Illustration by Oana Hajos
Celebrating invisibility: Live-in Romanian badanti caring for the elderly in southeast Italy
The protagonist of this story is Ana (a pseudonym), a Romanian domestic careworker, aged 45. Ana came to work in Italy in 2005 when she was 36 years old. She had no children of her own, but had a niece, whose university education she supported financially. When the niece finished university, and found employment, Ana would divide all the money that she gained every month (€600/month) in two. She would give half of the money to her partner to finish building their house in Romania, and she would keep half for her own expenses in Italy: clothes, food, tablets, monthly internet and telephone passes, cigarettes, and alcohol. In the 11 years she had worked in Italy, Ana also contributed to the renovation of her parents’ house, in a village in eastern Romania. This piece of writing describes in detail the party we organised in Grano in July 2014, at Ana’s request. The material presented comes mainly from this event but is also based on my previous research, between July 2013 and August 2014, on migrant care work with the elderly in the region and the limited amount of time live-in migrant care workers have. In this case, changing the field of interest from the house to a public venue of encounter, from care to the curation of a party, allowed a very powerful shifting of contexts that facilitates understanding.
Gabriela Nicolescu is a visual anthropologist and curator with research interests in ageing and care, migration, museum anthropology and exhibition making. She gained her PhD in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and then worked on several projects as a curator and postdoctoral researcher at Goldsmiths, University College Cork (Ireland) and University of Oxford.
She worked at the intersection of social and visual anthropology and curated exhibitions in Austria, Hong Kong, Hungary, Republic of Moldova, Romania, United Kingdom and the Philippines and published in several journals, including the Journal of Design History, Journal of Material Culture, World Art, Anthropology and Aging, Critique of Anthropology. Her first monography, The Porous Museum will appear with Bloomsbury Visual Arts in 2023. For links to pre-peer reviewed versions of articles, exhibitions and research visit gabrielanicolescu.com/
I’ve been in the art business for as long as I can remember. I can’t look at the world any other way than through an artistic perspective. I worked as a graphic designer and interior designer. But since 2019, with the pandemic, I discovered illustration – a childish game that turned into a job. So far I have illustrated 4 children’s books, one of which is also written by me. At the moment, I am with my family – husband, 3 children and a dog – on a long trip around the world in a motorhome. We don’t know how long it will last, but it’s clear that it gives me a lot of inspiration and we’re building great memories together.
Ana, a Romanian migrant live-in careworker taking care of Italian elderly in southeast Italy, would often describe her work conditions as ‘house detention’ because her care job allowed only two outings of a maximum duration of three hours a week. She would say, combining bitterness with laughter: ‘Badanti, what are we here? Slaves! But what can we do!?’
As a reaction to her lack of freedom, one day in the summer of 2014 I suggested to Ana that I could organise a local workshop or a conference as a space to raise issues related to infringements of labour regulations. Ana rejected my proposal. She said that instead of lamenting, we should organise a party.
The idea appealed to me. I started to lobby for the party and explore the possibilities. A small Italian cultural association agreed to host the party and also proposed a name: ‘The Party of the Counter Hour’. The name was supposed to indicate that the hour of the party was really unusual by Italian standards: 4 to 6 pm on a hot July afternoon was far from ideal. The name was also supposed to signal that this was the only time when migrant careworkers living in the town were actually free.
The protagonist of this story is Ana (a pseudonym), a Romanian domestic careworker, aged 45. Ana came to work in Italy in 2005 when she was 36 years old. She had no children of her own, but had a niece, whose university education she supported financially. When the niece finished university, and found employment, Ana would divide all the money that she gained every month (€600/month) in two. She would give half of the money to her partner to finish building their house in Romania, and she would keep half for her own expenses in Italy: clothes, food, tablets, monthly internet and telephone passes, cigarettes, and alcohol. In the 11 years she had worked in Italy, Ana also contributed to the renovation of her parents’ house, in a village in eastern Romania. Ana’s case is not very typical. I cannot say for sure if Ana would really want to return to Romania sometimes soon. She enjoys her financial independence and she does not see herself returning to Romania soon.
This piece of writing describes in detail the party we organised in Grano in July 2014, at Ana’s request. The material presented comes mainly from this event but is also based on my previous research, between July 2013 and August 2014, on migrant care work with the elderly in the region.
Four hours of time a week
In 2013, Ana moved to Grano and started to take care of a woman aged 93, Nona. She liked Nona and after two weeks Nona started to like her and to appreciate the way Ana talked to her, bathed her, laughed with her, cooked for her, and took her outside. But another reason why Ana liked this job with Nona was that Nona lived close to one of the two main squares of the city. Despite regulations prescribing free hours every day, and one free day at the end of the week,[i] in southeast Italy live-in migrant careworkers for the elderly rarely manage to get out of the house for more than four hours every week. During my research, 20 of the 34 migrant careworkers I interviewed were only allowed out of the house twice a week, for two to three hours each time (usually between 4 and 6 pm (or 5 to 7 pm)).
