Do not ask for help

I’m six years old, and I’m in first grade.
It’s spring, almost summer now.
After school, Mom takes me to the park to play with my classmates.
I’m happy, it’s sunny and the days all seem good to me. The school will be over in a while, too, finally.
At the park we have fun on the swings, we run after the ball, and then we finish playing hide and seek. At a certain hour, however, we all have to go home, mothers are inflexible.

Daddy’s home, he just got home from work. He’s had a shower, he smells good. He’s tired, but I don’t notice it. I’m a child, I can’t see it. Mom always tells me to ask him if he’s tired. He always says no, that he’s not tired and caresses my forehead with smiling. I don’t understand why I have to ask him if he says no. I will understand it later when I’ll grow up, when I’ll try to work too, and I’ll feel tired as soon as I walk through the door. I will realize how much having someone who cares if you are tired or not, that that simple question, can drive away all the tiredness.

I took a shower, and then I sit on the couch next to Daddy. He’s got a book in his hand and his face looks confused. He’s studying for his driver’s license. I like the book. It has a lot of colourful pictures that catch my attention. Daddy’s asking me for help. He asks me what the word “roadway” means. It’s the first time I’ve heard that word. I’m six years old, I’m in the first grade, my vocabulary’s restricted. I find that word very difficult. I can’t help Dad, and I’m sorry. Then he goes and asks our neighbour. She tells him that a roadway is a road, but he doesn’t seem happy with the explanation.

I try to understand what that word means, and in the meantime, I wonder why Dad doesn’t know why he asked me for help? Why did he have to go and ask the neighbour? What about mom? Why doesn’t mom know what the roadway means either?
I’m six years old, I’m in first grade, and that word shows me that mom and dad don’t really know the language of the country we are living. I should have figured that out sooner, I guess. We speak a different language at home than people use on TV. Mom and Dad only use Italian when we’re out. Why can I speak both of them? Maybe I have superpowers.

I will spend that period of my childhood thinking that I am a superhero. That I can speak both the language of my parents and the language of my teachers, my classmates and people on television.
Dad will get his license the first time.
Growing up, I’m going to realize that for some things I can’t ask my mom and dad for help with. There are things about life in Italy they can’t help me with. I should ask my classmates or my teachers for help, but I’d be ashamed to do it because I don’t want to show myself to be different or inferior. Then I’ll end up never asking for help, for any obstacle I have to overcome. Linguistic, physical or psychological.

It will be the others who will ask me for help, who will trust my support, my knowledge. Not me, never.
I like to say that I am a guy who prefers to listen, that makes me uncomfortable asking someone for help.
To be honest, I really have no idea how it works, what needs to be done and whether it’s really worth it.
I haven’t learned how to do it yet, to ask for help.

Gezim Qadraku

Those summers in Kosovo

Returning to Kosovo every summer meant being able to finally breathe the air of freedom. After nine months of inflexible hours, school, homework, tests and questions, I always had at least a month of pure fun. I spent most of my time in the village where my father was born and raised. There, togethere with my cousin and other boys, I am sure I reached the peak of happiness.

We were a group of six or seven children. I was the youngest. We spent our afternoons playing in the endless meadows of the countryside. They’d take the cows out to pasture, and one always had the ball with him. We’d go and challenge the other children in the village. I used to play football in Italy, I trained twice a week and did everything according to the rules. But there, among them, I looked like a fish out of water. I thought I was playing another game. They were better, faster, stronger. Growing up, I always wondered where they’d get to if somebody gave them a chance.

Those afternoons were beautiful. We didn’t just play football, we stole the cobs and ate them together. We’d divide up our duties. Three went to take the cobs. Two were the field workers, while one was outside to check if the owner arrived. The other three or four stood at the base, which was nothing but the shadow of an oak tree. Down there we prepared the wood and the fire. We grilled the cobs. By looking at our faces, it was like someone had opened us the doors of a starred restaurant. Those weren’t just cobs. It was the organization of a theft, the anxiety of waiting, the adrenaline of those who had to carry out the plan and then the happiness of being able to enjoy them together.

