MotM Essay | Truth and Freedom

The afternoon turbo prop takes off from Lampedusa airport. Lampedusa, Italy; April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius

The afternoon turbo prop takes off from Lampedusa airport. Lampedusa, Italy; April 2017. © Pamela Kerpius


19 December 2018

MotM Essay
Truth and Freedom

Part II: Learning To Fly

Be aware that we are free. And being free men and women we can tell the truth, and this is a privilege.”  Paolo Naso, Sapienza Università di Roma; Palermo, 2 October 2017


The rain was rushing down the road, right down Via Crispi like a river. 

People started running. There was actually panic when the thunderstorm started. Francesca, an acquaintance, is the owner of Porto M, the tiny library bar and museum that has amassed the recovered belongings from migrant boats in its cave-like abode off the dock leading to the port; she posted something on Facebook as the storm unfolded, “a clearing rain.” She must not be a Claudio Baglioni fan, because it was his stage that stood out there on the edge of the dock like a stairway to heaven. It was a fortification so immense it mingled with the lightning, but never budged against the wind or the rain. The airport runway began up the hill behind it, and there was no other rival for that stage’s advanced architecture except that of the airport control tower. The stage would have been fit for The Rolling Stones it was so big, but it was Baglioni standing in the spotlight. I made out the frame of his body from a distance when Adele, her aunt and I entered past the barricades into the audience, but I didn’t have that joyful jolt of recognition you get from seeing a star in person: his presence bore no meaning to me, I had never heard of him. Still now I only know him by name: Baglioni is an Italian pop star from the ‘70s and I am an American; his music never ran across my radio’s airwaves. 

Fame is cultural. All of my Italian friends here and away said they knew Baglioni or urged me to see him. He was playing in commemoration of the 3rd of October, the forth anniversary of the boat capsizing that killed more than 360 African migrants about a kilometer from Lampedusa’s shore––that was 3 October 2013. Everyone was going to the concert. Really, even if you didn’t want to go to Baglioni’s concert, you were going to go to Baglioni’s concert. There would have been no way to escape the frenzy around it in such a small space. People were flying in for it from Sicily. It was like ferragosto all over again for a day. Adele took off to Rome the week before to visit her mother, and I to Palermo for a conference hosted by Mediterranean Hope; and we were both flying back to the island the day of the show. Adele confirmed and reconfirmed via text to make sure I was still going. She sang song lyrics on our walk through the old port in anticipation of him on stage. Blue light from the approaching storm was already flashing silently in the sky. She kept saying in the weeks and days leading up to it, “You have to go, Pam.” She and her aunt gasped when they found out I had never heard of Baglioni. “No, I can’t believe it,” Adele would say to that and then toss her head with a laugh. I asked her if she knew who Tom Petty was, he had died the day before, but she gave me a blank stare. 

Fame is arbitrary. I kept thinking about the line of white light around Baglioni’s frame. He looked like a sketch on a backlit animation board. Adele was holding my hand so we wouldn’t get separated in the crush of people, which was thousands deep. The sprinkling rain started to come harder; we knew how this was going to end, but we moved closer into the heart of the crowd anyway, with just one umbrella shared among three. My eyes shook in their sockets trying to make Baglioni fall into focus, but I was calling up a memory that wasn’t there. I was thinking that this is what fame really meant: it’s not just the recognition you receive from real fans––people who know you, people who grew up on you, people who have a piece of you locked in their lives; but, also, that blank line of white light. Fame is an illuminated outline of a body. It’s just that, some starlight, a high-beam directing our eyes to the frame of whoever it is up on that platform. It made no difference if I knew who Baglioni was, his whole meaning was there, drawn in hot halogen, while all of his words were lost on me.

I felt about him in that moment as I did about watching people speak Italian to dogs: all of that cute gurgling we give them smeared together with a few key pronouncements, cattivo, giù, seduto!, in the same way you’d say it in English, bad dog, down, sit! But the dog doesn’t know what you’re saying. I’ve watched their eyes when they trot over to the cafe tables and wait. I’ve watched them when people start to talk, purposefully, as an experiment, and this much is true: the dogs ain't listening. The dogs are waiting for people sounds to stop and people hands to start delivering potato chips or chunks of pizza to their chops. Whether you’re greeting a dog or shooing it away––in English or Italian, no matter––that thing is coming back for a table scrap. Your dog cannot understand you. The words are arbitrary. This, the most revealing lesson of living in a second language so far. Language and frames of light as meaningful as they are deserted of meaning: you can believe in them or be flatly unaware of them and the world still turns. The dogs still stare up at you. I still stare up at Baglioni. Each of us, waiting nicely.