Living in the city centre meant that Ana could get out of the house in relatively short time and meet other migrant domestic careworkers of Romanian origin in the public square, sitting on one or two benches. Ana would join the other women and experience some time of freedom, feeling the breeze of the afternoon, talking to other women, giving and receiving advice, exchanging recipes, news, and laughing over obscene jokes. The bench attracted most of the Romanian women working in the region, but not all. Some resisted the desire to meet others and talk, and preferred to remain inside the house, outside migrant sociality. Some would use their limited free time to visit other Italian friends or work for other Italian families for extra money.
Every Thursday and Saturday Ana could go to the city centre all by herself. On those days Ana would start the day by taking a shower and preparing the clothes she would put on. The blouse would be matched with the trousers, the boots or sandals with the jacket, and, last but not least, the lipstick and perfume would be arranged on the bed in preparation for the afternoon. That day she would not cook, so that her clothes would not smell of food. She would change Nona, feed her, dress her in clean clothes, and place her in the wheelchair to wait for her son or daughter who took turns every couple of days to give Ana a little bit of free time. When one of the two arrived, Ana would be fully dressed and ready to go out in order to make the most of the three hours of free time that she had. The way she dressed attracted the attention of other people.
In her outings Ana would first go to the bench frequented by many Romanian women. After that, she would enter a few shops, to look for new clothes and possibly buy some, and then go to a bar to eat a hamburger and drink a glass of alcohol. The eating and drinking would always be followed by pictures. She would ask other people at the bar to take her a picture, or she would take a selfie. By the time she got back to the bench, she would be in a different mood: she would talk, laugh, and tease other less experienced domestic careworkers. On her return home, at 7 pm, she would take care of Nona and put her to bed. From 9–11 pm, Ana uploaded her Facebook account with pictures of herself going out, receiving comments and responding to these.
The limited hours spent outside the house are prolonged by Ana and others like her in many different ways. For Ana, Facebook represented an opportunity to create a larger space and time of encounter and visibility. Ana would normally go on Facebook at least twice a day – at lunch time and at night – for a total of approximatively four hours. During my research in 2013–2014 Ana looked fit and very trendy. The recent pictures that she posted on Facebook showed her with short hair dyed black, slim, with plenty of make-up, always dressed in fashionable glasses and clothing and almost always wearing red lipstick. The pictures taken before going out show an Ana who puts a lot of effort and enthusiasm into making herself look fashionable and modern, almost not assimilable to her domestic work position. The pictures taken outside the house make Ana look like a tourist in Grano, surrounded by trees in blossom, or by old buildings in the town or other tourist destinations nearby. On her outings, taking pictures of herself in the places she went to – a bar or a bench in the main square – would always be followed by postings on Facebook.
Images of her outings outside the town of Grano show the use of social media in contexts of social inequality but also of lack of mobility among live-in migrant domestic careworkers in southeast Italy. After such postings, online friends would leave comments and discussions might continue for a day or more.
Through Facebook, Ana combines the sociality of the Italian south with networking among many Romanian careworkers – an interaction in which she is socially comfortable and which makes her feel that she is not alone. Once or twice a week Ana starts her day with a Facebook posting ‘Buon- giorno!’ and 10 to 20 people, Romanian migrant careworkers or Italian friends, respond. From the interviews I conducted for my research, 80% of the live-in careworkers live only with their patients. The remaining 20% live with their patients and their patients’ kin. In these latter cases, the space of the house is felt less as a space of freedom.
I started this chapter with Ana’s comment on the condition of live-in migrant careworkers in Italy: ‘Badanti, what are we here? Slaves! But what can we do!?’ To further explore the duality of the badanti work, between freedom and constraint, in the following section of this chapter I describe the party that we organised following Ana’s suggestion. This party demonstrates vividly women’s struggles to transform themselves, to show control over their own bodies and lives, and to embody new kinds of personhood and femininity.
The Party of the Counter Hour
At 4:30 pm on a hot Saturday afternoon in July 2-13, six Romanian careworkers, all dressed in their best clothes and wearing makeup, lipstick, and perfume, entered the grounds of the Italian association where the party was being organised. Ana brought me a red rose, as a sign of appreciation for my efforts in making this party happen. In reality, she was the one who should have been entitled to receive such a gift. But, as I found out afterwards, the rose she offered functioned more as a pretext. Ana wanted to mark the importance of the evening and, dressed in her slinky black dress and black high heels, she started to stroll around in the city as if she was doing something important. As she explained to me later, very confident and laughing about her own adventure, she was proud that she had gone to the most expensive flower shop in the town, at 4 pm sharp. When the city was slowly returning to life, after the hot hours following lunch and the siesta, she bought that rose to the absolute amazement of the florist who had very rarely seen somebody at 4 pm dressed for an evening party. Ana was happy that she could hold an intelligent conversation with the florist, and that she could express herself in impeccable Italian. When she walked along the main road holding that flower, it was a performance in itself. In the small town of Grano where everybody knows everybody else, she wanted to confound and amaze everyone that she knew. She thought that her action would provoke the following question in everybody’s minds: where could a badante go, dressed like that, at that hour of the afternoon?
