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The other day I went to my doctor. When I moved to our new neighbourhood, I changed doctors for my daughter and me. It’s not mandatory to do so but my daughter had outgrown her paediatrician and I was not particularly attached to my last neighbourhood doctor. A dear friend of mine (also a doctor) referred to him as my “Al Qaeda” doctor. I know that wouldn’t be considered necessarily appropriate at home in the US. Political correctness to the extreme would probably find something wrong with that. But here we can (and do) say anything we want.

So, I changed doctors. Now, all I have to do is go down the three stories to street level from my apartment and turn left onto the sidewalk. Between the door to my apartment building and my doctor is but one storefront: there sits a woman behind a shatter-proof glass partition offering to buy gold from those in my neighbourhood jonesing for new hair extensions or the latest 10″ heels, those who need to pay for their cable sports subscriptions and tanning salon appointments.

My doctor sees her patients on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. She prefers them to call first and make an appointment but this, more than any other, is a place where old habits die hard and doctor’s appointments are a foreign concept. Going to the doctor’s office is a right and a rite. It is neither where I grew up.

Every day the elderly gather in my doctor’s waiting area (tiny, not geared for comfort and, with its eight rudimentary chairs, five along one wall and three facing them, does not even try to be). One of my first visits was on a cool, sunny morning in February. In the sun it was probably 65 degrees; in the shade still in the 50s. In came Stellina, accompanied by her husband. All 38 kilos of her was wrapped in a heavy wool coat whose buttons had been moved to the point where they buttoned nearly along her side. She wore a kerchief on her head and tied under her chin. She looked to be about 130 years-old as much as she looked ageless. She was elegant and frail, spry and slow.

“Stelli'”, the lady behind the desk cried out. “Buon giorno, Stelli’! What brings you out so early?That husband of yours should know better than to make you go out in this cold!” It was not cold out, like I said. Maybe chilly. Not cold. Then she turned to the husband “what on earth were you thinking? Or were you?” There’s a hierarchy at the doctor’s office in Italy: if you are working-class, elderly, young (as in someone’s child), uneducated or otherwise lacking in the pecking order, the person manning the phones at your doctor’s office will talk down to you. The doctor will talk down to her and to you.

If you’ve studied or travelled or can otherwise hold your own in a conversation using the proper verb conjugations and more or less complex sentences while being succinct and to the point, the doctor will tolerate you and even, over time, coddle you. Seeing as illiteracy still laces those aged 60 and above and low-level schooling laces the younger generations, the cycle will not likely break anytime soon.

