Wed Oct 14 2020 04:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
My first conversation with a local, a man selling roses in Rome, started not in Italian, but in Bangla. It was probably two in the morning but everything smelled of dawn. We spoke briefly as he helped us hapless Americans figure out a cigarette vending machine. He told me life was hard and honest and he practiced Italian with his children. Then, he walked off into the dark streets, hoping to sell a bit of romance to another sleepless Roman lost in Caput Mundi, the proverbial capital of the world.
The trip was to cap off a semester abroad, to walk along the roads and ruins of an empire long gone with frequent breaks of pasta and gelato. I didn’t expect, however, to get around the Italian capital with directions from middle-aged Bengali men. They sold the street jewelry and postcards and always responded to my eye contact with Italian. A smile and a “sslamalikum bhaiya” served as currency in this not-so-foreign land. I bought a Coke next to the Vatican from one such local expert, who told me it was just alright inside the gates, “thik ase bhaiya, chole.” Outside the lines to the Coliseum, a group of vendors informed me that this was where the big boys work, the guys with the most power and clout, and that they didn’t always get this spot. One handed me a pair of shades just moments before they got wind of a police siren. With a loud shout signaling danger to others in the area, they, along with their folding table draped in Red, White, and Green and lined with sunglasses and keychains, were gone. My interaction with this world of migrant Bangladeshi workers was minimal and it was fleeting, but knowing that there are pockets of home even in Rome instilled in me a sense of how perfectly small and constantly changing is the world we make our home.
A few weeks earlier, in Barcelona, the Spanish metropolis with windows dressed up in flags symbolizing Catalonian independence, I stumbled into a Bengali community. I wandered the city, marveling at the dripping, high-art Seussian Gaudi cathedrals guided by the melodies of street accordionists. One evening after a run-in with an ethereal costumed troupe, I drifted into a quaint neighborhood tucked right behind La Rambla with shops of halal meat and deshi produce. Store signs and flyers were written in strokes of Bangla. Kids were out and racing tricycles and scooters, taunting each other in my first language. For an instant, I was back in my Queens childhood.
Our language is beautiful. Like the seven hundred rivers that crisscross our homeland, it continues to nourish our collective identity. I’m an American, raised to leave my English at the door with my shoes. Others are Italians and Spaniards, leaving their Latinate syllables by their Latinate doors. The bridge between us all remains the two syllables that contain millions more, Bangla.