I felt good in their midst, even though I was totally different. I had everything: original shoes, beautiful, clean and ironed clothes. A simple life in Italy and the possibility to think of a rosy future. They had nothing, but I didn’t know that.
How I cried every time I had to go back to Italy. I wanted to stay with them, and I would have given everything just to stay in Kosovo.
They never told me anything, but who knows how they envied me. And I was so stupid to barter my wealthy life for their nothing.

I liked everything about them. Even when they got dirty playing, I had the feeling that their dirt was more beautiful than mine, more original. Even the mud or dust looked good on them. How many times I think back to those moments listening to the beautiful notes of “Il ragazzo della via Gluck“. I get emotionally touched every time.

The memory of the best food I’ve ever eaten is also linked to those moments. No, I’m not talking about grilled cobs.
When we went out to play, our mothers knew we’d be late, and at some point, we’d be hungry. So Mom would always make me a sandwich with sliced tomatoes and a generous amount of salt. A simple sandwich, actually, quite a thin one if I think about it.
It was the end of the world, believe me. When the tomato juice wet the bread, and there was salt in that piece, a mixture came to life that made me literally fly.
God, what happiness.

Mom used to yell at me when I went out too often to play with my friends. She used an expression that can’t be translated into English, Sokak. The word refers to the narrow streets that separate houses in a village or town. But it is the way it is used and all the meaning it is given to create a world of its own. Mom always told me not to stay in Sokak all day. It was like, to try to say it in English, a sort of reminder not to spend the whole day walking around the village wasting time.

She wanted me to study to do my homework, but all I cared about was playing football with my friends. They protected me from that world of unwritten rules, pride and courage. Something far away from the concept of fun that there was in Italy when I played after school in the park with my classmates.

They were all wearing old, ugly, dirty clothes and I wanted them. I dreamed of being like them, but instead, I had much more beautiful stuff. I was ashamed of myself.
One day I realized where they were buying those bad things I liked so much. I also saw that they were really cheap, and I began to understand something of their reality. I was at the market with my parents, which in Albanian we call pazar, from bazaar. You should spend a day in this place, you would understand so much about our people. The manners of the salesmen, the kindness and willingness to give you credit for one, two or three weeks. The atmosphere, the smells and the sounds. Try to ask to buy a single pepper and receive all the crate that will contain at least thirty.

“Oh no, they’re too many. I only need one.”
“But ma’am, you don’t want to buy a single pepper, do you? Come on, one euro and take it all.”

And you can’t say no. And it’s nice that way.

Now it happens, when I come back, less and less, unfortunately, to meet those boys again. They’ve grown, they’ve become men. They’ve started a family, a home and their lives have taken an acceptable path. But it’s as if nothing has changed when they see me. We meet in the most unthinkable places, even if for me every time it is as if someone catapults us on the meadows of our beloved countryside. We talk, discuss the present and how things have changed. They are even kinder than before, and I feel uncomfortable every time. I wonder why I deserved such a blessed life, and they didn’t.

I meet Amir, and I’m reminded of what his reality was like as a child. He lived about 50 yards away from my cousin. We were separated by a hill that people used to take out the garbage. Behind the trash was Amir and his family. One afternoon we went to his place. I don’t remember why. They didn’t have a house, they lived in a shack. The roof was open, and the place was tiny. I don’t remember how many members there were in total, also because every day I discovered a new brother or sister. You should see it now Amir and his two-floor house built with who knows how many sacrifices. He takes me in there proudly and introduces me to his wife Jetmira, who is pregnant.

It’s a boy,” he tells me excited. There are a lot of photos in the living room. The biggest one is of his father, who left too soon. I’m in one also. That’s us in the group, all together in front of my cousin’s house. I get touched, can barely keep my tears inside. I didn’t expect that picture. It’s an avalanche of emotion that’s hard to handle.

We drink coffee, eat some dessert, and they’re all trying to hold me back for dinner. I tell Amir that I’m already invited for dinner elsewhere. That’s the only reason that convinces him to give up. I greet Jetmira with a handshake and give Amir a big hug. I leave their nest and head towards my cousin, who is waiting for me for dinner.

