Written by David Odusote
I am nineteen and in Rome, Italy. The city is quiet and slow, the afternoon I arrive. Traffic is minimal, and local cafes and gelaterias slowly come alive under the hot breath of the spring heat. I am alone for a couple of hours, and five of my friends are to join me later in the evening. It is my first time in Rome. I am excited, yet cautious. I had been enamored by pictures my cousin shared on his many personal trips to Rome: The Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Stade Olimpico, the gelato, the pizza. However, I had been alarmed by the advice given to me days before my trip. “Be careful, people in Rome can be a bit nasty towards minorities,” a friend noted. I had traveled a number of times across Europe prior, but I had never considered my blackness a deterring factor against my experience.
From Roma Termini, the main train railway station in Rome, I make my way to my Airbnb, comfortably. I rest my bags, charge my phone for an hour, and check my emails – nothing new. I slide open the curtains and peep outside – nothing eventful. A cluster of dark colored cars frustrated behind the influence of a red light. My stomach turns and rumbles, and I start for a chic restaurant, a five-minute walk from my Airbnb. The restaurant is small. It has tall glass windows, dark walnut tables, fairy lights that lace around the ceiling, and a live band that entertains with jazz music. Yet the restaurant is full and noisy; it is buffet style for lunch after all. I seat myself in the middle of the cacophony. “Prego! What would you like to drink my friend?” the waiter asks, dressed in a white button-down shirt and a black bow-tie.
“Water, please, and still,” I request.
“Okay, of course. The buffet is in the front of the room, so please help yourself,” he instructs. I smile, and he smiles back, marching away into the kitchen. I text my friends, inquiring about their whereabouts – no reply. However, from the reflection on my phone screen, I can see many eyes in my direction. They analyze me — my clothes, my looks and my posture. It seems odd that a great deal of people would take a sincere interest in me. It’s my first time here, and I have no intention of being noticed. The eyes interact with other eyes, engaging in conversations muffled between beef lasagna and white-wine. Eventually, I spring my head from my phone, and the eyes reroute in different directions. I stand up, collect a plate, prepare food for myself, and return to my table accompanied by a bottle of water.
“Scusa!” I signal to the waiter, in an American accent. “Do you know what the wifi password is?”
“It’s just the name of the store, sir.”
“Grazie,” I say. The waiter smiles and returns to the kitchen. However, the eyes, bolder this time, are unmoved.
I feel nervous. My shoulders are straightened out, my elbows are tucked beside my hips, and my hands tightly grip the fork and knife set out for the table – knife in the right hand, fork in the left hand, just as boarding school had taught me. I cut through and eat my beef lasagne with as much precision as a brain surgeon. Nothing fell off my plate or the table, or onto the napkin, I’d stretched across my lap – I wouldn’t allow it to happen. I pour my water into a glass cup, and drink slowly – boarding school also taught me this. Everything must be precise and delicate. The eyes continue to surveil. The music dies down a little, and I can make out some of their conversations from under their breath – “Wifi, clothes, beef lasagne, and lips,” the only words in English. Thus, the only words I could understand.
I feel quite anxious. I smile at them. They smile back, holding wry smirks on their faces. They make small gestures among themselves in conjunction with their conversations, still examining my clothes, my looks and my posture. I fold my lips in, settle my cutlery beside my plate, readjust my glasses, straighten out my blue button-down shirt and cross my legs under the table. I hold this position for a few minutes to think – I must’ve looked much nicer now. However, this feels unnatural. I rarely cross my legs, I like my glasses slightly against the edge of my nose, and my lips are hurting. In a gasp of displeasure, I gently stand from my seat, pay for my meal – forgoing a second round of food – and exit.
On my way out of the restaurant, I observe an old black man by a dumpster, scavenging. He is wearing a worn-out beanie hat, a stained shirt, and torn pants. His beard is white, and his skin looks dry. He notices me and nods – I return the gesture – then continues his search. I continue to Trevi Fountain.
When I return to my Airbnb, I lay on my bed, to relive my experience. I felt isolated and a bit scared. While I couldn’t understand the gestures they made or most of the words they spoke, I was weighed down by the element of perception. My blackness was used to categorize my worth. It was used as a weapon to diminish my dignity and cast doubt over my capacity for sophistication. It is exasperating that I must adjust my etiquette to escape a brutish appraisal. It is even more strenuous that I must undertake a double conscience as to assimilate and dwell in a dominant culture. At the moment, it seems such demonstration is critical towards the deconstruction and realignment of false perceptions of black culture. Thus, if such demonstrations help, I’m willing to do my best – only for the time being. However, I extensively believe that my capacity for sophistication can be channeled and conveyed on my terms, and through my blackness.
Anyways, if you do end up in Rome, I would suggest a gelateria by Trevi Fountain. It’s called Venchi. It’s quite delightful and has an exquisite assortment of flavors to select from.