. . . 

On 3 October 2017 Adele texted me that her plane had landed and I texted right back that I knew because I heard it screech across the runway in that deafening echo that awakens the air of the town. Living in Lampedusa is also a bit like living on an aircraft carrier. 

In mid-September I was talking about this––the particular event of flight on the island––to that man from Palermo who I used to see months before. He works in aviation and sometimes in the control tower at airports. He used to work at Lampedusa tower, “Torre Lampedusa, torre Lampedusa,” went the audio I once heard when a pilot called in for contact. He was ever-so connected to the flights I’d watch take off and land because I could attribute a face to those invisible actions that maintain the signature feature of Lampedusa, its transience.

It must have been the last flight of the night when we were on the phone, past ten o’clock. Suddenly, into the black, starry sky a passenger jet as big as your best dream tore over the runway and lofted into the air like magic. From that blare of sound came silence almost as soon. It is new every time. All of that excitement there to witness in a span of seconds that requires the coordination of hundreds over the course of hours. Passengers, crew, pilots, baggage handlers, airline associates, and then, you know, refreshments had to be put on board, weather reports had to be dispatched, flight plans drafted, etcetera, etcetera, until finally the air traffic controller clears the jet on the radio to the pilot, and we, on the ground, once eye-level with this dinosaur sized machine see it take flight. All of that energy, all of that momentum, all of that specialized coordination made in effort of this moment: seconds of life screaming out loud. 

That moment is a lot like a director calling “action” on a movie, I told the man in Palermo over the phone. There is makeup and costume, set design and lighting work that come before the crescendoing call; camera operators, sound operators, assistants, writers, caterers, drivers, producers, and they all do their part before the camera rolls and that moment we remember is enabled. The repetition of those movements happen again and again across second- or minute-long increments until a scene is shot, and then another; air traffic clears a jet on the radio again and another dinosaur soars. 

There are so many steps in progression allowing this life to happen. Pilots are handed over to regional control after takeoff. They’ll follow their planned route around weather and topography; movies get shot out of order, around obstacles of money, time and geography. Upon approach, pilots are handed back to tower control who clears them for landing; a movie will be processed and moved into edit. You’ll watch in the dark as the cut-together scenes build into a story that resolves; the plane will descend through the clouds and land. The credits will roll, and the plane will taxi softly to the gate. So it all felt rather romantic watching that jet take off into the night with an air traffic controller himself on the other end of the line breathing, wooow into my ear. 

I decided to visit him after Francesco told me on the grounds of the house he had rented me that I could leave Lampedusa if I wanted to criticize it. 

Even if the relationship with the man in Palermo had been flawed in the past––for matters of distance and his dishonesty––this seemed like a just moment of reconciliation and reunion: with no where else to call home in that small but upsetting space of time with Francesco, he invited me to his own for a moment of repose and sympathy, understanding exactly what it sometimes felt like to be an outsider on the island.  

I texted him as I boarded the plane. Heart emojis, or whatever its equivalent came in response. I watched the “follow me” car scoot around the apron to escort our turbo prop to the entrance of the runway. I was on my way. I didn’t have to stay here. I was mobile and I saw a new light on that when I could simply walk to the airport and escape. Not everyone could do this. Not everyone on the island had the same flexibility, or for migrants, the freedom. I was incited to leave on what amounted, in contrast to their religious persecution, economic destabilization, certain physical harm, or worse, to a bout of hurt feelings. It was a lush decision to leave. But as the travel unfolded it felt as much necessary as it did inevitable, and I knew that I was not only lucky to be in this position, but that I expected to be; that this right to mobility was mine and I took it as an entitlement that anyone, everyone ought to have in their possession. 

I thought about the sound the plane was making from the inside of its shell against that of what it made for everyone else in Lampedusa, in the open air, on the other side of window panes. I felt the split seconds of suspended air when everyone seated on board ceased breath as the engines kicked us back against our headrests and the plane made its initial rush down the runway. I thought of the other controllers I knew up there in the tower as my window passed where it was stationed perpendicular to the runway’s midpoint, the direct line of sight when our little jet lifted its wheels off the ground and into the air. They always get to see those first inches of flight.

