What I learned in Rome

A year ago today, I returned to Nairobi on a one-way ticket after (too) many years spent in and around the Eternal City. The time I spent in Rome amounts to about 90% of my adult life so far, and it has shaped me in ways that I’ll probably still be unravelling years from now.

To be sure, I didn’t have to move to another continent to learn what I record below. What happened was that I was exposed to a mix of circumstances, people and situations that would have been nigh impossible to recreate here in Kenya. And because my life now is very different from back then, I have to make an effort not to forget these lessons (at least the more serious ones).

1. When walking, always keep your eyes to the ground

Or else you might plant your foot in a pile of dog poo. In Nairobi, this skill has served to spare the lives of not a few slugs and caterpillars, in addition to avoiding the comparatively rare dog poo.

2. Treat everyone with dignity

I had a number of friends who were domestic workers, and while some were treated as part of the family, others had a less pleasant time. Many were constantly shouted at and called names. One had to count and record the number of carrots, tomatoes, etc. every night to ensure that she hadn’t eaten any. Another had to pick up the soiled underwear her female employer left lying around the house.

I also had my share of of having my dignity trampled upon. There were all the professors who thought I had an inferior intellect (at least I had a semester to prove them wrong!). Once, a cashier at a supermarket practically tossed my purchases after scanning them. Then there was the other shop where the cashier pointedly look past me to the lady behind me before confidently announcing, ”Next!” There were the countless shops where I didn’t get service at all, or where the note I handed over was minutely scrutinised before being accepted. There were the men of all ages who at all times of day and night offered to take me for coffee (hint: they were more interested in what they thought they could get from me, an African woman). There was the young man who imperiled his driving by hanging out the window to shout obscenities as I walked along minding my own business.

Being on the wrong end of prejudice has made me not want to make others feel what I felt back then. As a Christian, I believe that all human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), that I should treat others as I would like to be treated (Matthew 7:12) and that the main reason I’m not, say, a domestic worker is the grace of God that had me born into the family I’m a part of (Psalm 139:16). All those are good reasons not to forget this lesson.

3. My way isn’t the only way

Growing up, I was taught the traditional method of boiling rice: first you put in oil, then the rice and finally the water. One day early in my Roman stay, a group of us from church had gone visiting and a Filipino lady was cooking rice. She first put in the water, then the oil and finally the rice. She was also old enough to be my mother, and so I held my tongue (I’m a stickler for rules). The rice turned out fine, and I chalked it up to a Filipino thing. Some years later, I was with a Kenyan friend in her kitchen in Rome and she used the same method. By then I’d eaten so much familiar food prepared in unfamiliar ways that it didn’t bother me. Sure, I have my preferred techniques but I’m flexible.

4. A lot about a few foods

Before landing in Italy, I’d eaten probably only two formats of pasta. I was soon to learn that there are dozens of formats, each with its own special rules about what sauce goes with it. (I usually just made my own sauce from fresh veggies and the cooking quartet of aglio, olio, sale e pepe—garlic, oil, salt and pepper.)

I also didn’t know much about cheese—not only did I get to try various Italian varieties, I also sunk my teeth into Swiss and French products.

In my first few months in Rome, I wondered what they had against milk chocolate. In my first few months back in Nairobi, I wondered what they have against dark chocolate. I’m still yet to find affordable dark chocolate in Nairobi, and I really could use some right now.

Speaking of chocolate, oh how I miss Nutella!

5. I am more than what I do

After I graduated, I spent a long time in search of a job. I was no longer a student, which had been my identity all my life.  I did a few jobs here and there, mostly unpaid. I had no answer to the question, “What do you do?” Nothing. I just sit around all day sending out job applications and pampering the cat. I felt useless. I wasn’t contributing to society in any way.

I had to re-evaluate my view of myself. I may not have been contributing to the GDP of any country, but I was still valued by my parents, brothers, friends, and especially by the cat! More than all that, I was valued as a child of the Almighty God, and that’s the identity that will outlast all the rest.

6. A new way of pronouncing my name

My first (English) name has an r nestled among some vowels. As a good African, I’d roll my r‘s, which caused people to hear that r in my name as a d. Makes for a funny-sounding name. I imagine people thought, “It must be a tribal name.” So I stopped rolling that r and introducing myself became less of a pain for all involved.

While on the topic of language, I also learned to speak of pitchers, trunks and cookies when all my life I’d talked of jugs, boots and biscuits. Little sacrifices I made for the sake of the weaker American brethren 🙂

As an aside, I once attended a meeting with some volunteers from church. Three of us—An American, a Filipino and myself—were suggesting the kind of paper we though would be most suitable for a certain craft. Seeing as we were getting nowhere, the Filipina went in search of a sample of what she was describing. When we saw it, we were all like, “That’s exactly what I was talking about!” We’d been describing the same thing using three different names! 😉

7. How it feels to lose a loved one

So the loved one in question was a cat, but I don’t think that diminishes my observations. You, reader, are entitled to your own opinion…

First, the grief was horrible. Second, the regrets were endless. On the day before Bolla was put down, I had a conversation with the vet during which so many things became clear. Unusual behaviour that we’d observed months, even years, before was an indication of something more serious. If only we had understood. If only we’d done this or that sooner. If only, if only… Third, which surprised me, was how much I wanted to talk about Bolla in those first weeks. I had always imagined that a bereaved person would not like to be reminded of the loss, but if you gave me the chance I would have recounted silly stories about that cat from sunup to sundown. (Everyone processes grief differently so this may not always be the case.)

8. How to love the 24-hour clock system

“Let’s meet at 8.“

“Morning or evening?”

The 24-hour clock system eliminates the need for such clarification. Sure, it involves arithmetic, but some mental calculations never hurt anyone!

While on the topic  of numbers, Italy changed the way I write some of them…

Writing numbers
Writing numbers

… and the way I count on my fingers. I used to start counting one with my forefinger, but now I start with my thumb.

9. Re-entry can be brutal

(OK, so I didn’t learn this in Rome but as a direct result of having been there.)

I thought that settling back would be easy-peasy: I knew the language and was familiar with the culture, that kind of thing. Wrong. I failed to take into account two things (maybe more):

One, how much my way of thinking had changed. I’ve had exposure that many of my fellow middles-class Kenyans haven’t (see no. 1 above). That changes you, subtly and less so. Now the challenge for me is not to consider my compatriots  to be benighted since they have not been enlightened as I have, and that’s something i have to work through each day.

Two, though I was right on the generalities, I overlooked the specificities. In every culture in every nation, there will always be people who need some extra effort in order to understand what makes them tick. Failure to recognise that makes all interested parties miserable, as I was.

10. The Lord’s preserving power

I accomplished what I went to Italy to do: get a university degree.

I didn’t fall into degrading sin. The opportunities were many, and I could have gone looking for more. But it just wasn’t attractive.

I didn’t fall away from the faith. There was a years-long period when I was just going through the motions, and constantly wondered when I would be unmasked as a fraud. But I couldn’t get myself to walk away completely.

And on this note I’ll end this long post: I can’t take the credit for any of what I’ve written here. Yahweh alone deserves the glory for that!