February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Runaway truck

By |2024-02-23T15:14:17+01:00January 22nd, 2024|Area 51|
When life bulldozes you, you still have to get up and go to work.

y latest cleaning lady is like a heavy-load truck with slashed tires that keeps on coming. She’s Bulgarian by birth, moved to Israel where she worked as a domestic in Haifa, married a Palestinian, bore a child, a girl, and the unlikely troika moved to Italy in 2007. She got work in a hotel, he worked as a handyman but housing was too expensive so they moved to a hamlet outside Rome.

Things went well enough for a time but then began dissolving. Her husband suffered a stroke, her daughter was diagnosed with a rare eye disorder, limiting her vision, and my cleaning lady was laid off by COVID.

“Like an Israeli tank rolling over us for sport,” she tells me in so many words, her accented Italian sharp and hard, though not resentful.

Nothing stops her because nothing can, not with a half-paralyzed husband and a visually crippled daughter. Though she managed to acquire Italian citizenship she’s at the back of the line for health care. It’s not discrimination, she says, “the system is broken,” by which she means the rusty behemoth known as socialized medicine.  Her husband’s Palestinian-Italian friend waited two years for a liver transplant that never happened – he finally removed himself from the waiting list and died at home. Her husband is hardly better off, able articulate his disdain for Israeli monstrosities – his word – only after three attempts infested with stammers.

“Like an Israeli tank rolling over us for sport,” she tells me in so many words, her accented Italian sharp and hard, though not resentful.

My maid is not political. She has no time for it. Her own health is a war front, not a good thing for a freelance domestic worker who relies on jobs in Rome, meaning a train ride on lines notorious for their timetable infidelity.

She came to my house before Christmas after three teeth had been extracted. Her front teeth are false, knocked by a loose elbow while at her Haifa job. She was dismissed for looking “too bad” and because the wealthy Jewish businessman who struck her insisted she’d “gotten in his way,” or so the story goes. “Even if you are not Jewish or Palestinian bad things can happen sometimes.” As for the ongoing bad things, she says nothing.

She also says nothing about the gimpy knee – in fact a dislocated kneecap that failed to heal – never mind the pain it causes her when she scrubs floors, which for now I don’t let her to do at my home. She clearly ignores me elsewhere. It’s hard to be a cleaner if you can’t get on your knees.

I am at once touched and dismayed by her stoicism. Touched because hers has been a life of hardships, and remain that way. Despite the citizenship, she remains dispossessed in soul and body, not a piece of Italy as she was not a piece of Israel. Even the inner cloth of her story is marred:  her brother, a manual laborer, also moved to Israel, following in her footsteps three years later. This “glad” brother (clearly a brother she loved) was killed in Tel Aviv when the van he was driving for work veered off the road and struck a military fence of reinforced steel – for whatever reason she harps on this detail.

Her stories inspire in me a sense of dismay. Life, according to her, is deeply unfair. Anyone, any group, any population can be struck down at a moment’s notice. I have of course known this for some time, but now, all but cut off from the world by my own blindness, I find the unfairness stronger and more poignant. I sent my maid and her daughter to my eye surgeon, a good man who charged them nothing for the consultation. His verdict on the daughter was the same as the one handed down to me: bad genes, bad luck, no ready remedy. My maid refuses this verdict. Like her husband, she trusts no doctor, or for that matter anything official.

She wants to be her own runaway truck, wherever it leads. I try to tell her not to come when she’s sounds in obvious pain. “Leave me alone,” she seems to say, but does not. coming in to see me notwithstanding dead teeth and knees.

“Soon we’ll all be dead, but for now I need the money, and if you need me to make soup for you, just let me know.” I have so far not asked for the soup, but in the midst of all this sadness its time is coming.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.