I want to buy a car. I want my freedom back. Freeeee! The government has announced a softening of the lockdown. People can move now within their region. The radio clarifies that social distancing still needs to be maintained, it has become part of our ‘new normality’. Wear masks, keep distance, don’t hug, stand in line, don’t gather. But moving, moving is allowed. I need a car. I want to bring the kids to the mountains. Cambiamento d’aria (change of air), people call it here. I saw an advert from Andrei, a Romanian man living in the neighbouring town who wants to sell his Renault. It is cheap, an old car, but still a strong engine, he tells me on the phone. But migrants spread the virus, people kept telling me. Are you sure you want to buy a car from a gipsy? They carry the virus.
Migrants are super spreaders, agrees Legame, a social cooperative with which I have been collaborating since 2015. It provides services to workers which are employed by the southern Italian agricultural industries. Romanians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, but also Moroccans and many workers from sub-Saharan Africa. It has been operating not far from here in a little town famous for its tomato plantations. Migrants are virus spreaders, they are convinced. This is why, last month, they decided to translate the rules of social distancing, including hygiene guidelines, into as many languages as possible. So that migrants too would eventually be able to understand what to do to avoid the spreading of the virus. This concern for migrants’ infectability is part of a larger campaign aimed at empowering migrants. Along with what sociolinguists have been preaching for decades, their practice assumes that translating information from the state can help fight structures of inequality. If only people can use their first language this world would be a better one.
We know from historians that this assumption is not new. The violent colonization of the world through imperial power has always co-existed with the spread of civilising and modernising knowledge. Translation as a technique of persuasion allowed colonisers to localize knowledge, to adapt it to the world views and modes of living of the individuals targeted and to create consent for the occupation and dispossession of territories as well as violence and oppression. Translating hygiene and public health measures was a means of imposing knowledge about the human body that, while seemingly benevolent, positioned the colonised as subordinate and produced a racialized critique of people’s cultural practices and social relations.
I can give you a discount, clarifies Andrei. He sounds desperate. Buying a car from a Romanian? No no, not now, people insist. I meet him in in this neighbourhood. Massimo, a friend of mine, gave me a lift by car. Busses have stopped running. It is my first time here. Deserts of concrete. Big, overcrowded houses. Families squeezed in small apartments. Children playing on tiny balconies. Others meeting on the building’s stairs. I think about the houses in the neighboring town in which we live. Terraced houses. Gardens with a sea view. 80% of the buildings are empty, waiting for tourists to come. Wealth and poverty exist side by side in this part of Italy. What if migrants’ major infectability is caused not by language, not by migrants’ lack of understanding of the confinement rules, but by these housing inequalities? What if it is not the virus that makes people die, but the system of inequality that we have built around us?
I see Andrei come down the stairs. He limps. He tells me later that he had almost lost his leg in a work accident in a firework factory. People here are crazy about fireworks. I instinctively tried to shake his hand. My body forgot that body contact needs to be absolutely avoided. Greetings are out in times of Covid-19. Andrei looks at me astonished. He knows the rules. No need for translatiiton. Are you crazy, his eyes seem to say. Keep your distance. I apologise. Try to say something about routines. And about how they come automatically to justify my misbehaviour. But he does not seem to listen. This is the car. It is an old vehicle. I used to drive to Romania with it. Three thousand kilometers. Three times already. The coachwork is damaged. Dents here, scratches there. But I have not used it for ages, I don’t need it anymore.
I knew he was lying. Before leaving me alone with Andrei, Massimo insisted we check him. His habits. His car. You never know, explained Massimo. This is Italy. You can’t trust people. Be careful, he insisted. We should ask around before buying, he advised. We had stopped at a Romanian bakery in the block. Bought some bread. Chatted with people. The women behind the counter knew Andrei. She wore a mask. She knew the rules. No need for translations. He has three kids. Hard worker. He drinks, but we all do, added a man who was smoking a cigarette in front of the bakery. He does not make any trouble. He uses his car to drive his family. To go to work. But he does not transport any material. No concrete, no tools. The car is fine. You can take it. Massimo agreed. He is going to give you a good price. He needs the money.
Andrei makes a good deal. I don’t negotiate. I need the car. Freedom. His children observe the scene from their balcony. Silent.
We sit in the car and drive to Eugenio’s office to process the transfer of ownership of the vehicle. The transfer of ownership needs to be visible to the state. And the state wants you to pay taxes for this transaction. They want a slice of the cake, laughs Eugenio while explaining the procedure to me. Eugenio and Andrei seem to know each other. How is work going, Eugenio asks. Work? I thought that the country was on lock down. Stay home they said. I assumed that construction work had stopped, factories closed. I get to know that the lock down was not for everybody. It isn’t just doctors, nurses and other care workers working. Andrei was working too. Hidden from the vigilance of the authorities. But working. While signing forms and waiting for the printer to work, I found out that Andrei had been working as a day labourer. Sometimes painting the wooden windows of buildings that had been damaged by the sun. Sometimes on a construction site. Sometimes in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. Sometimes doing other small stuff. Somebody needs to keep labouring, Eugenio notes. We can’t all stay home.
