In 2001, I spent the summer studying ceramics at the American Academy in Rome (specifically, I was studying Terra Sigillata from a site located on the Palatine Hill). On occasion, the group of fellow analysts would take weekend trips to places, to see the ancient sites and collect information for future lectures and classes we were thinking of offering.
On weekend, we decided to go to Florence. We left from Termini in Rome, and arrived in the mid afternoon, the same day Ethiopia was playing in the World Cup for the first time ever. A little background: migrant workers from Africa and elsewhere are brought in (usually by mafia types and many from Ethiopia in particular) to sell knock off goods on the streets throughout the country. It’s cheap labor, there aren’t many restrictions, and the lure of a better chance at life brings many hopefuls and refugees to Italy. On the day we arrived in Florence, all of the TVs that usually displayed train schedules had been co-opted and turned to show the World Cup, where Ethiopia was playing, and every TV had a group of people around it, Italians, Africans from Ethiopia and elsewhere, tourists, kids, adults, you name it. It was a cross-section of the city, right there.
We glanced at the screen, and then headed for the Duomo. I hadn’t been to Florence, and wanted to see the square and have a coffee before we met up with the others. As we were sitting there, at a table in the square across from this, I heard a faint sound way off to my left, almost like drums. In a few more seconds, I heard the sound of drums for certain, this time to my right. Then, louder and louder from both sides, I heard this jubilant singing and drum playing, clearly getting closer to the central square.
I will never forget, in that moment, seeing in the clear afternoon light, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in the background, the ecstatic faces celebrating Ethiopia’s win, celebrating the fact that this country, predicted to be knocked out in the first round, was still there and still fighting, and dammit, they’d won. These men, and they were almost entirely men, were dancing the dances they’d been taught growing up, playing drums they had brought from home, and some playing whatever else they got their hands on. Those of us who were there were clapping and cheering and sharing that moment of triumph and happiness with them as, draped in flags, decked out in every scrap of red, green, and yellow that could be found, they celebrated that they, too, mattered on this world stage.