete the exams I had left and graduate. How naive of me. But how did I think I could accomplish so much?

I check my phone again and only five minutes have passed. I’m cold, hungry and exhausted. I just want to take a hot shower and go to sleep. My mind takes me back to the first days in Italy, I can’t get away from those memories. I think back to the happiness of being able to have our own intimacy. To the irrepressible joy of knowing that our children would study here and become someone. I wonder why a person builds so many expectations based solely on imagination. I wonder why, after Blerim, we decided to have two more kids. Didn’t we think about how much money we would need to raise them? How many things they would ask of us while they were growing up?
We didn’t think about anything, we were like under the effects of some drug. We were high on hope. We were not considering the reality of things. Being foreigners, not knowing the language and not having any friend. Our daily lives would be affected by all of this, and we would pay dearly for it. Hope had blinded us. Your salary was barely enough, then I started cleaning and with those pennies I could at least pay for the groceries. That way we could save some money to enjoy the summers in Kosovo. The only place we could afford to go. The only place we wanted to go. Where for years we carried on this narrative of the comfortable life and the immense possibilities that a country like Italy gave us. We worked the worst jobs, came home exhausted, and our daily routine was cadenced by counting down the months until summer, when we would return. We should have told the truth. We should have been proud of ourselves, of what we were doing. We had decided to throw our lives away, to break our backs, to clean up the shit of the Italians, to do the jobs they didn’t want to do, solely and exclusively to give our children a better future. But all this we did not tell anyone, we hid it, as a person tries to cover and hide a physical defect in the eyes of others. We were ashamed of ourselves, but we shouldn’t have been. We should have walked around with a sign above our heads that read in big letters, “I’m cleaning shit up to give my kids a better future“.

We had to be proud of it and hold our heads up. Everyone in Kosovo was telling us that we were safe, that we were living the good life.
Jeni pshtu, u knaqt nat Itali.
We had to show that we made money, and so we gave it away to help others. Or rather, you were giving it away to your brothers. You were building them houses, while we, every summer, had to go and sleep over at their place. Twenty-five years in Italy and we managed, with difficulty, to buy a miserable flat in Kosovo. You had to borrow money from your brothers, and then you had to give it back. You, on the other hand, had given it to them for free. Not only that, but you never changed in all these years, and it ended as I imagined. It ended up that after your brothers, even your children stepped on your toes. Albina got married to an Italian. You told her you would never let her in the house again, and she never came back. Her last words to you are a nightmare that haunts me every day.

If your only goal was for us to get married to an Albanian, you could have easily stayed in Kosovo. There was no need to come to Italy. A lifetime telling us that you did it to give us a better future, and then the only thing you really care about is the nationality of our partner. You should have stayed in Kosovo, we all would have been happier.

After Albina, it was Blerim who left home. He went to study in Rome, tried to get as far away from us as possible and succeeded. Valon, on the other hand, still lives here, but we hardly see him. He comes home late from work and always spends the weekend with his friends. At least that’s what he says, but I’m sure he has a girlfriend, most likely Italian.

I hear the sound of a car, it’s you. I struggle to get up. As I get upright, I feel an even stronger tremor in my legs and twinges in my lower back. I’m ruined, my body is useless. I open the door, sit down and fasten my seatbelt. You’re listening to a folk music CD at a medium-high volume, and I’m already annoyed.
A je lodh?” You ask me in a cold, detached, disinterested tone.
Jo, jo,” I reply, looking out the window to my right, trying to increase the distance between us as much as possible. As you travel crudely and at an excessively high speed down the road toward home, a song sung with ciftelijat starts up. The pitch of the singers’ voices is very high, the noise they create is inexplicable, and I have the feeling that my head could explode at any moment. I don’t say anything, I don’t have the strength to argue. I would like you to turn the volume down, I would like you to get there on your own, I would like you to remember how many times I have told you that I don’t like these songs and that the high-volume bothers me. But you don’t get it, you’ve never got anything, on your own. You always have to be reminded, how and when to do things. And I don’t have the will or the strength any more. I close my eyes and try to isolate myself, but the attempt proves impossible.

