This letter is not about Portugal, but about the actions of a Goan in Portugal. So striking were his actions however, and so profound the outcome, that they bear writing home about.
Zé has been spending the summer month of August in Lisbon, and as summer drags on in this part of the world, so has Zé. A friend from school, it made sense that when he was not engaged in other diversions, the two of us spend time together. Part of his romance with Lisbon involved falling in love with the street cafes, where restaurants and cafes provide their services at the little tables they place on the pavements adjoining their establishments. Zé loves nothing more than grabbing a beer, coffee or lunch at these cafes, engaging in conversation, and people (and vehicle) watching.
It was in the course of a lunch such as this, that the incident I am about to report took place. Perhaps it was I who saw him first. An older man, bushy beard grey with age, skin tanned from being in the sun too long, there was something odd about him. His clothes were worn, but there was clearly an effort to look respectable, his shirt tucked into his trousers, holding a jacket over his arm. As he passed by our table, he stopped, and inquired of us, with the greatest of dignity, if we might possibly have a couple of coins to give him for a coffee. Zé is a good soul, and for this reason looked in his pockets and handed the stranger the seventy cents he found there; plenty money for a coffee that this man asked for. For some strange reason however, Zé felt this insufficient, and even as the man was moving on, called out to him, saying “would you like a beer?” Our elderly friend did not hesitate twice. “Yes!” he said. “Sit” responded Zé. And so this man sat himself down at our table.
This is not “normal” middle-class behavior in any part of the world. One does not do this in India, and one most certainly does not encounter this in Portugal, that has a caste and class system comparable with India’s (though perhaps this comparison definitely not apply to the humiliating manner in which we deal with Dalit groups). The extra-ordinariness of this situation was clear by the looks of the people around us, and by the question of the waiter, who asked of us when we requested a beer for the old man; “Is he with you gentlemen?”
Having indicated in the affirmative, the beer was brought for this man, and since one cannot have a person at one’s table and not speak with him, Zé proceeded to engage the man in conversation. It turns out that he lived across the Tagus River. In his own home, he was careful to affirm, but being a bachelor, lived by himself, in one of the dormitory cities outside of Lisbon called Cruz de Pau. He had two brothers who lived close to him, in their own homes. He had come across the river, since he receives his pension on the tenth of every month, and as of now, there was “no food at home”. He was in Lisbon then, because he would be able to get both lunch and dinner at the free kitchen at the Church of Our Lady of Fatima near Campo Pequeno. Rather than return home, he would spend the night on the street somewhere, perhaps around the great rotunda of Marques Pombal, until the tenth.
At around the same time as this conversation was taking place, the food we had ordered arrived. Since one cannot eat in the presence of another without offering them food, Zé shared our stuffed squid with this man. In these actions, Zé flung open the doors of the meaning of caritas. The act of giving; was engaged in fully, with no concern for one’s station, the impressions of society. It was entirely the act of one human being with the capacity, reaching out to another in need, and in the process, treating the other not with condescension normally reserved for beggars, but with the dignity reserved for one’s intimates, social equals and superiors. Indeed, in doing more than just giving him some money, but stopping to hear his story, Zé opened up the space for this man to tell his story in dignity. By using the word ‘dignity’ I do not want to romanticize his poverty, but seek merely to highlight the manner in which he engaged with us, sharing a meal, sharing a story. Departing, after he shook our hands, he left me with one more insight into the many lives that a rapidly impoverishing Portugal lives. The insight, and the realization, that when you give, you also receive. It was because I consider myself blessed for having had the privilege of being at that table, learning a valuable lesson, that I report this incident.
(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on Sept 20 2012)