There is a man standing by our table. I sit fidgeting with my newly bought pearl necklace on the terrace of a high-end restaurant in Parma. The waiter is fast and funny like in old French comedies and, apart from us, only a loud and suntanned family enjoy their lunch.
The man standing by our table is stalky like a professional runner, he is wearing Levis jeans and shirt and rather good quality leather sandals. It seems that my curious glance invited him to simply walk through the elegant-chaotically arranged tables and chairs.
The waiter runs nervously among the mostly empty tables and arranges again and again the wrinkles on tablecloths, but does not approach us – as though he does not observe this lanky man standing by our table. We still have not ordered our meal. This is a family anniversary and habitually we spend it in a high-end restaurant in Italy, now with our pre-school daughter.
This year, I’ve been given this long, genuine pearl necklace in loving memory of my wealthy Austro-Hungarian family. This is the family that heartlessly exploited their Romanian serfs for centuries in a region that is a part of Romania now. This is the same place where my grandparents, parents and I grew up in constant state of sourness and self-pity as members of a Hungarian minority.
With the suntanned and generously tipping American-English speaking family preparing to leave, it occurs to me that at least five countries and nations are overlapping on this small and presently rather bewildered Mediterranean terrace during lunchtime. My husband comes from Hungary and our daughter represents a mixture of several cultures and languages, we wander the world to find a spot where we can balance our inextricably complicated identities.
The departing family, in perfect harmony with the funny waiter, fails to see the tall man standing by our table tapping my daughter’s back. He says he left his own children in his hometown and thanks us very much for sharing this moment in which he taps our daughter’s back – finding some relief from his despair and longing. The tip given by the head of the suntanned family is good enough that the waiter yells out a ‘have a good day,’ so now everyone around us is happy. The waiter still does not approach our table.
The script of our carefree anniversary dinner has been rewritten: we cannot just back out of the story line that took a wild turn from the moment I took that careless glance towards the tall man walking down the street. But here I have to stop for a moment of honesty or transparency, if you will. It was not by coincidence that we have chosen again and again this country of spectacular glamour of European cultural heritage, while seeking for traces of happiness and light-heartedness of my wealthy Austro-Hungarian ancestors. Ancestors who, behind the mask of their multilingual, piano-playing, cosmopolitan, globetrotter selves, did not even think about building an Orthodox church for those several thousands of Romanian peasants working for them on their green pastures, fairy-tale woods and romantic villages. They pretended that these people working for them were transparent when it came to their needs. My ancestors, my closest relatives who I am bound to with eternal love, did not forget, however, to build a Catholic church for their own families.
I attract almost hypnotically this tall and thin man to our table. Coming from Central Africa, he tells us he left behind his starving, civil war-tortured family who concentrated all their hopes into his own self, own body and soul peregrinating from the heart of his continent. He walked thousands of miles being literally hunted down in the Northern African region, then got into one of the more than overloaded boats of smugglers and finally arrived physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted to the Promised Land. And he is one of the lucky ones: he did not get drowned or shot at one of the dangerous spots on his way.
And now in generous and humanist Europe, this man standing by our table has utterly, totally, unbelievably disappeared under the radar of the waiter, guests and mostly passers-by in the street. He has become transparent. He cannot be seen, cannot be perceived here, in the land of freedom, equality and solidarity (as Corinna Milborn summarizes). He is translucent, see-through, not observed, not part of the picture.
Our story with the tall man comes to a rapid conclusion. The waiter pretends not to see us as we are now a group of people who do not meet the requirements of an exclusive, sophisticated, emerging, well-behaved Europe. The tall man, in his rather good English, explains to me that he is not allowed to work. He doesn’t have authorisation to sell the cheap fake things he’s holding, nor can he beg or steal. These activities fall into the same category of breaking the law and are punished with expulsion and deportation back to his homeland where he would face further torture and/or death sentence.
I quickly ask him to write down his e-mail address so that at least we can keep in touch, or ask my friends who work within international humanitarian organisations to do something about this (I still remember my friends’ sour and loud laugh when I later tell them this story). I get paper and a pen and hand them to him. He meticulously writes down some w-s as if writing down the domain of a website. After four or five w-s he explains to me cheerfully that if I write these letters down, a network of all the people in the world would become visible. There, he says, in the virtual land, we will finally freely connect and talk. He wholeheartedly thanks us for all we have given him and taps my daughter’s shoulder again – she who usually does not like being touched but this time sits with inexplicable serenity. Basically, I think, this is all what we really give to him.
As the tall man in his rather nice clothes physically disappears from our sight, the waiter finally comes to us. He makes it clear that we should order as fast as we can, eat and go to hell. The food is good and we pay exactly the amount appearing on the bill. In the holy name of transparency.