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The power of context(s)

. . . by Chiara Santin

I love the Italian Alps and the calm lakes where I was born; I missed them, but I now experience nature as beautiful and comforting everywhere.

I have been searching for a deeper connection with nature in the UK during this pandemic. I got to know the natural tracks and beautiful spots in nature just on my doorstep on the outskirts of Brighton; its beautiful hills and white cliffs where I have been living for 22 years. It’s a very different landscape from where I was born but it’s equally beautiful. Yes I know I’m lucky and really I am.

Sometimes I walk to the Happy Valley Park with its beautiful flat grounds and steep ridges to the hills, the Sussex Downs and White Cliffs reaching to the sea. Just the name of it makes you smile. I smile and say hello to the many dog owners who take their dogs there for a walk. When I smile first, I’m a little nervous about the response but people generally smile back to me politely. If they smile first I offer a much bigger smile and feel very happy. In this place everybody seems to be happy, however, it feels strange walking there without a dog. I often think I should have one and that it would help to move from a simple smile to a conversation, about the dog of course or the weather!

I am reminded of being a bit different, an uncomfortable and common feeling of not fitting the context. This is my inescapable life script wherever I go. I always wonder if people know that I am a foreigner? If I just smile without revealing my Italian accent, maybe just the look.  

Sometimes I walk into the Natural Reserve of the Downs, many walkers come here on a popular walking route to enjoy and admire nature often without dogs. It feels like a different place from the Happy Valley. I say hello and generally they say hello back to me with a smile.  Sometimes I offer to hold the gate for someone arriving in the other direction and I’m always met with a big smile. There are also many cyclists with their bikes and clothes full of mud! I get annoyed when they think I should disappear and let them pass without slowing down or touching the ground! There are definitely hidden rules and communication without words that are specific to this context; the countryside, different places and paths within it.

If I go into Brighton town, I am made to feel a proper foreigner, no smile and no hello. Another context with its specific ways of being, one that has been created around social distancing in spite of living closely to one another in blocks of flats. A context for shopping and consuming a coffee in a bar or eating out with a friend or family. That’s socialising in a very prescribed and controlled way. Generally, people do not say hello nor smile at each other, it would be an exception. 

How come that such different contexts demand to behave in such different ways? Where is the trade-off between who we are and how we are with each other in different places, in different contexts? I have been wondering who decides these hidden rules about how to be which feels so compelling and deep rooted in social practices that nobody talks about?

After moving to UK in 1998 I had to learn how to approach people. How to speak, saying please and thank you as many times as possible. How to interrupt or chip in a conversation in a respectful way, how to turn down my voice and how to behave in a different cultural context. I soon learned the rule of social distancing as my sense of personal space was very different from the one that I was unwittingly practicing in Italy. I started noticing how often some people were moving away from me as I was starting a conversation. Was there any fear of contagion of an undefined Italian Virus 😷 then? It didn’t make sense to think in this way if we were not living through this pandemic where 2 metres seems to be the safe distance to avoid catching the Corona Virus. 

What is the context in which we’re living now? We’re creating a new context where we are redefining the rules of contact and socialising as if we were a danger to each other and we are.  Yes there is so much danger in catching the deadly virus that we are rewriting social rules to the point of avoiding any possible unsafe human contact and stay at home. No hugs and human touch are allowed outside our bubbles.

The first lockdown in Italy started when I was returning from my last visit to my family mid-February 2020. I was worried about not being allowed to fly back to UK and sitting next to a passenger who had a heavy cold was rather uncomfortable. I didn’t self-isolate because I didn’t have any symptoms and carried on working and yet I was worried that I might have Covid.  Corona Virus was already living at the back of my mind or somewhere lingering in my body and never left me ever since.  Coming back I started worrying about my family as the news from Italy kept coming about the seriousness of the situation there. The TV was showing some distressing images about the death toll which started affecting my way of seeing the pandemic here. My friends and family were sharing their experiences which became more and more distressing, moving between disbelief and denial, shock and powerlessness. Yet to a very dear friend I sounded a bit oblivious to the severity of this as she was praying me “Be careful, it’s serious”. She was speaking out of her concern for me and warning to stay at home. I felt more Italian than ever as the two worlds I was inhabiting at the same time felt so different. I slowly realised that it wasn’t a joke, we should take it seriously, people were dying in huge numbers, old and young, ill and fit in UK too.

I guess I was ahead of many here in UK in developing an awareness of the deadly disease and its risks, still going through the inevitable phase of shock and denial rather than acceptance of the seriousness and power of the virus over humans, human knowledge and medical advances. We all had to realise that nothing and nobody could really stop the virus spreading, a harsh truth to bear for the rational mind strenuously holding on to the self-belief of overcoming this and conquering the deadly disease.