I had heard about the governments’ need for manpower in the fields to keep the provision of food going. Along with what was happening in other countries in Europe they wanted to organise charter flights to fly in workers from eastern Europe; to do the work that Italians don’t want to do. There was also the idea to legalize informal agricultural laborers. The army of illegalized, black bodies that, yesterday, large sectors of the Italian public wanted to send back ‘home’, perhaps then to be drown in the Mediterranean sea, now had to save the nation. The economy needs to restart, politicians kept repeating. But this was different. There was a parallel economy of labour which continued operating despite the lockdown. Invisible. With no security measures. No distancing. No protection. Are migrants super-spreaders? Or are they deliberately exposed to the risk of infection? Is language then perhaps just an excuse to avoid speaking about their exposure? Their exploitation? Their sacrifice?
Where is your mask? Eugenio laughs. Leave the office, he shouts with a smile. Can’t you read the signs at the door? Don’t you understand our language? How long have you been here Andrei? Twenty years? Can’t you read? This is a public office. You need a mask. Don’t you understand the significance of confinement? C-O-N-F-I-N-E-M-E-N-T. The language question again. Eugenio was joking of course. He had been enfacing his questions with an exaggerated sarcastic smile. As if he wanted to make fun of this assumption, that people would not understand the rules. Or was he serious? Andrei had warned me about Eugenio’s humour: You never know what he means. I think he is crazy.
Screw the masks. Screw the virus, Andrei brings me back into the office. Eugenio is still trying to make the printer work. His office looks like a mix between a public office and the smoky place where my father used to play cards in Switzerland when I was a child. Piles of documents. And old computers. Posters of naked women on the walls. Buntings from Italy’s major football teams. Printers. A lot of printers. Screw the virus, he repeats. The virus is a business, Andrei adds. They want me to pay for your virus. Eugenio nodded, while reinitiating the print. It is a business, Andrei shouts. Fuck them. Employers call us one day, and the other day they don’t. One day they pay. One day they don’t. Fuck them. Fuck them. They treat us like animals. Animals. Fuck them. Eugenio laughs. He can’t stop laughing. Is he really crazy?
How will you go to work now? Eugenio laughs at Andrei while asking me to sign a document. How will you go to work now? Andrei, we need you to work. Work. Somebody needs to work. We need to keep going. You have no car. How will you go to work? Eugenio laughs again. Andrei needed the car. The woman in the bakery was right. He needs the car. For work. To drive his children to school. To go to Romania. He can’t afford to buy flight tickets. Busses are expensive too. He needs the car.
After having signed all papers, I drive Andrei home. Drive, it is yours. He asks me to stop him next to a letting agency. I will walk, he notes. I insist on driving him home. I will walk. He opens the car door and leaves with the envelope of money in his hand. He had held the envelop during the entire process. I start to think that he needed the money to pay his rent. I can’t get rid of this idea. Does he need the money to pay his rent? Did he enter the letting agency? I don’t dare to watch into the rear-view mirror. Or is he meeting a usurer? I had read in the media that people were struggling to pay their rents. That people had started to borrow money from loan sharks to cover the loss of salaries. That people working informally had not benefited from the financial support provided by the government to those who had become unemployed because of the lockdown. The mafia has supplanted the state, a national newspaper titled. I was hearing about these businesses profiting from those who were struggling. Was he making enough money? Was he selling his car to compensate the loss of salary and pay his rent?
I drive home with a feeling of freedom and, at the same time, a sensation of despair. Joy and sadness, freedom and submission, wealth and poverty, hope and despair have never seemed so close to me. Next to an Italian flag I see a big poster at a balcony decorated with the colours of the rainbow. We will all get through this if we stay home and hold together, it says. What if instead of holding together, instead of practicing solidarity, what will make us get through this is the suffering of others? This is not good, I think. My freedom, my ability to see the mountains seems to happen at the costs of others. I realise that inequality is not, or not only about unequal consumption, but about consumption enabled by oppression. In this moment, driving home from this transaction, I realise that I am the oppressor. I am part of a privileged section of our society that oppresses. I have no doubts, our collective ability to overcome this health crises and its social and economic effects will depend on the necessity of others to sacrifice themselves. More than solidarity then what seems to me the motif of this crises is submission, servitude, and oppression. The sacrifice of others’ lives. Language is here to make us forget this: We are all in this together. The question of language and translation is here to help us avoid having to speak about sacrifice, about the violence that people like me exert on others. Language makes us avoid taking responsibility for the costs of our enjoyment.
Banal oppression. Banal inequality occurs trough banal oppression. While shutting the door of the car, I think that its through these seemingly mundane practices, such as buying an old car, hiding oneself behind the presumed empowering nature of language and translation, that both oppression and inequality manifests itself. We are used to putting the blame on others, on the big corporations, on the capitalist conspiracy, on the state, on god, and tend to forget that inequality’s most powerful weapon is the banality of everyday practices, choices and decisions. Our seemingly mundane actions are what makes inequality and oppression stick. What makes it bearable and acceptable. What makes it normal. Within any moment, we can all be the oppressor. Here, I am the oppressor. Oppression is what makes me free.