Blog Culture Culture and Identity Envoy Heritage Italy Shreya Sridhar Temple Rome

The Cats at the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele

This prose piece was inspired by two MigranTours—one in Rome and one in Parma in which we explored the spaces minorities in both cities have carved out to create a sense of belonging. I attempted to highlight the paradoxical feeling of being both invisible and hypervisible that I have experienced in my time here and that I know is only amplified by the pressure to make Italy, or any country, a new home. Throughout the piece, stray cats are mentioned as a metaphor for tolerance as opposed to acceptance.

Home is where I’ve named all the stray cats. There is Chris, who was shaved down to look more lion than housecat when we first met. There is Kyle, whose eyes are two different shades of blue but it’s hard to tell because both of them are closed more often than not. There is Kit Kat, named by a friend I expected to be synonymous with our neighborhood forever.

I spend some absent nights wondering what their lives are like outside of the pockets of time I catch them in. I think about their lives with owners on the other side of town, of how they must chase butterflies in the spring and frown at the coldness of snow against their paws in the winter. I guess at the other names they must be called by, tens of neighbors summoning them with words they’ll never understand.

There’s something endearing about that fact of humans, that we will always define the world in our terms, even if there is no reason to it at all.

Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is one of the largest piazzas in Rome, but the walls that bisect it define it more than all they stand between. Here, the air smells of spices the rest of the city could not hope to identify, somewhere between cardamom and chili with names in other tongues that sound as close to home as possible. This is the sanctuary of the city, where a famously ugly statue perches in the center like an homage to hiding in plain sight.

There are stray cats everywhere here, houses built for them along the edges of ruin walls, but the task of naming them only seems to make them all disappear.

Migration is the act of leaving the only home you have ever known with the knowledge that it will never again be as you left it. It is the forced realization of the stark difference between the comfort of invisibility and the prison of it. It is the kind of loudness that can only be found in silent stares at foreign bodies, the desire to be seen as you are soured by hypervisibility.

As of 2021, 10.6% of the Italian population are immigrants. Many work seasonally in the agricultural sector, growing poorer as the cost and prestige of the food they produce increases. In a field famed across countries, they are invisible. When they walk home through the park, they are highlighted by police lights skidding corners to catch up to what is only too bright to them.

Migration is the act of learning to live in the spaces between those that once defined you. Here, in the alleyway dotted with little shops selling fragments of home under their true names. Here, where they stray cats don’t visit, but live. Here, where you know their true names only as long as you convince yourself every moment that it is worth the energy to.

Even if they are only a cat, there is comfort in being able to pronounce the name of someone from this new home.

Recently, I find myself spending Saturday afternoons on one of the many benches in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, my notebook wearing against my knees. There is a certain peace in sitting in the middle of a city that has made my skin feel darker despite the little time I’ve spent in the sun since I’ve come and know, in this moment, I am no shadow.

When the breeze carries conversations over I can understand pieces of them, can recognize the music that faintly reaches past the bounds of wired earphones in movies I watched fervently as a child, can identify the smells with where their origins sit in my mother’s kitchen at home.

Once I inevitably tire of trying to capture the feeling of being after weeks of only trying to be, I find myself sketching the same stray cats, small but bold as ever, scaling walls and chasing swirling leaves.

Here, where everyone knows they are but hardly anyone spares them a second glance, I draw them with the only pen I’ve brought with me from home.

Home is where I’ve named all the stray cats, and I use the last of my pen’s ink labeling their haphazard sketches in cursive.

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