COLUMN FORTY-EIGHT, AUGUST 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
Deportation is like an existential guillotine. Maybe the State doesn't actually take your life by execution, but wrecks it
irreparably and maybe for good. All your hopes are trampled upon and back you go to Hanoi, Harare, Havana; back to
oppression, to material and, even worse, intellectual indigence. For the rest of your days the question "what if. . ."" will haunt
you: "How would my life be now if I had stayed there?" you cannot but wonder.
This is going to be my third deportation, but somehow I'll never get used to it. Maybe I'm too thin-skinned. I have read about Mexican and Salvadoran wetbacks who have been kicked out of the United States 15 or 20 times, and they keep going back undeterred. But they have a country of their own, perhaps a family to fall back on. Myself, I'm stateless, both by necessity and by choice.
But I'm waxing philosophical, and this is supposed to be a divertimento. So I'll tell you about my first deportation, when I was still naive and sentimental. To a great extent it was my own fault: I forgot for a moment that illegal aliens, like the Indian pariahs, have no rights whatsoever, not even the right to complain, and that proved my undoing.
Every year The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, those oracles of money making, publish polls about the richest and best countries to live in, and Switzerland figures frequently in the first place, and is always among the top five. In 1995 the Swiss had a GNP of 38, 300 dollars per inhabitant---in the US it was 31,200; here in Canada, 26,500.
Yes, you live well there; if you are a Swiss, of course, or at least one of the one million gestarbeiters that caught the boom of the '70s and early '80s. But if you were an illegal, it was a very different story. You saw that opulent society from the worst perspective, from the bottom, from the dregs. In the three languages of the Helvetic Confederation, illegals are referred to with the same word: Schwartz, NOIRE, Nero. That is, Black. And it's indeed well applied, since you live in the darkness of your poverty and your fears. The authorities are aware that you exist, and you are more or less tolerated. Cheap labor helps the economy, and besides, it was below the dignity of a Swiss to clean toilets or wash dishes.
16 YEARS OF SCHOOLING
Precisely, washing dishes was how I managed to survive there. My 16 years of schooling, the hundreds, the thousands of
books that paraded through my neurons were useless, irrelevant. "Noirs" don't go around showing degrees and resumes. They
live underground, perform the hardest, dirtiest jobs, and can't argue about the pay. If you lose an arm in a work accident, that's
your problem; you can't claim compensation, and to boot, you have to pay for the surgery and the hospital stay yourself. Or
else. By a law passed on December 1994, illegal aliens or problematic asylum seekers can be kept up to a year without a
hearing in one of the modern prisons of that little country of 8.5 million inhabitants.
A typical day in my existence in beautiful Switzerland: that strident alarm clock that cut like an axe stroke the few hours badly slept. Soldier's breakfast: a glass of black coffee and three or four Gauloises. And ready for another day of slavery. I lived 22 kilometers away from Fribourg, and took the local train to that old city that despite myself I was starting to love. Old and intact in her pristine beauty never scarred by modern warfare.
When I arrived at my job, there were already waiting in the sinks the mountains of dirty dishes, cutlery, lipstick-stained glasses, and the infinity of pots and pans required by the art of Monsieur Pierre, the temperamental chef, Frenchman from Marseilles, who wore a bushy black moustache that gave him a piratical look. Waiter's, I don't know why, can't wear moustaches. Pierre's, thence, was like a symbol of superiority, of independence.
I went on frantically washing and scraping all that stuff, some by hand, most on the machine, amid a cloud of steam. 40 plus degrees inside on summer. No matter how much I hurried, the mountain never seemed to diminish. And don't you leave a little speck on a knife or a spoon, because the waiters, those snobs, went immediately to complain to the Maitre, or even to the manager, bastardo polentone, who returned the spoon in question holding it like something execrable.
