What my neighbouring sandwich shop owner taught me about endurance

Today I am going to tell you a story.

Prologue

I have been living in my rented studio for five years now (jeez). Despite the predictable disadvantages of a one-room flat – especially when someone stays over for more than 24 hours – I love this accommodation. It’s my place. And as for any relationship involving affection, I embrace all its positive and negative aspects.

Within 10 minutes’ walking distance of Brussels’ centre ville, and facing the European institutions, my micro apartment’s most remarkable attraction is indeed its location.

That is also known as le Quartier Européen – the very same area you catch sight of when “our Brussels’ correspondent” delivers the latest EU Summit updates.

But there are two things I definitely enjoy about living here: 

  • The absolute quietness of Sunday mornings (the quarter mostly hosts office buildings that get deserted during the weekend); and
  • My lovely next-door neighbours who own a small takeout shop. They have been my primary source of food ever since I moved. What you are about to read is their story.

Once upon a time in Italy…

This story begins like many other stories – with a migration.

Once upon a time in a small, faraway village in Italy, a young woman had bigger plans for her future. She wanted to move up north to seek a better life. 

Her journey led her to Belgium, where she settled down and started her new life. From that moment on, a Belgian-born offspring developed. 

As it is often the case with second-generation migrants, the newborns were raised in two cultures simultaneously. Today, they can cook delicious Italian food while speaking perfect néerlandais (Dutch – one of the three official languages of Belgium).

My neighbour is one of these second-generation kids. Thanks to his hard work and deep passion for the Mediterranean cuisine, he was able to launch his catering business and open a small shop in the heart of Brussels’ European Quarter.

He now runs his business together with his wife – a lovely Belgian lady I have lately befriended – and his Italian mother’s name shines out of the shop sign. 

Love what you do, do what you love

You can sense when someone is happy with his life; when someone loves his job; when someone is overall fulfilled. Why so? Because they pass that positive vibe on to you. And that’s uplifting.

My first encounter with my neighbour and his wife wasn’t coincidental. My mother was here to visit (do you see the fil rouge here, don’t you?) and as any Italian mother, she was concerned about my daily food intake. 

Long story short, she was looking for a takeout place where I could turn to when I had no time for meal prep. (Side note: I am intolerant to almost every food, so I can’t just bolt down the first thing I find on the shelf.)

She just went downstairs and… ended up in their shop. Their menu was varied enough for me to find something I could swallow up safely. And they were very nice too.

That saved me. I often think about what would happen to me without them feeding me! And I am also referring to something beyond the mere nutritional aspects of the story, of course.

When I used to work at jobs that made me feel miserable, their warm smile and small talk made my workdays less burdensome. 

That’s how it feels being part of a community, I guess – be it your family, your “bubble”, or your neighbourhood. You feel safe, understood, and relieved.

The rules of endurance

And then the pandemic hit. “Lockdown” became the most threatening word for HoReCa (Hotel, Restaurant, Café) business owners.

Despite my scant knowledge of my neighbour’s life, I can easily testify to the tremendous amount of time and effort he has always put into his business.

From what I can tell, he has never missed one day at work. His door opens at 7:15 am from Monday to Friday. On Saturday morning, he comes to work to clean up and get everything ready for the week ahead.

His delicious treats are well known in the area, and there is always someone queuing out the door.

… Until now. Since reopening, business was all but as usual because of home working and the like. That took a toll on my neighbour’s revenues. The blow was so severe they weren’t sure their business would survive the summer.

But in life, you either strive or you die. So he did what everybody does when facing hardship: hustling.

Rule #1: Never give up without fighting

He didn’t give up. Not even for a second. He went out and about to find a new job. 

His wife now runs their business on her own, while he is side-hustling somewhere else.

Was it the right decision? Nobody can tell. But he is fighting to keep his business alive. And I profoundly respect him for that.

Rules #2: Work twice as hard

He comes to work very early in the morning to cook for his catering/takeaway business and then leaves for his second job. He keeps coming every Saturday morning to clean up and plan for the week ahead.

He looks tired and worried – the kind of worry you experience when you have no clue where you are heading to. And yet, he never spares a friendly greeting or a quick chat.

Rule #3: Cling on to your dreams

That’s his business; his entire life. He still believes in it. And he wants it to thrive. Moreover, he loves what he does. And he is good at it. Why should he give up on something that makes him happy?

He is ready to take on any job to “subsidise” his small company, but it will not let it run out of business. That touched me deeply. 

Let’s think about it. You poured your blood, sweat, and tears into a project you love for years, and then something pops up and tries to destroy it. Would you accept that? Or would you cling on to it as hard as you can?

Happy ending?

These are challenging times for everybody, let alone business owners. As any other freelancer around the world, I took a hit in terms of workflow and revenue because of the pandemic. And I can very much relate to my neighbour’s urge to make ends meet.

I don’t have any happy ending for this story. I don’t have any ending at all, actually. What I have told you is just a snapshot of someone else’s life while it is unfolding.

If anything, this story made me think of how many places, people, and life stories we know nothing about we pass by every single day. And how much we could learn from each other if we just slowed down our daily rush and looked harder.

Published by Nadia Musumeci

Copywriter. Millennial. Expat. And a lot of questions.

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