In the first years of your career you belong to the working class. If you work hard, you’ll make it into the middle class in a few years. And if you work harder, you’ll become part of the upper class,” that’s how I explained the class system to myself as a 10-year-old.
How wonderful it would be if this were a reality, wouldn’t it? This distorted world view could have been naivety. That reality is now ages away.
I have lived in Rome, Italy for seven years.
Sometimes it’s a fairy tale; sometimes agony. The first few months or even years were the hardest.
Along with absorbing the language and culture, and becoming accustomed to the Italian way of life, I had to swallow the hard pill of the reality that we would not enjoy the same amenities in Italy as in the Philippines: no more private schools, no more school buses, and no more helpers .
My conservative behavior contrasted with the more liberal and harsher behavior of Italians, and my deep, mostly dogmatic, Catholic faith contrasted with the atheism and anticlericalism that permeates Italian society.
But while my move to Italy has been turbulent and traumatic on numerous occasions, it has also allowed me to experience things I would not otherwise experience.
I remember when my friend threw a paper airplane with her Instagram username written on it at a curly haired man who was ice skating in the piazza near our school in Rome’s Latin Quarter. They started chatting and three days later my friend and I found ourselves at the train station in Ostia, one of Rome’s slums, where the skater picked us up in his rickety car.
Ostia reminded me of wealthy subdivisions in the Philippines. But my association could not have been more wrong. “Welcome to Ostia, boys!” yelled the driver, adding, “This is one of the most deprived parts of the city.” This area of tall white buildings and idyllic green spaces turned out to be public housing. We spent all afternoon skating in an empty parking lot.
There were also some experiences that weighed on my conscience and kept me up at night. For example, I met an Arab on the bus back then. It was a busy day, so I decided to grab some McDonald’s food; the closest was at Rome Central Station, a 15-minute walk from the school.
I left the fast food joint with two large paper bags after asking my pregnant mom if she would like some. I went to the piazza and got on a bus. A digital sign inside said it would be leaving in 10 minutes. I sat in the front seat and waited. Just as the bus was about to leave, an Arab teenager got on the bus and sat in an empty seat two rows back. He was wearing a black cap and I noticed a white necklace that was only visible on the back of his neck as he hid it under his shirt. He sat hugging his bag while the peak of his black cap covered his face. I walked over to him.
A short but profound conversation followed. He had a heavy Arabic accent, although he had lived in Italy longer than I had. As he answered my questions, I considered taking him out to lunch so we could continue the conversation. But since I was stingy, I decided against it. I told myself that I would probably find him at the same stop the next day. But I never saw him again.
Before I got off the bus I said to him: “Alhamdulillah” (May all glory be to God).
He didn’t understand me.
I repeated. Nothing at all.
Only later did I realize that he was a Coptic Christian, the most persecuted Christian sect in the world. And the white chain? A rosary. Persecution drove him out of his country.
My spoiled life in the Philippines contrasts with my life in Italy.
Along with the amenities, I had to leave behind some preconceptions that would have anchored me to explore this new land I found myself in.
I got to know the different and diverse aspects of Rome: from its classical splendor to its modern misery, from Italians who constantly complain about Italy to migrants who consider Italy home, from activists to men who know Italy’s fascist past mourn.
I met teenagers who dealt drugs to buy clothes, mostly designer clothes, that their parents couldn’t afford; young homosexuals who had to resort to prostitution to survive after being thrown from their homes for coming out; and even children of mafiosi.
Each of them taught me something and made me realize that although we may be divided by class, race, religion and sexuality, in the end we all share suffering and mortality.
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Tyrone Skye Macaraeg, 18, is a maverick, cinephile and hopeless romantic who loves to stroll the cobblestone streets of the Eternal City.
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