We’ve barely set up the Scrabble board before we’ve drawn a crowd. Well, maybe ‘crowd’ is stretching it, but we’re certainly attracting attention by playing, as we are, in the park at Villa Bellini. A middle-aged Italian man cranes to see what it is that we’re doing as he walks past. Just as he’s about to dislocate his neck, his curiosity gets the better of his ‘ask no questions’ Sicilian-ness, and he shouts out, “Checkers?” Davide smiles. “No, Scarabeo.” The man doesn’t seem much enlightened, but having put himself out once, he’s not going to do it again. He hurries off.
Not like our next onlooker.
Ibrahim, as we will discover over the next half an hour of conversation and scrutiny, arrived here from Bangladesh five years ago. He has a wife and two daughters – one at university, one who’s much younger – still there, and he’s selling tat to tourists in Catania in order to make money to send back to them. He’s full of praise for the Catanese. “Other people, you know, they shout and they tell me to leave them alone. The people in Catania, though? No. Not them. They say, ‘no, grazie’ and they are polite.” He looks at the two of us – Davide with his Mediterranean colouring, and me with my red hair – and ponders for a second. “Where are you from?” Davide tells him and Ibrahim looks surprised. “You are from Catania? Oh!” His eyes flash across at me, betraying the source of his confusion. Davide’s and my cross-cultural relationship tends to throw people. The other week, in fact, Davide was asked by someone if he understood any Italian – and this after he’d asked a question, received a response, and asked a follow-up. Sometimes it’s as if the only thing people see is my Englishness, rather than his Italianicity.
But I digress.
Ibrahim smiles broadly at Davide and turns to me. “And you, miss? Where are you from?” I tell him I’m English. Ibrahim, at once losing interest in the non-Catanese, turns back to Davide. “Yes, the people of Catania are very good people.” He peers at the board. “So, how do you play – what is it called? – this … Scrabble?” Davide explains the basic rules as I concentrate on putting my next word down. Ibrahim is rapt. “Oh yes! This is a very good game! Very good for learning new words! I think my daughters would like this game.” Davide explains that it also exists in Italian – known as Scarabeo – and Ibrahim almost explodes with excitement. “Yes? So I can buy it here? Where can I get it?!” Davide and I look at each other for ideas. Our set was bought online, so we’re not the best people to ask for advice. It’s just as well that Ibrahim jumps into the fray and answers his own question. “In a bookshop, you think?” Davide and I nod enthusiastically. “Yes! That’s probably your best bet.”
Ibrahim falls quiet, concentrating on looking at our letters while we play on. Every so often he gives a delighted, sotto voce, ‘yes!’ or ‘ha!’, but for the most part he’s letting the game continue. The quiet is broken by him giving a gusty sigh. “Ah … now I must get back to work. It has been a pleasure to talk with you and to learn about this interesting game.” We repeat the sentiment back at him, but he’s not quite finished. “You are very kind people. I think maybe …?” He shakes his armful of gewgaws gently. “It is my job, you know?” I smile at him. “Sincerely? I neither want nor need any of these things.” I reach for my bag as he hovers, anticipating what I’m going to say. “But I’ll happily give you what I have.” A crinkly-eyed grin spreads across his face as I tip the change out of my purse and pass it across to him. “Thank you, miss! Thank you very much.” His face becomes solemn and he looks up to the heavens. “Please, bless these two people for their kindness. Look after them and hope they have a happy life …”
Davide and I sit quietly as Ibrahim prays for us. He draws to a close and brings his eyes earthwards again. “It has been very much a pleasure.” He nods towards the board. “And now I understand! Very good game!” He grins and puts the palms of his hands together as he gives us a little bow and backs away. “I am Ibrahim, and now I must work. Goodbye!”
Goodbye indeed, Ibrahim. The pleasure has been all ours.