In the winter of ’79 I was idling at a filthy pensione in Rome, waiting for an entry visa into the United States. The hotel was across the street from a porno theatre, which seemed to be obsessed with Cicciolina. All of us waiting there were immigrants from the East, trying to pass into the other hemisphere. The way the laws were written, you couldn’t be a proper refugee unless you officially asked for asylum from a Western country. Or so that’s how I understood it.
It was a weird, intermediary holding place. A floating, temporary country created within the borders of a former empire. There were Poles, Hungarians, Russians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Yugoslavs, Ukrainians, and God knows what other nationalities stuck in a savage, weird holding pattern before starting new lives. We were all mongrels holding on to what little we had left of our cultures…soon to be assimilated in the Great Melting Pot that was America.
The floor on which I lived that winter, the fifth, was packed with smokers. But none would light up inside their rooms. They’d stand by the door, only their arms thrust out into the hallway, lit ciggies in between old, leathery fingers. We all shared one washroom—at the end of the hallway. There was no hot water. For showers you had to insert coins into a slot, sort of like a pay telephone. You had to shower while feeding the box with coins. The lift worked on lira, as well. You’d have to drop them into a slot just outside the accordion door, then jump into the carriage quickly, before it took off.
It was all grand. It was on the streets of Rome, by the Trevi fountain, that I saw my first TV programme in color in a television and electronics shop. It was the film version of War of the Worlds. And later, the paisano running the box office at the porno joint let me see a few free minutes of Cicciolina doing her thing. It was brilliant.
There was an old, Russian man on my floor who carried a small notebook filled with useful, English phrases. The man must’ve been at least 80. He was emigrating to California to be with his daughter. In his little book he had copied things like: “Good morning, do you know where the closest bar is?” or “May I offer you a drink?” or “How much is a bottle of vodka?” There were others he showed me; things that didn’t really make sense to me: “Dick is in bed.” “An egg in an egg cup.” “This is the house that Jack built.”
But the old man was nice and smiled a lot at me. He spoke in Russian, but my father knew a bit of the language so we somehow got along. On January 25th we received our entry visas into the United States. On my last day at the pensione, before we boarded an Alitalia flight for JFK, the Russian man gave me a small, copper bear. It was the official mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics–which were going to be boycotted by the Americans, protesting the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. His name, the old man said, was Mishka.
I still have it.