I attended a training program at ILO last year. This is what I recorded in my diary on the day of my arrival on ILO campus at Turin, Italy.
Ruby and I reached ILO campus. The man on the reception counter asked for our passports. He does not speak English but I discovered that a passport is called passport in Italian. Everyone back home had told me that the Italians are very fond of Indian passports and, if they find you alone, they ask for it, and that it is wise to oblige them. But here I was not alone but in the company of Ruby, whose piercing stare with her light brown eyes and aggressive looks disclosed to the world that she worked in Israel. That as a part of her job she also trained Palestinians was a fact which would have surely dissuaded the most capable of Italian mafia from pursuing their trade. So it was a safe deal to follow her. Ruby handed over her passport and so I did.

I courageously asked when it would be returned implying strongly that passports were not for keeping. The man on the counter informed me that passports were required by the Italian police under some law. All in sign language. [Life in India is better because we all know that there is always a way out of such situations; law was something like Bhagvatgita which sat well on a book shelf. The Italians, did not seem to share this view, certainly not when subjects were law abiding citizens like me.] Comforted by the knowledge that everybody would be depositing their passports, I proceeded to pick up Access Card for my room. Ruby was a regular, she worked for ILO anyway and this was her third visit to Turin so she knew the procedure. She had already taken her access card and was smoking a cigarette outside.

I moved out of reception. I realised that we were placed in the same block. She too realised it and her happiness was obvious. I discovered its ‘root cause’ of her happiness when she requested me to pull her bag to her room which I readily did, suggesting we Indians were very courteous and well mannered, only to realise that the block in which we were placed was not exactly very close. But good deeds always pay off! At least let us hope so; it is a kind of very soothing thought!!

The access system in our office is advanced and ‘hi-tech’ if you consider what we have here. The sensors in our office read our access card from a distance like a dog recognising its master. The access card to my room here is to be put in the slot and then you have to give the door a hard good kick, without turning knob, much same the way the police inspector in the detective serial opens an apartment where murder has taken place.

I realised that handling access cards was part of the survival skill when I was given a pre-charged card for my meals. You can eat whatever you like in the cafeteria up to a value of Euro 15.50 per day.

Rested for a while in my room and wanted to drink water when I discovered that there was no complimentary mineral water bottle. So I went to the vending machine. The ‘passport holder’ man at the reception indicated, it was a sign language after all, that I had to press a button and insert a 50 cent coin in the slot in vending machine, and it will deliver a bottle of mineral water. Ten minutes search of the vending machine was futile; I could not locate the slot to put the coin in. Nothing here works without a hard good kick I thought. I was about to try this time tested technique when a Chinese lady who was watching my efforts helped me locate it.

I had not exchanged a word with her! There are people of different nationalities here on ILO campus and you have no choice but to often use the sign language, some of them do not understand English. It is frustrating and yet funny. I guess I now know how East India Company officers would have felt when they came to India. There were no access cards then but surely they must have asked for water!

My father always insisted that I must learn to speak good English and that it was essential if I were to have a good career. But times have changed. Unless you know how these access cards, vending machines work you will not be able to eat two square meals and survive. Learning English is clearly optional. Miming can substitute it. That perhaps explains the success of so many Indians in the new economy. My dad could not have imagined that things would change so drastically. I opened my father’s photo on my computer and said, ‘Dad, are you watching?’