Meeting superman in the laundromat.

strange encounters of the covid kind | Trapani (si)

It is Saturday in the city of Trapani, Sicily. I am sitting in a laundromat taking advantage of the beautiful spring day that inspired the entire population to vacate the city and drive to the countryside. I am alone so I load every washing machine, hoping to end this ordeal as soon as possible.

A man walks in and I apologize for monopolizing the machines while assuring him that one will be free shortly. Despite the fact that we are both wearing masks, I can tell that he is not bothered.  He takes out an envelope and pulls out the paper inside, clearly exam results.

“Covid test results?” I politely enquired.

“Yes, negative as always.  This is my 212 test since covid began. I am a part of the fire department working as international search and rescue. I have to at least one swab per week, if not more.” He replied and there began my first meeting with Beppe, a real life superman.

When Beppe was a young man and just started driving, he was in a very serious accident.  The firemen who came to the scene had to cut him out of the car to save his life. This moment left him certain about two things, as he explained: first, that life is short, precious, can disappear in an instant; and that he must become like the men who saved him.  Since then, until I met him, his life had been dedicated to responding to natural and human disasters to search and rescure survivors, especially those located underground.

Italy, as I came to learn, has one of the most effective emergency response infrastructures in the world and, due to its seismic and volcanic terrain, is expert in subsurface rescue. A national organization with access to the full resources of Italy’s fire departments, air force and military; The Vigili del Fuoco can respond immediately mobilizing resources and personnel while coordinating all activities from one central administration, a critical factor in earthquake and avalanche mortality.

Beppe has spent the past 25 years of his life responding at a minutes notice to natural disasters and human catastrophes, espcially those where subterranean rescue is required. Naturally, as happens when two individuals who have witnessed such scenes encounter, the next 30 minutes were spent with he and I sharing experiences from around the globe that had truly impacted us, personally. At one point, his voice lowered, “These people on the worst day of their lives have taught me true humanity.”

A few years ago, he was on assignment in the Congo helping with famine relief. They would gather supplies and prepare a huge caldron of food, the singular daily nourishment for the refugees. They would come in the hundreds, “One day a mother would line up with a baby in each arm. The next day, she would only have one. The other had died.”

“Yet, what they taught me about dignity, respect, appreciation and communal empathy, made me realize that I was the one getting relief, that I was the one in need.”

As Beppe told it, the people would line up for hours, each awaiting there portion without ever pushing or trying to get ahead of others. Despite being quite little, if someone arrived late and the caldron was empty, each person would take a little amount out of there bowl until the latecomer had a full portion. Finally, when everyone had some food to eat, the all sat under nearby trees, eating, singing and resting. No one ever ate until everyone had some.

“This changed me. I starting looking at life differently and be happy just to have another day. I have fought cancer and that seemed like so little compared to what those people have to overcome….every day…with dignity.

Then, I knew that this stylish Italian dandy was actually the Clark Kent to a real life Superman…and I met him in a laundromat.

Segments of international rescue have been used with permission from Giuseppe Ruggi’s short film of the earthquake relief after Central Italy was destroyed in the middle of the night, August 24 2016.

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Mark Abouzeid

Born in Princeton, N.J., to a Lebanese father and Irish-American mother, Mark Abouzeid moved countries for the first time at 10 months of age. Since then, he has lived and worked in over 35 countries including the polar arctic, bedouin deserts and countless seas. His photos and feature articles have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, New European, Daily Mirror, Sydney Morning Herald, Adventure Magazine, Dove (Italia), The Daily, South China Morning Post, Maxim, NatGeo and Forbes.

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