It’s a bright blue Monday morning in mid-October 2016 and I’m standing at the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese in the centre of Rome, having just left work. I’m partly waiting to cross the road and partly trying to get fivethirtyeight.com to load on my phone. There’s a guy in a car looking at me, stopped at the traffic lights on this quiet street, shouting and laughing. At first I don’t think he’s talking to me, maybe on his phone or to himself. But no, it’s me, he’s beckoning me over, and he seems to know my name, so I must know him, but I feel bad because I have no idea whatsoever who he is. He looks very Italian, in a slightly fighetto kind of way – bald head, properly shaven, shirt well-ironed, smart and garrulous with his hands. He’s speaking quickly with a Napoli accent, and he’s saying something about an embassy, and 2011. I explain that I wasn’t here in 2011, that I was in London, but then it turns out he’s talking about the school. Il British! Ah! Well, that’s where I worked, after a fashion. British Study Centres, in Marylebone. He clearly knows me. Matteo!, he exclaims. He’s an ex-student! I taught dozens of such people over the course of eight years or so in London, so many Matteos and Giovannis and Robertos so I feel bad that I don’t remember him. Seeing him again I’ve got a feeling of nostalgia. I’m delighted to tell him that I live in Rome nowadays, I’m here to stay, in fact I’m married to an Italian. And she’s pregnant! He’s delighted, and we shake hands again. He tells me he’s now living in Frankfurt. Just to show off, I switch to German, but he waves his hand dismissively. He’s going back to Germany after a week doing business here, driving all the way there in this quite plush new vehicle. When I ask why he doesn’t fly he laughs again and explains that he’s not had a good week, he’s been working overtime and still getting nowhere. He says he works in l’abbigliamento, and as he’s sure I’m aware i tempi sono dificili. In fact, he says, he wants to give me a gift, from the clothes he hasn’t managed to sell. He reaches back and grabs an expensive looking bag, explaining that this is his company: Tutti Frutti. The jacket he takes out is maybe a bit natty for daily use but not remotely unpleasant. He gets me to try it on, and it is quite a good fit. When he tells me it’s worth mille euro, I start to regret putting it on; it’s clearly not worth a thousand euros, although it is worth…something. Money is an issue, he explains. He needs some, to buy petrol to get back to Germania. By now I’m inevitably having my doubts, even here. Surely if he’s genuine he’ll remember the names of some other students. Male Italian students always buddy up, play off each other. If he was in the school he will remember other people who I should be able to recall. Plus I’m also very aware that Il British is the generic name that Italians use for all English language schools. I ask who else he remembers from the school but he’s a bit vague on the details. Then he has another idea. My wife! He also sells women’s clothes! He jumps out, goes to the boot of the car and takes out another bag. This time it’s a dress. I know Chiara’s shape and style, and this is not it. By this point I’m experiencing quite a lot of confusion, so there is the temptation to just walk away, but the whole exchange is just too good-natured for that. If he’s an actor, he’s a very good one, and the situation just doesn’t allow me to break character and accuse him of being a liar. And the clothes must be worth something. There’s a lot of face at stake and on the small chance that this is real I don’t want to humiliate him and thereby myself. I look in my wallet and see that I have €30. He sees it too, and I reluctantly hand it over. But then he says it’s not enough. He’s driving all the way to Germany, after all. He wants me to go to the cashpoint and withdraw more money. This is clearly una stupidaggine. Sure, I tell him. Torno subito. I take the bags and walk round the corner onto Via Cola di Rienzo while he drives alongside me. I need to get some more money out anyway as I’ve just bought some probably-stolen clothes that I didn’t want from someone I’ve quite clearly never met before. I spend two minutes in the bank lobby, take out some cash for myself and then slip outside, immediately turning left and then left again, onto a side street. As I turn the corner a young African man holding out a baseball cap asks me for some change, but I shake my head, and just as I do so I hear someone calling my name. I turn, see the car and give il mio truffatore a look designed to get him to leave me alone and drive away.
* * * * *
Two months pass. I’m just getting to work on a Monday morning, having walked all the way from Viale Marconi because of another bus strike. I’ve reached the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese, and am lost in my own thoughts, wondering what to do in the off-chance my students should turn up, when suddenly I notice that there’s a young African man standing right in front of me and talking to me at high speed. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying at first because he’s speaking a mix of French and Italian. He’s on the street selling trinkets, colourful plastic beads and the like, and so he pushes a red tortoise representing African folk art into my hand, but the curious thing is that just as he does so he turns away, not seeming to want anything in return. At the same time he’s thanking me for taking the time to talk to him, because most Italians don’t. And this is a very special day, he says, and he wants to share his happiness with someone because his wife, back home in Senegal, has just had three kids, the night before in fact. I shake his hand and congratulate him, and say that I’m about to become a father myself, in just a few weeks. I ask him the names of the children and he shows me a photo, sent via Whatsapp just a few hours before, of his wife lying in hospital with her arms around Amadou, Fatou and Mariam. Their father is called Mustafa. I ask him how long he’s been away from his wife and he tells me just four months, he came here to play professional football in San Remo but as I can see things didn’t work out. This reminds me of the recent Guardian article about the thousands of football players, particularly Africans, stranded with no salaries around the world. There must be a whole subculture of budding Drogbas and Tourés exiled in Europe, their peak years of skill and fitness quickly slipping by. Now he has a problem because his wife needs medicine, there were complications in the birth and there are some products that exist in Italy but can’t be found back home. I think of what I’ve learnt in the last few weeks about the process of childbirth and try to imagine what having three in quick succession must be like. I offer to help; although I don’t have any money in my wallet I know there’s an ATM just round the corner on Via Cola di Rienzo. As we walk I try to remember the word used in Senegal to describe white foreigners, particularly Europeans, and I feel embarrassed because I can’t, although I should, because when I learnt it from a book I bought from someone from Mauritania in the street outside la Feltrinelli on Viale Marconi last December I thought, I must remember that (the word, I remember later, is tubab). We reach the cashpoint, I take out €20 and give it to him, and then realise it’s already past the time for class. Time to run to work.