The crumbly brown edge of the island swiftly erased from view and then it was just blue. It was just us and the sea, and our image shrinking to a speck to the tower controllers who watched us voyage into the vanishing point. I looked at my phone most of the way, staring at the message that arrived before I flicked it into airplane mode, “C’mon, get here,” he said, or some cute urging like that. There was so much momentum. It was hurdling toward reality.

. . .

I would have had no way of knowing before I arrived in Palermo the degree of the man’s emotional immaturity, his antiquated views on gender, and to my greatest surprise, his racism. We needed more shared time between us to see it, but there were signs before that I might have taken more seriously.

Like the time last spring in Rome when he made a joke that “women can’t drive.” I was waiting for the punchline to that; it never came but he laughed anyway and then said it again; it prompted my response that it was actually too stupid to dignify with a response. I didn’t want to accept this truth in his character then because I liked him. He could be extraordinarily doting. He was warm company. He would hold my hand in a soft way. There were other charming things, like his long eye lashes, and his technical talks about air traffic––oh! 

We were soaring above the clouds like that when I first arrived in Palermo. He handed me an album of his baby pictures. It was a sea of white faces until I flipped the page where in one photo a black woman held his baby brother. I pointed and asked who she was, and he said “a gorilla.”

I can’t imagine how my face soured but I felt my stomach sink as I leveled at him that that was not okay to say in my company or anyone’s, that it was offensive, that he cannot say that, that he was wrong, and did he understand why?

“Come on, It’s just between you and me,” he said, swearing he’d never say it in public and would never address a black person that way directly.

He thought it was okay to say this about his nanny, the woman who it turns out was pictured, because we were in private, as if words didn’t matter there. I was embarrassed to be in the company of someone who thought his prejudice, his superiority, his contempt didn’t weigh anything when it was positioned in closed quarters, exactly the sort of insidious space that allows racism life. 

I told him if he was using the word at all he was making it okay. It was “just a joke,” he sighed.

And still, these are the words we live with. They are the ones I did. There were 36 more hours of my stay in Palermo. Even if I condemned him, I still stayed with him, trying to accommodate his feelings, I guess; and to make the most of this thing I was in, that I had expected more from.

The Africans I know now recount the insults they have flung at them from Italians in their new transfer cities. Mostly it’s people telling them to “go away,” but sometimes it’s uglier. Sometimes it’s like the word the man from Palermo swore he would only ever use behind closed doors. Last year, when he and I were still in Lampedusa together, I bumped into him on the street during lunchtime. I was interviewing Alagie, who had just arrived from The Gambia. I did then what I do whenever possible: make an introduction and have my European friend shake hands with my African friend. I do it with almost rigid formality so the only way to avoid looking the migrant in the eye and shaking his or her hand would be to insult them, which no one ever does, or hasn’t so far. It’s only to break down a barrier, to start to see the familiarity in one another.

The man from Palermo shook Alagie’s hand then; and about a year later, he reduced another person who had the same skin color as Alagie to an animal. That is how racism works. 

In Italy and in the U.S. people often suggest to me in conversation that it’s in the migrant’s home country where the political and social change to sustain them needs to take place. The shift has to happen there so its own people don’t have to flee home. While I don’t disagree with the idea that one should be able to thrive on their home turf, the stance always rings a bit bootstraps to me. Within what infrastructure, with what tools and resources are the poverty-stricken, uneducated and illiterate, and disenfranchised meant to leverage exactly in order to foment change, incremental or revolutionary? It’s a bit spacious in its judgment, perfect for a cocktail party. Never mind the country-specific place a migrant might be coming from, the entire African continent that holds it has been exploited by European and U.S. interests for centuries, to the point that the arrivals I meet come into consciousness here having already internalized the inferior status the world tells them they have for having black skin. 

There are bottles of Fair & Lovely brand skin lightening cream left behind in the wooden boats that migrants have carried with them on their Mediterranean crossings; Francesca keeps one on display at Porto MFelix, the first migrant I ever interviewed in Lampedusa, had one look at a photo we took together and with shock at his own appearance, said, “Wow, I am a black man.” Bartholo (27, Cameroon; interview forthcoming), has a friend in Cameroon who wanted to meet me via WhatsApp; she thanked me profusely for my reply telling me how hard it was in her country to “keep white friends.” Wally and others regularly tell me with surprise and gratitude that I am “good” because “you like us blacks,” or “us black people,” or “us black Africans,” all implying he encounters white people who don’t.

You can incorporate this psychology, this calcified inferiority complex, to the mountain of economic, social and political disadvantages migrants have stacked against them. It’s a more nuanced look at the “push factors,” as they are called––the factors that trigger one to leave his or her own country; it’s helpful to know, so we know how to respond when someone at our next dinner party suggests migrants square things away back home in Africa before burdening Europe first.

