Often bent under heavy loads, they weave in and out of the rows of seaside umbrellas which shade lounging Italians who read, chat on their cellphones, doze on beach chairs.
Called the “vu compra’ ” (“do you want to buy?” – in Neapolitan dialect) by Italians, these “New Italians” sell everything from bijoux to micro-fiber beach towels to “designer” sunglasses to ersatz Vuitton handbags to their skills: braiding hair in tight tiny twist braids (the Senegalese specialty), painting on intricate tattoes. Most of the vendors are men, but not all.
At an Adriatic beach recently, friends and I chatted with a couple of these “New Italians”, two entrepreneurial Indians from Calcutta (one sold me bijoux as we talked) who work the Italian beaches from late May to late September, then head home to their shops in Calcutta til late spring when they return to Italy.
A Tunisian walked past with beach towels over his shoulder and a Moroccan vendor came up the beach, beeping a bicycle horn and calling out “Coco! coco!”. Of all the vu comprÃ s, his goods weigh the heaviest: a large bucket of coconut slices in cool water. A bone-thin Senegalese girl carried a large piece of cardboard covered with photos of all the variations she offers on hair-braiding while nearby, a Sri-lankan sold a “designer” leather jacket to an Italian lounging in a beach chair.
Not all of the immigrants are vendors: an ebullient Tunisian math professor, married to an Italian and about to become a father, parked cars at our seaside restaurant.
We talked with Mourad – “or you can call me ‘Mario’ or ‘Mariuccio’, even ‘Mariottino’, as my Italian friends do” – about his participation in the Tunisian protests in early spring. Then later that afternoon, I met another Tunisian, Marison, a shy economic student who scooped ice cream in the local gelateria, along with a smiling Peruvian, Pamela.
At one seafood restaurant, Romanian Vlad served our pasta with shellfish with a wide smile. At another, the Iranian owner, Mansur (who was a cook here ten years ago and then bought the restaurant) smiles as he introduces the only Italian on his restaurant staff of thirty, Martina, “who learned to make tiramisu from a Romanian and fettuccine from an Indian!”
Martina told us with a cheerful grin, “I’M the foreigner here!” Cajuon from Bangladesh grills all the eggplants, pepper and other vegetables. Saber from Tunis waits tables with class along with Adina, from Romania, who works at the Italian seaside in the summer and continues her university education in the winter in Romania. Romanian Mari does the same, although her cousin and uncle are now here year round.
What would we do without our “New Italians”?