Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lore Beyond the Tour: The Day the Swiss Took me to Tea

Today's post is by Elly Berke, Tenement Museum Educator.

One of the greatest joys of working at the Tenement Museum for me is getting to meet new people from all over the world. By the end of each tour, there are usually a few visitors who want to continue discussions about history, current events or share their family stories. Some just want to ask what brought me to New York and how I landed at the museum.

A pair of ladies from Switzerland took particular interest in me after a Getting By tour last week. I was surprised to see that Tamia and Joanne were waiting for me outside of 108 Orchard Street when I was about to head home. They told me they had many more questions and wondered if I would join them for tea at 88 Orchard, our local café. Although my voice was a bit shot after six hours of talking, sometimes in dialect (as Victoria Confino), I gratefully accepted, and we began to get to know each other over steaming mugs of peppermint tea.

In addition to asking me how I felt being both Jewish and Italian, if I felt American, if I'd ever been to Italy, if I felt at home there, and why Americans know so much about their family history, they had much to share with me.

When I first asked Tamia what brought her to New York she said “Well, to get back to my roots and see who I am.” It turns out Tamia’s mother was born and raised in New Jersey and her father was originally from Algeria. Most of Tamia’s extended family still resides in the New York area, although she didn’t get to know them very well, having been raised in Switzerland.

Upon hearing that both of Tamia’s parents were immigrants, I asked about the state of immigration in Switzerland. They told me the Swiss government has a very harsh policy toward immigrants, Gypsies in particular, and they could be deported for even a minor offense.

Tamia was an elementary school teacher back in Switzerland, and she moved to Harlem when her husband was accepted into the Jazz Studies program at The New School. Currently she is working as a French-speaking nanny on the Upper East Side. She told me she never truly knew what about her culture and mannerisms were Swiss until she set foot in New York. She asked me why Italian Americans are more proud of their heritage than Italians who live in Italy. I told her I thought she’d pretty much cracked it: I never feel more American than when I leave the country, and immigrants need identity and solidarity the most when they land in a new place.

Joanne was visiting Tamia for the week and seemed pleased to have a brief break from her pediatric practice. She explained to me that she doesn’t really feel needed as a doctor in Switzerland, a wealthy country where most children are fortunate enough to not need doctor visits. Joanne’s parents were both born in Trinidad, and she goes there every year to see her extended family.

She hopes to travel with Doctors Without Borders to Haiti to help with the cholera epidemic and told me about various trips she’d taken which inspired her to help people in need. In Malaysia, Joanne slunk down in her seat and closed her eyes on the tour bus that took them through villages where people lived in shacks on stilts. She said it felt so wrong looking into peoples’ homes for amusement: “We were treating them like animals in a zoo.”

It’s a good thing the Baldizzis weren’t home on our "Getting By" tour, I thought to myself. But after all, don’t experiences like Joanne’s inspire us to make a difference in the world? Most recently Joanne traveled to South Africa, and she pulled out her iPhone to show me pictures from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner for eighteen years. She pointed out that the structures which housed the guards’ dogs were better equipped than the prisoners’ cells.

Joanne’s tour guide at the prison-turned-museum was himself a former prisoner. Joanne found her tour guide’s perspective to be the most interesting part of the experience. I see a parallel to out museum, where our diverse staff and our own unique immigrant heritages enrich the visitor’s experience.

After an hour and a half of stimulating conversation with these two well-informed Swiss-American-Algerian-Trinidadians, my mind was full and my tea-cup was empty. We exchanged information, and I told them to please keep in touch and that no visitor had ever reached out to me in such a heartfelt way. I felt warm through and through, and it wasn’t just the tea. I wondered how I would pass on the kindness they showed me. As I stepped out into the first snowfall and made my way through Chinatown, I felt, maybe for the first time, that I was a citizen of the world.

- Posted by Elly Berke

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