I felt increasingly angry that arrogance could not stop politics becoming a scoring game about who was going to beat the disease rather than learning from others how to best face it and deal with it.

On the first day of the lock down in UK in March 2020 I wrote a message on the social media (Next Door) to warn people to stay at home after a walk outside where I spotted many cars around as if it were business as usual.  I was shocked to read some messages in response that turned nasty. I was accused of black and white thinking, being inconsiderate of those people who were working hard or looking after others, being privileged for having an able body and go for a walk instead of being stuck in a flat, digging at people….

I immediately thought, I got it wrong! Maybe I was too direct? Maybe I used the wrong words? Maybe I shouldn’t write anything at all? I couldn’t believe how after more than 20 years living here, studying at University at a Master level I could get it so wrong in the way I was communicating through my Italian directness of language. Or simply I was saying something people didn’t want to hear, especially from a foreigner? Maybe I was perturbing the system in a way that was too different and was therefore rejected.

The impact of this shocking reaction was so powerful and disturbing for me that I didn’t know what to do to try and stop this kind of messages coming. I couldn’t take it back. I couldn’t explain myself in a few words. An easy solution that immediately came to mind was to apologise. I learnt this living here i.e. apologising is expected if you have done something wrong even if you are not truly sorry. However, after 22 years I didn’t feel like apologising and it would have felt dis-honest to do so. I didn’t think I should be so compliant and apologise for what I had written: it was coming from my heart, from my genuine concern for people’s health and safety.  I wanted to maintain a sense of congruence and sincerity. I decided to only apologise for the effects that my message had on some people who may have got offended but decided not to apologise as if I was retracting or changing my original text/message. Interestingly the messages stopped being nasty and a few thumbs up reassured me that I got it right this time. 

I perhaps understood the context after all. At least then until I can get it wrong again! Or maybe just accepting that sometimes we can get it wrong and/or people are overreacting and can have polarised views about the same thing.  However, my unease about social media has grown stronger after this incident. I decided that I would not want to feel so vulnerable and exposed again, a kind of self-silencing by choice. I would have to practice a different kind of social distancing from people that I don’t know as they don’t really know me. How I try to be considerate in my personal and professional life, how I try to be empathic and understanding of different perspectives, acknowledge my privilege, experience the limitations and constraints of using another language.

My sense of entitlement to be here and to speak my mind was questioned once more. I suddenly felt my anger and rage coming out about Brexit and its absurd premises of creating another kind of social distancing with each other. I couldn’t help but think that those messages were coming from people who were in favour of Brexit. An assumption that could not be tested and could be unfounded. However, Brexit is now a reality, a choice that many people made, the majority in fact, and we are now getting to know and understand what Brexit means in our lives.

I wanted to shout and say: “Do you know that my mother is 85 and I’m sick and worried about her because of this deadly virus? I fear that I won’t see her again and can’t even be there to assist her, to say good-bye? Staying at home is a necessity, an act of responsibility towards the whole community not a selfish rambling”. 

Yes I’m still living in 2 worlds; sometimes I think that it would be a lot easier to live in just one.  My Italian roots have never been so exposed and vulnerable. I cried for my people in Italy in a way that I couldn’t do for the Queen or the Prime Minister here. I cannot deny the legacy of a long-standing allergy to the Italian politics too which led me to progressively retreat into the micro level of community and everyday life. Sorry. This is not because I do not respect them as political authorities but because ultimately Brexit means Br-exit, a political wish for non-British identities to take a distance from the rest of the world. That’s what it means to me right now and ultimately my sense of belonging is more than ever attached to my mountains, the lakes, and the land where I grew up whilst enjoying the English countryside.

It’s painful to acknowledge that this is the new context that Brexit has created. I hope I don’t have to apologise for what I have written and I am grateful that the Corona Virus is not only keeping people apart, but it also bringing people together, smile more at each other as if we were walking in the Happy Valley with a puppy full of life and energy, as if we were to say hello to anyone in the countryside or in town.

We are all adapting to the new context and there is hope in the human race beyond our fictional walls and borders. Finding its way towards more unity and a shared destiny where differences of opinions, beliefs, social and economic status, race, religion, sexuality, life experiences are celebrated rather than used as weapons of mass destruction and poisonous social distancing.  We are in this together. We are in the same boat so they say. I hope we will be living in a world where we won’t have to decide who is in and who is out drowning.

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