But walking at 4 pm on the main boulevard of Grano in her black dress and high heels, while being intended as a powerful performance, also turned out to be an awkward situation. After the siesta hours, not many Italians were around to watch what Ana was doing. To compensate for this, several times during the party she went out of the association’s premises to a shop located in the old square of the city – once to buy cigarettes, another time to buy alcohol, and another time to film the passers-by.
At 4.30 pm some more careworkers joined the party and helped with the last preparations: arranging the chairs to create some space for dancing, blowing up balloons, and starting to eat the food prepared. A photograph taken at 6 pm shows 10 live-in careworkers present at the party, the hour when most of the Romanian women working as careworkers were expected to return to their employers’ houses.
Looking at the picture one cannot tell who are the careworkers, who are the activists, and who are the researchers. Nor is their ethnic background discernible. Dressed in some of our best clothes, 10 careworkers of both Indian and Romanian origin stood close to six Italian people and myself.
The atmosphere of conviviality and friendship speaks of a very special moment when the picture was taken. It involved the kind of ‘immortalisation’ of a special (and perishable) moment[ii] that Hans Belting describes, particularly because of its unusual and fragile nature. Many of us took pictures of this, such a rare encounter. But what resides beneath the facade of this moment and the image itself? Ervin Goffman’s concept of persona, seen as the front stage of how an individual wants to be perceived in public, is useful here.[iii] Goffman says that, once in public, individuals perform in order to project a desirable image of themselves. In the case of the party, the badanti exaggerated their public face, and dressed not for an evening out, but for a night party. Outside the party environment, when going out twice a week from 4–6 pm, some badanti behave as if they are free to do whatever they like, as a reaction to how their individuality is restricted inside the house. While in public, they seem to find their freedom and they show off their desire to be seen as not conforming to their employment status. In this respect, the private houses and the public square are two important places where power relations, care, and control are enacted in quite different ways. While inside the private houses, badanti tend to exercise their authority as a means of both easing their workload and increasing the efficiency of their work (for example, cooking Romanian meals rather than Italian ones, or walking the elderly in public spaces, represent occasions during which badanti appear to exercise a certain level of control). This control is publicly perceived when Italian people scrutinise their gestures, attitudes, and the external appearances of both badanti and the elderly the badanti work for. In this context, the ‘Party of the Counter Hour’, which took place in a very central public space, represented a particular extension of the care and control relations that were happening inside Italian houses. The badanti became curators of an event where their presence, appearance, and tastes were publicly appreciated.
At the same time, badanti who live in the same house with Italian family members are very often under close supervision and they regard the public square as their only private space. The very fact that migrants’ free time from 4–6 pm does not coincide with the free time of Italians means that some badanti feel and act as though nobody really cares what they do and how they do it; they feel that they live in totally separate worlds from those of their employers. At 6.15 pm farewell kisses were exchanged and the Romanian female live-in careworkers left the party. The two Indian men remained for a bit longer, until 7.30, close to their usual time to return to their places of employment. Four Romanian women who were paid as careworkers while being in relationships with older Italian men, stayed a bit longer, up to 9.30 pm.
Marilyn Strathern suggests that knowledge production in anthropology benefits from ‘shifting contexts’, such as transfers between local and global, between small scale and large scale, or between the individual and groups.[iv] In this case, changing the field of interest from the house to a public venue of encounter, from care to curation, allowed a very powerful shifting of contexts. As Strathern affirms, ‘epistemology is not merely about the context, but also about understanding the shifting of the context, the possibility to navigate between separate orders of knowledge such as “level”, “context”, “structure” and “event”’.[v] Based on Strathern’s arguments, I see the curation of this event as an ideal space and time where dislocation and relocation of both people and horizons of expectations occur.
[i] FIDALDO (2013) Contratto collettivo nazionale di lavoro sulla disciplina del rapporto di lavoro domestico. Roma: Tipolitografia CSR.
Zarattini, P. and R. Pelusi (2007) Il Contratto di Lavoro: I Lavoratori Domestici, Milano: Edizioni Fag.
[ii] Belting, H. (2004) ‘Towards an Anthropology of Image,’ in Westermann, M. (ed) Anthropologies of Art, London: Yale University Press, pp. 41-59.
[iii] Goffman, E. (1990 [ 1956]) The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin.
[iv] Strathern, M. (ed) (1995) Shifting Contexts. Transformations in Anthropological Knowledge, London: Routledge.
[v] Bis, p. 11.