After an endless ride we finally arrive home. I open the door, we get in the elevator and spend the four floors of the ascent in religious silence. You look at your phone, while I stare at myself in the mirror. I am fifty-two years old, but look at least ten years older. We get to our floor, I anticipate you getting outside the elevator. I open the door and head for the kitchen, checking to see if you’ve eaten. I see everything in order, and it drives me crazy.
You haven’t eaten?” I ask, yelling.
You reach the kitchen with all the calm in the world. As you keep your gaze on your phone, you tell me to make two eggs, that you’ll eat them with some cheese. Then you sit down at the table, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. You don’t even make an effort to grab a tissue or cutlery. You make yourself comfortable and wait for me to serve you, as you have done all these years, as I have agreed to do since the day I agreed to become your wife. I stare at the oven and try to keep my cool, even though the only thing I want to do is turn around and throw something at you. Now I also have to make you dinner, because you are unable to do anything in this blessed house.

I take the pan, open the bottle of oil and pour an excessive amount, with all the nervousness I have on me. Then I immediately break the eggs and throw them into the pan, without waiting for the oil to be hot. I stay in that position, staring at the pan, while you turn on the television and don’t notice anything. I would like to scream at you, that this is the last time, that from my hands you will not eat anything more, but I keep the toad inside. I cannot ruin the plan if I want it to work out. In the meantime, the oil has heated up, and the eggs are starting to cook. I watch them impatiently, hoping to speed up the process. After a few minutes I remove them from the pan, even though they’re not exactly ready, but you won’t notice anyway. I throw salt on them with a disinterested motion, not caring where the salt will end up, and place them on a too-small plate. I hand it to you and move in the opposite direction before you’ve grabbed it properly. For a second I’m afraid it might fall off, but it doesn’t.

I walk down the hallway to the bedroom to get my pyjamas. I encounter photos of what has been our family. One photo, the largest one, catches my eye. Us on the couch, a few months after Valon was born. You’re holding the little one in your arms, Albina sitting on my lap wearing her favourite dress, white with red roses, and Blerim, all proudly wearing the Inter jersey, between us. We laugh, we are happy. It seems like an eternity ago.
When did we stop being happy?
When did we realize that we no longer had any hope of realizing our dreams?
When did we stop fighting?
An aura of disappointment and sadness takes over my mind. I reach the bedroom, grab my pyjamas under my pillow, and take the reverse route to the bathroom. I walk faster, bringing my gaze to the faded white of the walls to avoid running into more photos of our past, full of dreams and hopes. I get into the bathroom and close the door with a hasty gesture. Take off my clothes, catapult myself into the shower and finally experience the first lovely feeling of the day. The warm water on my temple is like heaven. I stay like this for a couple of minutes, before my mind takes me back to tomorrow’s plan. I will leave. I’ll leave the divorce papers for you to sign on the kitchen table. I don’t know how you’ll react, I don’t know how this news will affect you. You’ll probably go looking for me in Kosovo, but you won’t find me. I don’t know what my destination will be either. I have booked a cab for tomorrow morning at 10am, when you will be at work. I will ask him to take me to the airport. There I will buy a ticket for the first available flight. You will never find me again.

