May 12, 2011

ITALY: Two Sisters Live in Car for Eight Months

MILAN / Corriere della Sera / Italian Life / May 12, 2011

When evicted: "We smashed furniture so gypsies wouldn’t get it”

Elvira Serra 

The sisters weren’t crying on the October day when they took a hammer to their past. Eight months ago, they destroyed their father’s bed, the head panel and the mattresses, then went on to the sitting room sofas, the kitchen units and the bathroom cabinet.

“We didn’t want to leave anything behind in case it was given to a family of Roma gypsies, which was what happened to the lady on the floor below”.

The two women had already shed tears in abundance on 29 July, when the bailiff told them the eviction could no longer be postponed.

“We bundled our lives into a few parcels and stacked them away in a room at a childhood friend’s home. We broke up the furniture. We could have taken it away on 1 October, when we went back for the last time to the home we grew up in, but we didn't have anywhere to store it. We destroyed our possessions out of anger and frustration. If nothing else, it was something we could do”.

Cristina and Laura Di Sessa, 41 and 45 (Photo above), tell their story without emotion as they sit on a bench in Piazza Unità d’Italia in Trieste. It is the story they told in a handwritten letter, the sort almost no one writes any more, that reached the Corriere della Sera a few days ago.

Their father, a retired Carabiniere, died from a rectal tumour in 2008. The sisters spent three months caring for him only to watch him slip away. It was an experience they had already undergone as adolescents, when their mother took three months to die from lung cancer. Grief for their father was followed by financial trouble. Up till then, both had only had short-term employment yet using their savings, they managed to pay the €430 a month rent to the landlord, Lloyd Adriatico (now the Allianz insurance group), until June 2009.

Three months later, the insurance company sent a lawyer’s letter to say they were taking the sisters to court and in July 2010, the date on which the eviction order would become enforceable was set: 8 September.

Cristina recalls: “It was midday. There were six of them: the lawyers, the court doctor, the social worker and the locksmiths. For now, a neighbour is putting us up but we can’t stay. We’re sleeping on her kitchen floor. We move the table aside and put down a quilt. In the morning, we’re awake early to tidy up and get out. We can’t stay there during the day”.

Laura goes on: “We wash ourselves one bit at a time. We don’t have keys so we’re not free to come and go. In the evening, we go back when they’ve finished their dinner. For the rest of the day, we look everywhere for odd jobs, anything at all”.

When the Bora gales were blowing during the winter, the sisters used to go the Torri shopping centre opposite the new port. Now Cristina and Laura go to the car park where their old car, a no longer roadworthy Alfa 133, is parked up. Under the tablecloths that cover the vehicle, there are boxes of novels and university textbooks, some nail varnish on the dashboard, three pots of nail varnish remover, a carton of apricot juice and a pack of croissants.

“I used to read six books a month. When I dropped out of university, I had already started a thesis in fish biology, ‘Growth and Development of Carpet Shells in the Gulf of Trieste’”, says Cristina. Then she worked as a shop assistant and a cleaner in a chemist’s, and gave private maths lessons to schoolkids. Laura has a more substantial CV thanks to her technical-commercial secondary-school diploma:

“I stood in for women on maternity leave in the regional authority, the health authority, architects’ practices and law firms”.

In recent months, the sisters have asked relatives and social services for help but to no avail. They have written several times to the president of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, who has unfailingly replied and in January even sent a cheque for them to the prefecture. They also appealed to the national Carabinieri association and the general command gave them a donation.

“But we want a job. We’re quite willing to leave Trieste, provided we can stay together. We’re asking to be able to give some meaning to our days, and find a home we can come back in the evening, switch on the TV, open the fridge to see what shopping’s needed and do our washing and ironing”.

What they’re asking for is a life with dignity.

English translation by Giles Watson

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