. . . 

I boarded for Lampedusa a day and a night after he announced his slur toward his childhood nanny, a time that was filled with other instances of offense, though not racially loaded ones; the breadth of this incompatibility reached even further than that cardinal sin alone.

But right now, it was happening again. The wheels of the plane lifted off the ground in Palermo. All of that energy was being built up and spent. All of those people were making this flight happen, facilitating my path back to the island, facilitating a move in the direction away from this person, who I have not spoken to since.

. . .

The comeback to my house was easier because I knew I would be leaving soon. I secured the last apartment I had kept in the past, the one in the old port, for the remainder of my stay. When another week was up I’d move back. It ultimately made the return from Palermo feel like a real return home, because there was something to look forward to. That’s what defines home most, I think, a sense of being at once comfortable and settled-in and primed for the next possibility.

Besides, my Lampedusa “family” made for a good homecoming.

They are the first group of friends I met on the island last year. Valentina was the first, when in the afternoon I wandered into the Vodafone store that she manages to buy cell phone service. The second was Marcello, a fisherman and boat captain, who was there at the same time talking to Valentina about the octopus he had caught and was hauling around on his scooter in a bucket of cold water. Marcello lives on the second floor of a building behind the church on Via Roma that is so humble there are exposed cinder blocks for the narrow stairway walls as you climb to his studio, sans hand rail. He labels this plot of real estate part of the “zona vaticano,” the “Vatican area,” as much as a crack on his less-than-luxe digs as it is on the absurdity of naming a neighborhood after a plain church in a thumbnail-sized center of town. In the evening of that same day, we met at Valentina’s house to put the octopus in its final resting place, at the dinner table. We ate it among about five other friends, including Aldo, who works in tech support on the island (but who ought to be a photographer for National Geographic), and another, Vanessa, who I count now as my closest in all of Italy.

Vanessa was up north in Milan for work this year, but the rest of us gathered for a late dinner at the street side seafood restaurant in the port in honor of Valentina’s sister’s birthday. Everyone was coupled-up, so Marcello and I took it as an opportunity to goof off at the other end of the table. We took videos of him, who speaks no English, doing his best American accent; and ceremoniously toasted glasses of water and bad after-dinner liquor and tossed them over our shoulders onto the ground––“a Lampedusa!,” “to Lampedusa!” No one seemed to notice, or care, as is the usual response to these sorts of self-contained, self-satisfying comedy routines. If the third-generation Lampedusan and career fisherman across the table did, he didn’t show it. He showed me, instead, a stream of photos of the massive tuna he caught a few days before and with a team of men hoisted onto a truck parked at the dock at Cala Pisana. He and Marcello said it was normal, no big deal; but it looked to me like a Transformer, a prehistoric sea creature that had morphed into its silver torpedo alter ego. 

The long goodbyes after supper were getting to Marcello, who is in his mid-fifties but has the demeanor of a seven-year-old; and suddenly lifted his leg and farted with a pride so strong it collapsed one person in laughter to the ground hiccuping tears. He was driving me back up the hill to Via Roma where the rest were meeting for drinks, but he didn’t have an extra helmet for his dirt bike––the gritty motocross kind––and my baseball cap blew right off in the wind, landed in the street, and the car behind us ran square over it. 

I was scrubbing the tire prints off the front of it the next day with detergent and a toothbrush outside at the patio table. The same spot I burrowed into when I walked back from the airport after returning from Palermo, a bit stunned, and squinting into the big florescent blue sky. I was thinking about the time, years ago, when an old boyfriend and I looked at each other with mouths agape during the final credit sequence of that severe movie, Manderlay (2006), that Lars von Trier made about the legacy of slavery in the United States. I remember we agreed then it was easier to see what was wrong with America when you had someone on the outside showing it to you. It was the same feeling I had watching the b-reel footage of a forsaken, forgotten Harlem, New York in the sixties and seventies in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975(2011). Then, too, it took a group of Swedish journalists to show us just how grim life there could be, something Americans didn’t want to see.