I take the shampoo, pour it on my right hand and then start spreading it on my hair. I start at the forehead and work my way to the back of my head. Like this, in repetition, for a lot of times. Then I let the water run again, close my eyes and let it remove the shampoo from my head, without me having to use my hands, which in the meantime I have clasped one to the other. The foam covers my face and mixes with tears. I squeeze my fingers tighter and tighter, and the crying becomes even more powerful. I feel the beats of my heart increase dramatically, on my face I no longer feel the foam, but only the tears. I don’t have the strength to remain standing and so, leaning against the wall – in a slow and passive way – I let myself slide down. I continue to cry and keep my hands clenched. Now the water hits me at shoulder height. I keep my eyes closed and wonder how we made it this far. We wanted to live two lives, one in Italy and one in Kosovo. We ended up not being able to live even one of them. Furthermore, we lost our children, our marriage and even our country. We remained so anchored to the idea we had of it, that even today we keep looking for it, but the country we left behind does not exist any more. Everything has changed, and the people have changed too. Last summer you spent the whole trip complaining because no one had invited you for a proper dinner, because your brothers had only visited once, and your nephews not even once. I stayed silent the whole time, realizing that your mind and heart are still there, when we left, 25 years ago.

I let the water continue to fall on my body, not daring to open my eyes. For a moment, I hope that by opening them, everything could go back to when we were happy and taking pictures all together. To when we were made of hope. But I am aware that now I have to think about my own happiness. The kids are independent, and I don’t want to keep being your servant. Maybe I can be happy alone, in another country. Maybe it will be the right time. I will try to do as Pirandello had written. I’ll leave, I’ll escape and I’ll try to live a new life, a life that is only mine, to live for real. If nothing else, I will still have my books from Italy. The books that our kids began to read and bring into the house when they were young. They tried to show us the way, but we were only interested in them becoming like us. That they marry someone like us. So we wouldn’t have to be ashamed in the eyes of our relatives. They tried, to get us to read them. With me, they succeeded, of course. Hungry as I have always been for literature. Discovering Italian literature has been the oxygen that has allowed me to breathe all these years. To you, on the other hand, those books have always bothered you. Albina was probably right, we should have stayed in Kosovo, if our goal was only to create our own copies. But that was not the initial intent. We had decided to come here to be happy, to create a family, something only ours, something different from what we were leaving behind, something that everyone would envy us. Those people from whom we couldn’t wait to get away, for whom we then spent our summers always in the same place, and for whom we forgot what our intentions were. Their possible judgement has conditioned our lives and only now, after 25 years, have we realized that they never gave a damn about us. They were there for us as long as we had money to give away. When we ran out, they forgot about us. We couldn’t get anything done all these years. We destroyed everything we could, we lost everything we could, we failed. Maybe, looking back, in the end we were the best example for our children. The example not to be followed. Look at what we did and do the opposite.

Gezim Qadraku

Migrants (1° part)

The news has just finished. The war is the only constant in the half hour of news. Now all the attention is on Bosnia, especially after the declaration of independence. Things are getting awful and the images on TV are scaring me. Some people say that it is only a matter of months and war will break out in Kosovo, too. Others continue their lives as if nothing is happening. I sit on the chair by the door, after serving tea to your father, you, your brothers and their wives. Your mother walks into the living room and heads to the fireplace to change the wood. You look at her and ask her to sit down, because you have to say two words.
Po du mi fol dy fjalë.

You want to say something about the war, I think, as I stay in my seat quietly and try not to make eye contact with anyone. I stare at you and try to get your thoughts out, before you turn them into words. Your mother sits down, with a gesture that gives off insecurity. It seems that the mere fact that you want to say something out loud worries her enough to make her move in a totally different way than usual. Slow and laboured, unlike the speed and quickness of her daily movements. When she sits down, you begin your speech. You cross your hands, rest your elbows on your thighs, move forward, seek everyone’s eyes, and after clearing your throat, drop the bombshell.
I’ve decided to take them to Italy with me. I will leave with my wife and the baby.