While walking, I think about the life I have led in Italy and that of my Italian friends. Sometimes I wonder what happened to our childhood if we did nothing but complain about what we missed. The Play-Station game, the branded shoe, the moped, etc…

I grew up among people who were economically well, who could afford everything a human being needs to live well. Still, I realize that they gave me nothing. They taught me how to choose restaurants, how to eat certain dishes and how to dress on certain occasions.
Poor people have given me so much. I always feel comfortable with them, even if I’ve never been poor. They have suffered, they have something to tell you, you can find life in their eyes. And if fate was not too cruel and they still have the strength to laugh; well, in those smiles, you will understand why life is the best thing that could have happened to you. The poor have taught me and shown me the meaning of the word happiness.

I arrive at the gate, and before entering, I take a look around. A lot of things have changed. The houses are all more beautiful now. The colours of the walls are bright, the road has been paved, an acceptable amount of water flows in the river, and there is no longer any sign of war. Despite all these differences, my mind recreates the images of those summer days. I see myself as a child running out of the courtyard to meet the boys in the group. I savour the taste of those sandwiches and hear our happy voices as we chase the ball. I’m reminded of the words at the end of the movie Stand by Me.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anybody?”

I walk into the courtyard and see my cousin on the balcony smiling at me. He tells me dinner’s ready. In my heart, I hope there are bread, tomatoes and salt.

Gezim Qadraku

Residence permit

I remember every detail of that moment. Feelings, smells, clothes I wore, music I was listening to and what was going on in my head. Just like my approach to elementary school. When at the age of five, I had to face the shock of being the only child in class who didn’t have the pencil case.

I’m sitting on the floor of Milan’s police headquarters at via Fatebenefratelli waiting for my turn. No, I haven’t committed any crime. I will leave this country in a few years with an immaculate record. I’m not here because the police brought me here. I came of my own free will. My residence permit expires soon, and I have to renew it. I have to renew it so that I can reside in Italy so that I can study so that I can continue to play football so that I can live and do the same things that my friends do.

I am sitting, tired, and mentally exhausted. I woke up at five this morning, and at six I was out here. The queue was already long, and after an hour, I was only one or two metres ahead. Knowing what was waiting for me, I decided to commit something unacceptable, something I should be ashamed of now. Still, I feel no remorse. I crossed the queue; I made a shield of my appearance as a white-skinned boy, of my blue pants to which I matched a blue shirt and an innocent face to look like an Italian. To look at me, anyone would have thought I was just any Italian student. I grabbed the card with the number 181 and sneaked in. It was 7:00, and a few minutes later, I thought I’d get out of here after lunch. I was too optimistic.

It’s 16:30, and I just texted the girl I’m dating that our date has to be postponed for tomorrow. I’m still waiting for my turn, and from the moment I walked in, I’ve been doing nothing but looking at the people around me. The air stinks. It smells like sweat, like bad food, like exhaustion.

Some children cry, others play to deceive time.
Some mothers breastfeed, others try to put their babies to sleep.
Some fathers lose their patience and others who don’t give any hint of nervousness. There’s the whole world in this immigration office. Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We’re all here. Nobody’s missing.

The number 150 has appeared on the screen; my turn is coming up. Thirty or so numbers and this hellhole will be over. There’s nothing left for me to do but think about all the time I’ve spent here since I’ve been in Italy. It’s the first time I’ve been here on my own; it’s the first time since I came of age. Before it was a hell I used to share with my parents. Going to police headquarters meant missing a day of school. It meant going to Milan and then taking the train and the subway. These were all things that I liked, and I feel like an idiot when I think about how much coming to the police headquarters to renew my residence permit was a good day for me.

I always liked Milan. The trains, the subway, the crowds of people, the shops, the kind of life you breathe here. I’ve always wanted to live here. I don’t know yet, but after a few years I will have the chance to study in Milan, and I will finally take away all that desire to enjoy this city in every corner.

There’s a family that attracts my attention. They must be Indian or Pakistani. The family consists of five members: father, mother and three little girls. The father figure has just received what I think is the renewal of the residence permit for himself and everyone else. He does a liberating run towards his women. Their faces, smiles, and the hugs they give themselves are the best representation of the happiness I could give right now if anyone asked me.

I look at them, and instead of empathizing their joy and being happy, I feel strong compassion. I pity them, as I do myself. I would like to get up, join them and tell them to leave. To leave this country and go back to live in theirs. I’m so tired of all this that I’d go back to mine, even now. On foot, if I had to. It was a life spent like that: renewing the residence permit. According to the laws that governments enjoy changing every time, the merry-go-round changes. Sometimes the renewals last longer, sometimes less. They say that after certain years you are entitled to citizenship. Some people have been waiting for it for so long that they forgot the date’s application.