I had never seen so many and subtle caste divisions as those in that big and expensive restaurant. Worse than Buckingham Palace. The Maitre pecked on the captains, these on the sommelier, this on the waiters, these in the bus boys, and so on. Inside the kitchen proper, there were distinctions between the scullions: to prepare a salad was more important than frying potatoes. Among the pariahs, I, the dishwasher, was the lowest.
And obviously, at the very top were the two Italian managers, whose shining Mercedes didn't pay at the parking meters: the two Swiss policemen that covered that beat turned a blind eye on those meters, the garbage hours violations, and the presence of the noirs. It was a quid pro quo, since they came at all times into the kitchen through the back door, and drank and ate whatever they fancied, and on occasions brought their wives to dinner in the hall, for free, everything on the house.
There was a single Swiss working in the restaurant, a part-time waitress, who was studying ballet. She had the body of a Pavlova and the wits of Isadora Duncan. We galley slaves were mostly Turks, Spaniards and Sicilians, all very weird people. The Turks had been illegal till a few months before, when they had a military coup back home. Suddenly, all those Turks became democrats, socialists, politically persecuted and refugees. They got asylum, the permis de sejour, and the right to minimum wages---14 Swiss francs an hour at that time, 1983. I, as an illegal, earned only 5 francs an hour. I worked 10 hours a day, a split shift, from 8 to 12 and from 4 to 10. That meant 50 francs a day; I had to toil and sweat exactly a whole day to pay the cops their weekly bribe of 50 francs to remain invisible.
For the rest of the people, that split shift wasn't so bad, since they lived in Fribourg itself. They could go home and maybe take a shower and a nap. Besides, they kept their fridges full with all the foodstuffs they pilfered. The two worst thieves were the Italian managers themselves, who stole whole packages of frozen escargots, those expensive snails the French are so fond of; the entrecotes de cheval (horse meat is the most expensive of all); the Parma hams, and the vintage wines by the box.
But in those four dead, boring hours, I remained there, in a table in the dining hall, studying the Alliance Française course---that is, if I didn't fall asleep with the earphones on, lulled by the impeccable Parisian lilt. And at 4 in the afternoon, back to the endless procession of dirty dishes, and the worst, those grime-encrusted cauldrons. When I finished at 10 at night and took the train back to Villars-sur-Glane, I sat as far as possible from the other late commuters: I was ashamed of the grease stench that permeated my clothes and my skin, and won't disappear totally despite the hot, almost boiling shower and a whole bar of soap.
THE DIRTIER THE FOOD
It's funny, but the posher and classier the restaurant, the dirtier the food. If you are squeamish, stick to McDonald's.
Among my many duties was to mop once in a while the slippery kitchen's floor. I emptied the buckets of black, stinking
water in the same sink I used for washing the dishes and cutlery for the customers, and also rinsed the filthy mops in
there. I remember Pierre going into the big fridge and smelling the meat to see if it was already rotten or still edible.
Or sticking his pudgy finger into a dish about to be served, to taste the gravy.
The vermin that infested that hot, stifling kitchen deserve a paragraph for themselves. The most remarkable were the rats, huge, cemetery rats, so different from the common ones as a wolf from a pet dog. Those were bold veterans that went around in their business in plain day. And the cockroaches: the big, fat, black ones, or Periplaneta Americana; the slender, blonde, small ones, or Blattella Germanica; and another genus I had never seen before, and which I denominated as Blattaria Helvetica Frascatensis, thus honoring the infamous restaurant, "Le Frascati."
My free days were Mondays, which I spent wandering through the oldest quarters of Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux or Vevey. This last town is built on a peninsula that juts into the Geneva lake, and there stand the most expensive and select hotels in the world. Old, medium sized, unpretentious buildings in the outside, but that lodge the richest---not necessarily the most famous---men and women in the planet. No Hiltons or Holiday Inns there.