I feel a tremendous explosion at the level of my sternum. A flush of heat takes over my body and concentrates in my head. I keep my eyes on you, no longer caring if anyone notices. I look for you, I search your pupils, but you look towards your parents. What do you mean we’re going to Italy? You didn’t come back to stay, did you? And why didn’t you tell me before announcing it to your family? What the hell is this all about?
I feel my legs trembling, the drops of sweat sliding quickly from my neck to the bottom of my back, and my thoughts immediately go to my parents. To Mom’s poor physical condition. To Dad’s struggle to find a job after being fired as a bus driver because he is Albanian and his decision to quit smoking because he could no longer afford it. To my brother Fadil, his precarious job and his wife, so young and unprepared for family life, who can’t be of any help to Mom. I think of them and how the hell am I going to tell them that I’m leaving for Italy. No, that you have decided that we are going to Italy. Without asking me, without wanting to know what I thought, if I agreed or not.

A strange and annoying silence covers the room, tension is present in everyone’s faces and I feel myself collapsing, helpless, without any strength to react, in the hole that has opened under my feet. I didn’t expect this from you. You hurt me. I thought you were different. I fell in love with you because you seemed so distant from the other Kosovar boys. You were so shy, caring and polite, I thought you were adopted, that you were from another culture. That respect you had for any woman and that courtship of yours that was so sensitive and respectful, I literally fell head over heels for you. And now? You’ve decided our future without telling me? Did you do it out of spite? Why do you hold me guilty of the fact that our son did not recognize you when you came back from Italy after 14 months. How did you think he would recognize you if he had never seen you? You left when he was a few days old and when you came back, the only thing he knew about you was the picture of you hugging him in the garden a few days after his birth. What could I do? Other than give him that picture to kiss before putting him to bed and tell him again that Daddy would be back very soon. Do you think I felt good when he refused to hug you? When he kept staying in your brother Muharrem’s arms? When he came to whisper in my ear that this man, referring to you, should have slept under the bed and not next to me? Don’t you think I felt myself dying inside at those moments?

Finally, your father decides to destroy the silence. He does so by blessing your decision.
Perhajr i koft.
He remains seated, looks you in the eye, and adds nothing else. He sends down a sip of tea and nearly finishes it by the drop. The room returns to silence and none of your brothers say anything. Then you, trying to find a confidence you don’t have, while the sweat from your armpits turns the color of your shirt from purple to black, try to explain the reason for that choice. Even though no one asked you to. An insecurity, yours, that has only amplified since you took me as your bride. I think back to your fear and awkwardness during our first few nights in bed. Months with no results, which began to turn some people’s noses up. I could already hear the words of your mother and my sisters-in-law. Almost as if they hoped I wouldn’t be able to give you even one child. And then, finally, after a year and a half of anguish and fear, I got pregnant. A boy, thank God. That alone allowed me to be seen as a human being worthy of some attention.

I remain focused on your fears. The terror in confronting your family members. The inability to counter your father’s words, to not ask your siblings to follow you to work while you tear yourself apart for the whole family. For the first time, I wonder what kind of father you will be. I wonder how you will deal with our little one. Maybe you’ll be afraid of him, too. Maybe you’ll let your son walk all over you, too. I stop listening to you and think of you, your brothers, your father, your family. You told me that you were poor, that you had nothing, that you had recently fixed the house and that you still had a lot of debts, taken to be able to afford to organize the weddings of all the brothers. I watch you, as you fearfully try to say the best words that your brothers and father would expect from you, but you don’t realize that they have stopped caring about you for who knows how long now. I knew right away that in this house you were the only one trying to do something. You told me you were poor, but not that you were dirtbags. Not that you didn’t want to work the land, and that you found the most unthinkable excuses not to. You are not even capable of being proper country people. We’re all “katundar,” but my father and his brothers, with organization and sacrifice, built four houses. You, on the other hand? Yet there are so many of you males and all in good health that each of you should be living in your own home. Instead, here we are, crammed into this temporary house, still unfinished, with only one room available for each couple.

