Unexpected relationships during COVID-19


This is a time of infrequent encounters. We begin to miss even our oddball colleague on Monday morning, our ever-complaining and indomitable mother-in-law, that somniferous professor, not to mention the closest friends, drinking companions and sporting rivals. Furthermore, the possibility of unexpected encounters – a daily wonder the beauty of which we are perhaps only now aware of – is reduced to a minimum. But is it really so? Don’t new horizons open – previously unimaginable – in our daily relationships? Work meetings in smart-working mode , extended family meetings through videoconferencing and online lessons become remote encounters in which a shared difficulty gives rise to symptoms of proximity. And gratitude for the cashier at the supermarket, the smile in solidarity with the newsagent or the unexpected discussions between roommates and family members are fruits to be cultivated at this stage2, now knocking at the door. Without taking anything away from the suffering experienced, the wounds suffered – indelible companions of the future – we give value to the new opportunities for encounter.

I would like to talk about Salim, a Bengali newsagent who works just at the end of our road. I became aware only at the beginning of the pandemic of the great privilege of being the “household newsagent”, authorized to go out every day to buy the community’s daily newspaper. With more time (and talkativeness) available – at a safe distance but brought closer by the strength of a smile – we start an unexpected dialogue.

Salim, 38 years old, amazes me for the positivity with which he lives in our country. Arrived in Italy in 2005, with a light heart he tells me of his desire to stay here all his life. He loves the Italians and how they welcomed him. Right until the day when he got married he was a guest of his employer, Giampiero, for him a second father. He does not spare compliments on Italian food, making fun of the stereotype of our cuisine spread abroad: “if I have pasta and pizza I don’t need anything else”. And he loves the art and architecture of Italy: “In Italy in every city there is something beautiful”. He is still not accustomed to the beauty of Rome, to which he is grateful. Only contemporary Italian cinema does not convince him very much .

What about your business? He has great respect for work: “whatever you do is the greatest possibility; work is not a joke, it is a great responsibility. You don’t get to the end of the month just to get your salary”. For him, every profession is an activity to be lived to the full, so as to obtain pearls of positivity at all moments. And it shows: he is loved in the neighbourhood, he has a chat with everyone. Each purchase does not end in the exchange of a commodity (magazine or newspaper), but is charged with that priceless value that is a relationship. A smile for everyone and the purchase of a newspaper becomes a significant moment of the day. Without having studied civil economy, he embodies in a free and spontaneous way the concept of relational good, a quality sometimes absent in other professions.

His concern for the future is Safa (Chiara), his 16-month-old daughter. He would like to be able to always guarantee the essentials for her living and the education necessary for a dignified life, in addition to dreaming that she may live love “in a way close to the heart”. But basically, he says, all parents think this, “there is no colour ” for these thoughts. He is grateful for his possibilities: “what I have is fine, thanks; what I don’t have, I thank God anyway”. In his simple sentences are stoic echoes; Epictetus’ words come back to me : “Do not try to make events be as you want, but want events to be as they are and you will live serenely”.

Of course he misses Bangladesh , his culture, his parents; but he feels lucky because “he has two cultures: Italian and Bengali” . However, he does not hide his concern for his country, which is not equipped to manage the COVID-19 epidemic. He dreams of founding an association to provide health care for the poorest of Bangladesh.

One morning while I talk to him someone comes up and offers him a coffee. Salim, Muslim, and at the beginning of Ramadan, refuses; the other goes off making fun of him “you won’t even take coffee! you’re crazy…”. He is one of many who – in the neighbourhood of San Saba – bring him breakfast, or coffee from home. It is a beautiful facet of the neighbourhood that I did not yet know.

The interruption offers me the opportunity for some questions about how Ramadan will be lived in such a particular time. “Ramadan is not mine, it comes from God, from my faith . Time, like today, has already been in the past. Today the mosques are closed, but no one stops you from praying, you can pray from home, from your work. Of course it’s difficult, you can’t see neighbours, friends.” The greatest difficulty will be in helping the other. His faith – he tells me with conviction – requires attention to the last, to the poor; and this especially in the Ramadan period. And he assures me of the need to do it discreetly, without wanting to appear. The beautiful words of the Gospel of Matthew seem to echo in me: “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matthew 6: 3-4)” . Above all – he explains – attention must be paid to the recipient, so that they do not feel humiliated by the gesture of charity.

Now, however, he lives with suffering the limits of the restrictions; they will make the initiative of support for the needy more difficult. It is not often – in this time – to hear complaints not for the restriction on personal freedom, but rather for the difficulty in helping others.

To my question on how he lives the experience of prayer, he replies “When you pray you feel light, and at peace.”

So it is that every morning we say goodbye with a promise to pray one for the other. The closeness in daily prayer makes every meeting more beautiful and the dialogue with him is one of the little-big unsolicited graces of this period, a little help to be able to taste the flavour of simplicity.

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