Italians have a different idea of racism than Americans. That guy in Palermo didn’t think his racial epithet did much harm. The short list of Italians on the island and in Rome who I’ve surveyed don’t think the napkin dispensers at Bar Dell’Amicizia advertising a coffee brand with a pair of a black person’s lips in the shape of a coffee bean are offensive either. “Piacere nero” (“black pleasure”), they read, and often adorn the tables I occupy while interviewing African migrants. No migrant seems to notice them, and how could they when the terror of Libya has still stricken their sight. Then again, maybe they do see them––I haven’t had the audacity to ask; and if so, maybe that’s normal for them too: to shrug at this falls under that old psychology of not being taken seriously as a human being. It is so easy see this as an outsider as outright racism. 

I returned to Palermo the next week for the international conference on migration hosted by Mediterranean Hope, “Living and Witnessing The Border.” We filled a small, makeshift auditorium and listened to panels from morning until night talking about the current state of the crisis. We wore headsets like they do at the UN, listening in to live translations, in either English or Italian, of journalists, scholars and the politically affiliated breathe humanity and accountability into this migration phenomenon. There couldn’t have been a more productive connection to make in this city that days before had given me a blithe kiss goodbye with so much bigotry. By the end of almost 12 hours, Paolo Naso, a professor of political science in Rome, said “The last word is hope.” He urged us to stay aware of the difficulties surrounding us, but to maintain hope, too. “Hope is not naive optimism.” 

. . . 

I flew back on the turbo prop to Lampedusa the next day, 3 October 2017. 

It was a production of another kind. The morning flights were sold out with tourists making their brief island return for Baglioni’s commemoration concert. Swarms of military men in uniform made haste to the front of the boarding line––they, too, were coming in for the pomp and to pay their respects. They were moved to a taped-off section of the shuttle bus that took us to the tarmac. You could put your foot over that thin border standing on the other side of it; another boundary that was intended to have meaning but was rather arbitrary in the end, a sad affront to everyone’s respectability, really. 

The flight was combined with the one cancelled before it, making most of the passenger manifest double-booked across the carefully arranged seats to balance on-board weight. I got traffic-jammed in the back where some high-ranking official was already settled in to what would have been my seat. I was instructed by everyone to wait, but more passengers kept filing by, squeezing in to where ever they could. I made a gesture to one of the men to say, ma che cazzo, in a show of the shared aggravation we were both wedged into behind this uncoordinated horde; but on second look I saw he was the one with the most stars on his shoulder, and stared back at me without blinking. A tight group saluted him after he alighted to the ground, and me, passing by in my backpack, stared up at what was another scene without meaning: I didn’t know who the serviceman was––someone important within these closed ranks, no doubt; but to me, he was just another Baglioni.

The production continued across town. News crews were up and down the street, and on Via Emanuele in front of the municipal building holding live interviews. It was a lot of sparkle for Lampedusa that didn’t normally get any spotlight. 

After the concert chaos, pedestrians were locked up in the same line with cars. Everyone was hopping puddles in search of a place to escape. As Adele and I scaled the hill up Via Crispi the torrent finally separated us on either side; we shouted our goodbyes with sodden feet from across the current and went home. I ate stale bread for dinner, all that was left in the house after my trip, and dressed it up with olive oil and an unplanned performance of “Learning to Fly,” which I did not care if the neighbors or the chickens in the pen next door heard me screaming for the only star I recognized in sight.

The next day the island began to get quiet again. Alberto, my friend who was run over by tourists with me on the beach in September, sent a text in jest that since the chaos had at long last worn down, “it is our island!” And he was right, we would indeed be there in the silent wake of the spectacle and the storm. What our friend, Francesca, from Porto M had in mind when she said “a clearing rain” had nothing to do with Baglioni and everything to do with the show of attention Lampedusa received on a day that would be forgotten only until it would be remembered in time again for next year's party. And the thing to remember as much as the 368 people who died that day in 2013 are the thousands more who’ve died in the same stretch of sea every year since, who continue to die here every month, possibly every week or day. We don't actually know the statistics. The waves wash them away. The third of October is open-ended.

Everything washed down Via Crispi to the old port and the tiny, abandoned strip of beach there––including me, finally, a week later to my old apartment, the place that gave me my first footing on the island. It was more expensive than I could honestly afford this time, but it was worth it. I remembered the shape of the sun as it arcs across the room over the course of the day. It streams in with fury at 8:00am and stays that way until past noon. I can’t sit at the kitchen table and work because the glare is too bright, but I can hang the shirt I washed in the sink in its rays and it will be bone dry in an hour. I knew this place, and right then it became the first home I’ve ever had outside of the United States. In Cala Palme, at the old port where it’s located, I know I am lucky, too, to open my front door and see the sea that does not ever fail to anchor this place and me with absolute consistency.