Not far away is the orchard-surrounded, white villa where Charles Chaplin and Oona O'Neil settled when the genial actor and director became persona non grata in the United States. He is buried in Vevey's picturesque cemetery. Generally my wanderings ended at some lake-side cafe, drinking Pernod and espresso, writing home, or just watching the swans, so white and graceful that they seemed unreal; or the blue water cleaved by the racing boats of colorful sails; or the Alps in the background, their summits covered by the perpetual snows gleaming under the sun.
But that land, the most beautiful and serene I had ever seen, was in reality the Garden of the Hesperides, of poisoned flowers. One Sunday afternoon when I was paying the usual bribe, the cop told me that from next week on it would be 100 francs. That is, two days of my wages. I replied him flatly:
Fifty yes, but not 100. The porcine-faced, rubicund officer of the law only nodded, finished his Perrier water, and left. Less than 15 minutes later all those Keystone Kops irrupted through both doors to the kitchen, as if they were arresting Carlos the Jackal. They took me in a patrol car to the precinct. No questions asked, and no opportunity to tell my side of the story, either. I was condemned de facto.
A GREEN TILED CELL WITH A TOILET
AND BARS THAT SEEMED
I spent that night in the best cell I have seen. The floor and half the walls were on green tiles. There was a toilet in one
corner, and an iron cot screwed to the floor. The bars seemed to be of stainless steel.
I couldn't sleep. And worse, I had finished my cigarettes. I remembered Erich Maria Remarque's Arch of Triumph, and how Ravic's deportation to Switzerland then seemed to me glamorous and adventure-like. How naive I was.
In real life, it's an impersonal, sordid affair, being expelled who knows where, without money or papers, uncertainty looming ahead like a black void. Afterwards I was also deported from Spain, and now I'm awaiting my third and imminent expulsion. But you never get used to it, no matter how many times it happens. You feel dirty, unworthy, degraded, defiled. As with rape, you never forget. Never: the dull gray thud of that stone falling into a chasm. The bitter memories remain for good in the recesses of your mind.
At dawn, they gave me a croissant and coffee, and was taken to the Inspector's office: an unprepossessing, fiftyish, balding gentleman, with gold framed glasses and a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe. It seemed like he was the stolid Swiss bourgeoisie deciding my fate single-handed. He asked me where to I preferred to be deported.
"To the south," I answered.
Two plainclothes agents locked me in the rear of an unmarked powder-blue van and drove to Villars, to fetch my things and papers from my basement room. Usually when I entered it I felt like Dracula going back to his coffin, but now it seemed like security and permanence. I took a look around.
"Heilige Scheisse, where did all this junk come from?" I wondered.
The Samsung TV I mistook for a Sanyo; the gaudy poster of the great Manolete on the brink of being gored; the old typewriter with the blank page looking like a mute reproach; boxes of books; clothes, things and more things, enough to start a flea-market. And the cops hurrying me up. So I conducted then and there a Tukhachevskian purge of my belongings and literary opus. I took an Adidas bag, packed the barest essentials, and then threw half of those away.
The only concessions I allowed myself were a tape of Mozart's piano concerto number 21, and the paperback I was reading, The Honourable Schoolboy---I was going through a Le Carresian phase.
Then, the brief trip to the border, through the San Bernardo tunnel, and my captors left me in no man's land. I didn't bother in answering the jeering farewells and the extended middle fingers of the salauds. I didn't even look back.
"Good riddance!"---I thought---"500 years of democracy and their only contribution to humanity has been the Cuckoo clock."
I didn't know it then, but I wasn't only crossing an imaginary line on a map. I was also leaving behind the best days of my life. My summer was ending, and I was entering the autumn of my discontent. As an obscure Jewish poet by the name of Zimmerman aptly put it:
"But melodies and nothing else can touch the beauty/that I remember in my true lost eyes. . ."
Those days would live forever engraved in my lost phantom retinae. I slung the bag on my shoulder and started walking unhurriedly towards the city of Aosta and the Italian land. ##
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