And yet the receptionist was lashing out in a most affectionate way. Stellina walked over and stroked her cheek before patting it before, finally, gently pinching it as she would have her own great-grandchild’s. The husband threw his hands up and started to justify himself to all of us: “We have to come here, go to the pharmacy, collect our pension, pay the bills, all before 1:00, how could I come out any later?” Yes, in my neighbourhood, as in all of Italy not sold out to tourists, siesta still begins at 1:00pm, so, one must get one’s errands in before lunch and rest time. We all looked at him forgivingly, he sat down again and opened the paper, Metro, handed out for free in coffee bars and metro stations every morning. Stellina pressed her hands along her tiny hips, smoothing her skirt down where the elastic waistband (a necessary afterthought) caused it to bulge slightly. Her husband folded the paper and stood to help her out of her heavy coat and loosened her kerchief for her. “Vieni, siediti, Stelli’. ” She turned right in front of me and made to take the three steps between her and the chair. Then she turned back. Gave the receptionist another smile, patted her cheek again, turned away and went to sit down with her husband. The receptionist, beaming and calling her “amore ” , encouraged her along to her chair.
Stellina and her husband sat hand in hand as he read the paper and held her coat on his lap. He told her the news in a voice loud enough – no, actually intended – for us all to hear.
When it was my turn, I told the doctor how happy I was to be in this new neighbourhood and how pleased I was to meet her. She confirmed it was a pleasure but had less favourable things to say about the neighbourhood. She began to complain about her patients, the rudeness, the crassness of them. I said, “but Stellina and her husband out there ” … “They, my dear Signora, are one of the few exceptions. ” My romantic heart was temporarily crushed. My neighbourhood, famous in all of Italy for its 1920 architecture, built for the families evicted from the Roman Forum by Mussolini who wanted it all for himself, unlike any other, full of artists and old Roman families, a cacophony of sound and colour, was snootily under attack.
In contrast to the other case popolari in Rome, Garbatella preserves a fighting spirit of the evicted, the displaced. While other spots of Rome were granted Council Housing in the great master plan of the urban redistribution under Mussolini, here gratitude for Il Dux has always been lacking. The homes are quaint and artfully crafted by three architects from just as many different parts of Italy and the neighbourhood winds and climbs like a maze over hills with pedestrian paths from one project to the next, overflowing with flowers, trees and shrubs, interspersed with parks and cobblestone. Ok, and laden with graffiti, social activists’ clubs and hanging laundry. Yet, as quaint and desirable as a 21st century ex-pat finds it, just as detestable the original families settled here by force once found it. For them, it was repatriation. The 5 kilometres from their original dwellings to this would have been like 15 kilometres today. While we are now considered central, they would have been relegated to the countryside back then, a fate of untold hardship. While other council settlements of the times let their gratitude then form their political views today, this and a couple of nearby settlements let their anger at being displaced form their very fighting spirit today. One breathes the air of strength in masses and feels the camaraderie in every street, piazza and coffee bar. Never in gratitude to Il Dux, Garbatella remains a place of open minds, hearts and, well, every so often, purses and desk drawers.
The other day I went back to the doctor to pick up a couple of prescriptions. The receptionist was being brutally scolded in very formal Italian. She couldn’t find the doctor’s “stamp” with which she validates all of her prescriptions. I thought it odd that in such a bare, tiny office they could lose something with such ease. “I tell you always to lock it in the drawer when you have to turn your back! Now look, it’s gone again! And I’m full of appointments, how will I get to the Carabinieri before 1:00?” (Actually, while the 1:00 lunch and rest holds true for most, one can still go to the police at any time, really, but one wouldn’t unless it was a dire emergency.)
When she called me into her room, I said hello and, in my naiveté commented on the event which was clearly impossible for anyone not to overhear. “Incredibile”, I said. “what an odd thing to go missing”. The thought of someone forging prescriptions for drug addiction was still furthest from my mind. “Odd? You know how many times it disappears from here, Signora mia?” She gave me a knowing smile. “What did I tell you? It may be a fashionable neighbourhood but don’t believe it quaint for one minute! I can’t wait to retire from here!”

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I ran into Stellina at the seamstress’ shop the other day where my daughter was having the dress we’d bought for her cousin’s wedding remade to fit her torso and imagination. The dress had cost us thirty euro; to have it custom fit would cost us fifteen. The shop, with no room for two slender people to stand next to each other, forms a line from the street to the counter. It is flanked with embroidery kits, yarn, pins, needles, bras and underwear all displayed vertically, making the best use of tiny space and high ceilings. Stellina came in and was standing behind another couple of ladies who deftly made room for her to move to the front. There is a stool in the corner, wedged between the measuring counter and the curtain leading to the tiny storeroom where my daughter was slipping into her strapless bra. Stellina was lowered onto it and presided over the viewing.
As the seamstress pinned her dress, others voiced their opinions and one, apparently once famous costume seamstress in the Dolce Vita era of Italian cinema, came up with an idea and tried to convince my strong-minded, teenage daughter to go with it. She did not and our young seamstress-shop owner stood up for her. The veteran dressmaker eventually huffed and made her scorn obvious as she slinked her way past others all the way to the door. I felt awful. Had we offended her? The young seamstress said it was she who had overstepped her bounds; this was not her model and she should not have interfered. The spectators agreed. She went on to compliment my daughter on her firm resolve; I realized again how much I’ve been a pushover to please others and how proud I am of my daughter for sticking up for her own will. Once she was all pinned, Giulia beamed. She loved how this was going to come out and felt perfectly at home with her close circle of nonne voicing their opinions, giving her advice and talking about the event. Stellina stretched her arm out and smoothed Giulia’s dress from the waistline over her hip and ended with a kind little pat on her bottom. With that, my daughter was excused; she could step out of her dress and back into her clothes. The neighbourhood nonne who by morning meet at the doctor’s and by dusk at the seamstress’ merceria, approved and accepted her. She’d brought light to their evening and they’d brought nurturing to hers.