After leaving a park, two friends were walking on a quiet street on the Asian side of Istanbul. All of a sudden, they saw a bunch of people running towards them wearing gas masks. More surprised than scared, the two men could only watch in surprise until the Turkish Army fired tear gas into the sky. Their eyes started tearing and burning. They took shelter in a restaurant, but Berto’s idea to wash the tears away with fresh water was the wrong move. While his eyes were blazing even more than before, his Italian buddy Emanuele was shouting “I’ll never travel again with you! Every time that we are together, I find myself in trouble!”
“You never get bored when you are with him!” the Syrian Hasan confirms. He has been a friend of Berto for just three weeks. But, by the informal tone of their phone conversations, you would say they have been hand and glove for ages. “We are in a bar close by Grote Markt. Yes, five minutes from your house. You tired? Move your ass! Come on!” Hasan’s laughter could be heard in the background. Because Berto’s spontaneous way to joke allows him to address people as “bastard” or “asshole”, and other words that my editor will probably scratch from this article.
He looks more confident than a 20-year-old guy in his ripped blue jeans and denim jackets, but his music tastes are quite old fashioned. “I love Abba, Boney M. and the Bee Gees”. And he embraces the Stayin’ Alive philosophy of life. “I’m 58, and I’ll work for about other ten years. But I have no programs for retirement: I do now what I want to do–because I’m here now!”
Sometimes he misses the 1980s. “We were all poorer, but at least people used to attend the meeting instead of sending you a WhatsApp message half an hour before just to say they are sorry not to make it.” But he doesn’t disdain techno and electro music. “Since my firstborn Limuel became a DJ, I like going to parties where he plays that music. Even if after 15 minutes I need to step out of the club because it’s too loud for me!”
Putting up with loud music isn’t the only way Berto shows his love for family. When his youngest son Boyito became the Dutch figure skating team’s golden boy, he started travelling around Europe to attend as many international competitions he could afford. “It was very hard paying flights and hotel every time. But I didn’t want to stop supporting my son.”
A TV programme inspired Berto to join a network of people aimed at sharing accommodation for free by selecting hosts and guests simply by looking at their profile on a website, which was destined to become massively popular some years later: CouchSurfing.
Although the Army failed to familiarize Berto with military discipline, something important happened anyhow during that year. “A night I went to a show of Filipino folk dancers.” His future wife was one of the dancers. He gladly remembers: “I met Ligaya there, and then we spent six months keeping in touch with many letters and some phone calls. Without Skype it’s difficult, you know?”
At the moment, Berto spends most of his free time meeting, talking to, and helping people. “He’s interested in people, that’s it!” explains Ligaya. Without using Facebook or Twitter, Berto finds other ways to satisfy this social addiction. Apart from attending the CouchSurfers meetings, he helps the war refugees when they most need local people’s cooperation: “the Government sends them letters and documents in Dutch, I just translate it for them.”
As you may have noticed at this stage, it is not hard becoming a Berto’s friend: “I usually help them in finding a house and buying the furniture at Ikea or Mamamini. We often become friends and start hanging out together. I just do what I expect other people would do for me if I have to go somewhere else in the case there is a war in my country”.
Despite Berto’s aptitude for getting familiar with people coming from abroad, he has never thought about leaving his hometown, Groningen. “I couldn’t live too long away from this city. Everything it’s close, life is so beautiful here.”
When Berto gets home, after a long day of work and social life, he enjoys the meals cooked by his wife. What’s next? “I lie down on the sofa and then I close my eyes. I don’t like neither reading books or watching any sport on TV.” No people, no fun.