midnight train rides, honey wine, africans and my bastard nose

the last time i drank an entire bottle of honey wine was on the train between verona and florence. i was headed back to the villa from visiting my uncle and his family. after a weekend away i wasn’t quite sure what felt more like home, my uncle’s off base apartment or the villa with the paper thin walls. what i did know for sure was that i missed the sounds and smells of home. at nearly midnight  on a slow moving train from one foreign point to another, what i really wanted was a colt 45 and a coney dog. i think that was the logic behind choosing the train car packed with africans.

being a black girl in italy i was hungry constantly for anything that looked, sounded, smelled or tasted of home. so when i stumbled upon a train car full of brown faces i didn’t ask any questions other than was the seat by the window taken. they welcomed me in as though they knew me and i slumped into my seat taking the smells of long travel and sticky sweetness.

there was only one other woman in the car with among the six of us. she sat in the window seat opposite me. i was looking out the window waiting for the train to finish boarding when i felt her starring at me. i didn’t know if she was starring at me to intimidate me or if she thought it was possible that she thought she knew me. not wanting to engage in a confrontation with a stranger (who looked like one of my aunts) i kept starring out the window. then the conversational chatter among the four men stopped and one by one i felt their eyes on my face as well. i started to squirm in my seat. a native detroiter i’m not one to back down from a fight but i’m also not a very big fan of starting up one either. at any rate my thumbs had begun to twitch and my hands were involuntarily clinching.

the woman cleared her throat. i stopped staring at the vanishing pillars outside my window and looked her. her skin was the color of coco beans and just as taunt. she wore a green and yellow printed head wrap that added at least 6 inches to her already prim posture. had it not been for the posture she could have been just another woman on the train at home but it was her posture that assured me she was not american.

‘excuse me, sister.’ she was talking to me in a clipped accent i couldn’t place. having taken french and fallen in love with a hispanic i could commit to conversations in either language which is why italy had been my choice for a study abroad program. i would have picked paris but the book black girl in paris was already written and my grandfather spoke so fondly of italy from his days in general patton’s army.

‘yes,’ i answered.

she cleared her throat again and repositioned her glasses on her face. if i hadn’t known better i would have thought underneath her ebony cheeks a faint blush was happening. when she looked up she starred straight in my eyes, ‘what are you?’

i was offended but my mother always told me not to get into any fights when i was so far away from home. getting on the plane to italy she hugged me and said, ‘remember i can’t just pick up and come get you. be good now.’ i was sure that picking a fist fight with a complete stranger on a train from verona to florence would not be in her definition of ‘be good.’ i unclinched my fists and attempted an uncomfortable but what i assumed to be a lady like pose with my hand delicately placed at my throat (in my own mind i was protecting my neck so that my right hook would land at her jawline but keep her nails from doing me any damage – street fight 102).

‘what do you-‘ before i finished my sentence the men and she all sighed and laughed, ‘american!’

i didn’t know what was so funny and i believe it was my look of utter confusion that stopped the laughter and the apologetic gesturing began. one of the men sitting beside her leaned forward and in a crazy broken french english arabic he informed me that i have a ‘bastard’ nose. she saw my offense and jumped in to help him out.

‘africans have very distinct features,’ she told me. ‘usually when we meet each other outside our homeland we can tell where we’re from because of dress…demeanor…and face.’ the men nodded in agreement with her. with their encouragement she went on, ‘you dress like a european and so is your posture but your face is like a road map of africa.’

i looked down at my benetton outfit fresh from a verona shop. i thought i was dressed very smart in layers and the latest fashion (the sign said united colors after all) and i love the color of the orange skirt i was wearing even if it didn’t really match the green and white print oversize shirt (i would later wear until the very threads wore bare). i liked my outfit and had never thought of it as a political statement. the open markets my aunt tried to get me to go to reminded me of flea markets back home and i can never concentrate long enough to find anything of interest in any of them so i’d stuck to the brand name shops. i like bright lights and clean floors. they make sense to me.

but their eyes and words made me feel a bit self conscious about my fashion sense (if you’d call it that). but it was her words about my face being a ‘road map of africa’ that really made me wonder. i touched my nose listening to her explain.

african noses are very distinctive. see, i am ghanian.’ she turned so that i could get a good glimpse of her profile. her nose was broad but well formed and small. her nostrils flare just a little and giving the impression that she had just finished a hardy laugh. the men beside both her and and i also turned to show me their profiles. their noses all looked the same long and narrow but with a hook on the tip. in unison they announced, ‘tunisia.’

she went on to tell me,’see we can usually tell where someone is from by their face. but looking at you we just couldn’t figure it out. it was when you spoke that we knew, you are american.’

that was the first time in my life that i had been characterized as an american. sitting there on a train leaving verona headed to florence in a cart full of africans thousands of miles from anything i would call home, i’d learned that my face was a road map of africa (west africa according to my cart mate) and that my posture, dress and demeanor distinguished me as american. the weight of these discoveries and characterizations at nearly midnight made my head swim. then the young man sitting beside pulled out a flask of honey wine.

‘now we drink,’ he announced. and for a moment i really did feel like i was home.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow. You are a fantastic writer. It reads so effortlessly. Love this story. Now I really want a glass of honey wine. And I really want someone to tell me my face is a roadmap of somewhere. Give me a sense of belonging. This is a great story. Thank you for sharing! xo

    1. Wanda Olugbala says:

      Thank you for reading. It was quite an adventure!

  2. i must say you right very well and very good and happy for your studying abroad.. however i am not sure what the ” African woman ” and her men friends were talking about. i am Africa and the only way that one can tell is the typical stereo typing .. “color of my skin..” i am dark… , i can bet you on this one, if i were standing next to anyone from southern Africa, you wouldn’t tell who was from which country until l we started to talk.. the accent.. but to think our noses or dress code sells us is rubbish to me… may be in the olden days.. but in today’s world where fashion has influenced our senses and beings i find that very hard to tell or label as ……..

    1. Wanda Olugbala says:

      This incident occurred more than 20 years ago. It was the opinion of a very small group of people who, after all, had been drinking homemade honey wine for several hours.

      1. ok….,

        nice writing though and good luck with your studies….

  3. christiana83 says:

    Wow, that must have been quite an experience! Very cool story

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