No one forced you to come, some might rightly say. I’d be inclined to agree with a fierce statement like that right now. I’d go back and do anything to stop my father. I’d tell him to stay, not to convince my mother to go after him. I’d try to persuade them to stay in a place where even if you want to work there’s no job. A place where the war will come and who knows if you’ll be lucky to survive or not. Because after hearing the war stories, I think it’s all about luck. But this waiting, this bureaucracy, this constant spotlight reminding you that you’re not like the locals has tired me out. And now, as I stretch my legs and try to relax my muscles, I almost give a shit about all the things a developed country puts at your disposal. I’d like to close my eyes and catapult myself back to where I was born.

As if that wasn’t enough, you grow up in an environment where you always hear locals saying that we are all the same, that we are all in the same boat. Bullshit. I needed a residence permit to go to school, to play with my friends and to register for the football team. No, we’re not all the same. We never will be. That’s the sad, raw truth. But it’s okay.

As I follow that family out of the police station with my eyes, I tell myself I don’t even want to be the same as the locals. I don’t care anymore. Because you get to a certain point where it takes away your strength and you accept it passively. You come in here, you get in line, and you wait for your number. You get your permit renewed, and you go home.

It’s been an hour, and finally, it’s my turn. The guy at the counter is a few years older than me. I give him everything he asks for, and after about ten minutes, he makes me sign a paper with an orange card on it. My new residence permit. It is valid from 2009 until 2014. It’s 2010; a year has already passed. Five years, I’ve never had a residence permit this long. Before I leave, the guy reminds me that the next one will be indeterminate. He expects me to be pleased, to smile and react in who knows what way. I thank him and leave.

I don’t give a shit“, I’d like to say. But it’s not his fault; he had nothing to do with it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wish I could find someone to blame for all this. Who makes some people have to leave their places and spend their lives in places like police headquarters to renew residence permits.

All I can do is get out of this place. I went in there ten hours ago. It was dark; it’s dark again. I’m texting to mom that I’m out, that I’m stopping for something to eat because I’m exhausted. There’s a McDonald’s down the road. I get thrown in. I order a big menu and try to enjoy it with all the calm in the world. After a couple of fries and the first sip of Coke, I can hear my cell phone vibrating. He’s my best friend.

“Football in an hour or so?”
“I can’t, I’m in Milan.”
“What are you doing in Milan at this hour?”
“I was at police headquarters. I just finished.”
“At police headquarters? What the fuck did you do?”
“Nothing, calm down. I had to renew my residence permit.”

I take the first bite of the burger, and I smile. My Italian friends know the police headquarters as the place where you are taken if you have committed a crime. They don’t know that there is an immigration office, a room where foreigners spend their lives renewing their residence permits. The burger’s good, I’ll take another bigger bite. I think in four years I’ll still be here, another time.
It will be the last one, but I don’t know yet.

Gezim Qadraku

The highlighted image was taken by Claudio Furlan.

Happiness

While watching the mixture of colours that painted the sky, I reminded of the passage of a book I had read some time ago. I didn’t exactly remember the words the author had used, but he described the magic of being happy and being able to see it.
It rarely happens if you think about it.
Unhappiness or wrong time is more and more outrageous than a good time.
In those moments, I realized that I could never forget that period.
That was one of those days when you prayed that they might last for eternity.
It was still a matter of minutes before people finished their working day and clogged the streets.
It seemed that the little nature still present in the city was enjoying its last breath, before witnessing the usual race of human beings.
It was still winter according to the calendar, but the heat of the sun’s rays gave the feeling that spring wanted to start its course earlier.
Everything seemed to be dressed in the indescribable colour of the sky, a pinkish-orange that left you breathless.
There was no doubt that it would have been a perfect sunset.
I went out for a walk after a warm and endless regenerating shower. I used to feel the chills of cold when I went out at that time, especially after washing. But that day was divine. The light spring jacket proved to be the right choice. I walked without a real destination, letting myself be hit by the sun’s rays and trying to enjoy the sounds of what was around me. Children crying, birds chirping, and the breeze caressing my hair.