I could tell right away, the first night, what kind of trouble I had got myself into. But I agreed to stay. I stayed because I love you, regardless of your poverty. And now you do this to me? Just like that, without the slightest respect, in front of everyone? Why should I follow you to Italy and not go back to my parents? I’m beginning to think that those characteristics of yours that I liked so much are only the result of your weak character. And I thought you could be a different Albanian man. One of those who doesn’t need to scold his woman in front of the guests, as everyone does.
Grua do this, do that. Sorry, but my Grua is slow. Grua bring me a cup of water. Grua there isn’t enough salt in the salad.”
And we women, your objects, silently following what you tell us to do. You consider yourselves men, you call yourselves “burra“, you walk around with your chests out, you smoke cigarettes as if you were successful businessmen, you raise your voices at us in the presence of guests to feel powerful, to feel like something, but without us, your wives, your objects, you would be nothing. Me, stupid, expecting you to be able to be truly different. But instead, look at you now, making a decision like that, deciding even for me and our little one without even consulting me. Not even trying to think that things in a marriage should be decided by both.

You finish talking, and I don’t even know what you said. The sound of a teaspoon hitting the rim of the tea glass brings my mind back to reality. It’s your father who has finished his tea, and he wants me to notice. He looks me in the eye, puts the spoon back into the glass and his face turns impatient, because he had to point it out to me and I, the good wife I should be, should have noticed it by myself. Her behaviour is the cherry on the cake. My body burns with rage. I get up as fast as I can and try to provide him with a fairly sorry face. I hurry to grab the glass and head to the kitchen to fill it with tea, and as I leave the room behind I pray that I never see your father, your brothers, or this damn house again. That I don’t have to serve tea to anyone. At that moment, as I take refuge in the kitchen, I realize that is exactly what will happen. Now that you have decided to take me to Italy, it will be just the three of us. There will no longer be your parents and your brothers. It’s like jumping from hell to heaven in a second. My body returns to its normal temperature, as if I’ve let myself fall backwards onto a soft bed covered with snow. I can feel the smoke leaving my body.

The way you announced it didn’t allow me to consider the most important fact. Which is that we won’t be living here any more, in this house of dirtbags and people with no respect. Me, with three years spent at the University of Prishtina studying literature, with the highest grade average in the class, me reading Kadare and Frasheri, ended up out of love being told by your mother how to clean a garden and becoming your father’s slave. On my second day of marriage, I was reminded of Dad’s words. He was the only one who told me that I would have to finish my last three exams before I got married, that once I was married I would never get my degree. I didn’t listen to him. I wanted you so bad that I put college on the back burner. And a few days before I became yours, I heard him talking to Mom in the kitchen. He told her that I would not fit in anyone’s house, that I was too independent to be anyone’s woman, that I was different from my sisters. I didn’t understand his words until I moved to you, when I woke up and realized that my future would consist of serving the inhabitants of this house and staying silent. I had decided to study to avoid this, and then I ended up in it anyway.

I return to the living room happy, ready to serve all the teas your father and brothers want to drink. It has a whole different effect now. Now that I am aware that they will be the last. We will go to Italy and be away from all this. We’ll be able to have our own life. To love each other for real, without having to hide. Have our own intimacy. I’ll be able to raise the baby without hearing everyone’s comments every time. Who knows what a beautiful place Italy must be. Maybe women are more respected, maybe people can love each other without having to hide. Surely there are better schools and there will be no war. Our son will be able to study and who knows what he will become. A doctor, maybe a lawyer or maybe a professor, who knows. Maybe I’ll be able to start studying again, maybe I’ll finish the last exams I have left and get my degree in Italy. That would be great.

I serve tea to your father and look him straight in the eye.
Enjoy these, because they are the last from the hands of the daughter-in-law you don’t deserve,” I want to tell him, but I can’t. I’m an object in here, and I keep acting like one. I go back to sitting in the chair. Now I feel good. I look for your eyes and finally find them. I realize that you’re feeling better now, too. Maybe you didn’t tell me because you knew I would say no. You were right, damn it. You were right not to tell me, you were right to decide for us. How much I love you. And I can’t wait to love you even more when we’ll be there. We’ll go to Italy and be happy. Happy for real.

Gezim Qadraku

Click here to read the second part