The best thing to do was to find a view from the top of the city. I wanted to be in the highest possible place to enjoy the goodbye of the sun and the arrival of darkness.
I was delighted at that time, and the funny thing is that there was no specific reason. For years, as I think everyone, I had mistakenly connected happiness to a goal, to a person or always to something.
That was definitely the happiest period of my life, even though I was far from all that was most dear to me. Yet I didn’t care about anything or anyone anymore. For the first time, I liked the person I was looking at in the mirror.
It was inexplicable happiness that no one could have understood. I didn’t waste time trying to share it. I remembered Oscar Wilde’s words, he wrote that when he liked someone, he didn’t reveal her/his name out because of jealousy.
I did the same with that part of my life, I didn’t show it to anyone and tried to enjoy it until the last drop.
I remember one detail of those moments, I always looked up.
I stared at the sky and tried to touch the stars.
I was happy, and everything seemed to be possible.

Gezim Qadraku

 

Direction nowhere

First days of May, but looking at people’s clothing it seems like late autumn. You can still see scarves and woolen hats.
Today is an odious day. Unceasing rain and biting wind. The classic to spend in the living room under the blankets, eating until you can’t eat any more while watching some useless program on television.

Instead, I am in this small village in southern Germany. I arrived a couple of minutes ago and the next train is in an exact hour. I have a tour of circumspection and I realize that the station is equipped only with a library and a bar. That’s all.

I enter the bar and order an espresso. The waiter asks me if I want to drink it “at the window“. That would be the series of tables arranged with a view to the outside, the parking of the station, or in a more secluded area at the bottom of the room.

I opt for “the window“. I don’t want to miss such a view. I take my place and observe the combination of colors of the chairs and tables. Light green and brown. I like it. It gives me the idea of a split between new and old. I sip the espresso with some fear, but I am happily surprised. It’s not bad at all. Perhaps low expectations play an important role in the judgment. I take out of my backpack the book I’m reading: “The sympathizer“, the Pulitzer Prize of 2015.

I read in a language that is not my native one and live in a country where another language is spoken. I’ve gone so far as to handle four idioms with enough ease. One never knows how many goals can reach. Between one line and the next, I let myself be distracted by the people who arrive at the station. I look up more and more often and enjoy the spectacle of everyday life. I look at people and try to guess their lives. It’s an exercise I’ve been doing since I was a child.
I created stories in my mind starting from reality because it has never been enough for me. Meanwhile, a young girl, too young, running with a stroller attracts my attention. I always wonder what motivates people to have children while they are in what is undoubtedly the best age. She enters the station and disappears in a blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, a stream of teenagers enter and leave the station like ants. I look at their faces and the way they are dressed. It reminds me of the importance I gave to the appearance when I was their age and the total disinterest I felt in school. As I resume the reading I feel a man behind me ordering something speaking in Italian. He knows the waiter. The two of them exchange a couple of jokes. I like the feeling I get when I understand someone who speaks a language other than the local one and this does not have the faintest idea that there is an unknown person around who can understand it. It gives me a feeling of power and control.

I have always needed to keep everything under control. Especially when I’m in a public place I don’t know. I keep reading while I keep my headphones, but all I really do is check the situation around me. I hear a gentleman asking the waiter where the sugar is. I have it. The cashier I assume points towards me and I hear the man moving to my direction. He touches my shoulder and, almost embarrassed, asks me if he can take the sugar. I pretend to fall from the pear tree and play the part. I am one step ahead, I have always been one step ahead. Nothing catches me unprepared. It is impossible to surprise me, I always know what happens, especially if they are people I know. People have become so predictable today that there is nothing interesting about establishing relationships. You only need to go around every social profile to have an almost perfect knowledge of an individual. And then they’re all so interested and focused on themselves. No one observes or tries to understand who is around them. They are impressed when you tell them the smallest details after a short conversation and they don’t understand how you were able to understand them so clearly. It’s so easy for me, a kind of hobby I’d say.

I keep reading, along with pauses to observe people outside.
I like it. For a moment I think I could live in the stations. That wouldn’t be a bad idea since all I need to do to work is my laptop and a Wi-Fi connection. I check the clock and I realize that forty minutes have passed. In twenty minutes I have the train. In ten minutes I get off the table.

I close the book and start to think about my next destination. A town in the south-east of Germany, on the border with Austria. A new reality, new people to know and stories to tell, at least I hope. I don’t know what I could call this period of my life.
As I get up, the words of Ghemon in the song “Voci nella testa” come to mind.
A rhyme says: “direction I don’t know well“.
I modify it, I could call this precise moment of my existence “direction nowhere“.
I don’t know where I’m going, but that’s okay.

Gezim Qadraku.

I’ll be back soon

I’m at the airport, waiting for a friend who’s coming back from London after two months of work. The speaker announces that the plane is half an hour late. Not having many options I decide to take a walk aimlessly. I wonder for a while until I reach the departure gates.
My attention is immediately captured by a child and what should be his father. I am kidnapped by the way the little one is glued to the parent. I sit on a bench and keep watching them. I can already imagine how this story will end.

After a couple of minutes, the father hugs his woman with a touching and deep gesture. They remain attached to each other for an indefinite time. When they come off, both have shiny eyes.  He is a little less, while she just can’t hold back her tears. It’s a blow to the heart to look at her, it hurts me. She tries to hide the emotion by looking up and putting on her sunglasses. She doesn’t want the child to see her like that.
The father is holding back because now comes the impossible part. He lowers himself towards his little one, caresses his hair and pulls out a forced, hard-fought smile, while he succeeds in the very complicated exercise of keeping tears inside his body. I can get a very clear idea of the power of the knot in the throat she’s trying.

He hugs him hard and the son literally clings to his body. It’s a snapshot, a flash. There should be someone – for each one of us – who takes pictures or films certain moments of our existence. That gesture should be shown in schools to explain the meaning of parent, child, family.
It is impossible to think that those two bodies could come off. It would be like asking or expecting, that a natural event stops following its course. Ask the flowers not to bloom in spring or the water of the rivers not to feed the seas. You can’t do that.
The mother is forced to do what she does not want. She pulls the baby to herself with a quick gesture, somehow trying to reduce the pain. As if that was possible.
I read the father’s lips: “I’ll be back soon”.
The child knows that he is lying to him and bursts into a roaring cry. He turns around and hugs the legs of the mother. She looks at her man, gently caresses his face and tells him to go. In my heart, selfishly, I wish myself the good fortune to find such a woman.
He looks at the little one and then turns his back on his family.

The emptiness that is created is deafening. For a moment I think the whole airport has stopped and is watching them. I don’t feel anything. I can only feel the pain of those three people that increases dramatically every second that passes.
I know this kind of stories. I’ve already heard those words. I know how that child feels. He doesn’t understand why her father is doing something as terrible as going to work somewhere far away. He feels betrayed and is not wrong. But what he doesn’t know is that his father is doing such a bad thing just for him. So that he doesn’t miss anything now that he’s small and above all, so that, in a certain way, he can secure a future when he’ll be big.
That child will understand it, he will understand all this when he is grown up. But now he doesn’t care. Now he just wants to have his father there with him to play and go and eat ice cream together.

What the father doesn’t know is that he will lose pieces of his son’s life forever. He’ll let days, months and maybe years slip by. This will last until he can take it with him or decides to return. It may happen if the period of distance is prolonged for too many years, that that son will not be able to recognize him and will go into the arms of someone else when he will be back.
He will ask his mother, “Who is this man?”.
And then that father will take all the blame in the world. He will wonder if it was worth it to make his creature suffer. To live far from his family and then to return so as not to be recognized.
What all those who left their land asked themselves at least once in their lives: “but was it really worth it?”
Yes, as if a simple human being were able to answer such a question.

I take one last look at that child and remind of the story my mother used to talk to me. The photo of the three of us, with my father holding me in his arms a few days after birth next to my mother, who I asked her to kiss before falling asleep while he was away. When he came back and I told her to make him sleep under the bed, that man.
I didn’t call him Daddy anymore. He had become “that man”. It had been a long time since he left and I was just a child. I was not to blame, neither was my father. It’s nobody’s fault actually, it’s life.
I always wondered how he felt, but I never had the courage to ask him directly.
I go outside to smoke a cigarette and I pray that no father should be forced to make such decisions.

Gezim Qadraku.