The other day I was walking home when a woman standing outside of my building stopped me and asked for help. She had a kind face that was toughened from what seemed to be a difficult life. She spoke to me in Hungarian asking for money or food, but then translated to the internationally understood hand signals for these essentials. I repeated, “No, sorry” and “Nem, bocsánat” and moved to walk past her and into my building. When people ask me for either, I never give cash directly, but if I have some food with me, I’m happy to share. Having none and thinking of the work I wanted to get done that afternoon I was about to continue on with my day.
She repeated that international sign for food, and then gestured to her belly. Only then I realized that she was quite pregnant, maybe five or six months. At that moment, I also pulled out my iPhone to stop the podcast I was enjoying. The two movements combined reminded and humbled me of my incredible luck in being born to a loving, wealthy (by world standards, not North American ones), Canadian family. I tucked away my iPhone and mustered my minor Hungarian to offer to buy some food for her at a nearby restaurant.
We walked together down the street. We continued to talk and negotiate in broken English and broken Hungarian, her “hús” (meat), “krumpli” (potatoes) and me “nem pénz” (in my poor Hungarian the words ‘no’ and ‘money’, though it should really be something like nincs pénz, but I’m learning). She shook her head at the Gyros place (fair enough), and we continued to the corner grocery store.
We walked into the grocery store. Already the staff somewhat know me as the anglophone who sets off the security alarm upon arrival about half the time I shop there (I still don’t know why, but it continues to be embarrassing). The woman, whose name I never got, led me directly to the frozen foods. She asked a staff person for something and he pointed her to a bag of frozen chicken. I took it, happy to pay for the chicken, but not both the chicken and potatoes. Then, we had another debate over the oil. It seemed fair to me to provide one item, but not two or three. In the end, after a lot of bad Hungarian back-and-forth’s and one confused but patient cashier, I purchased the bag of frozen chicken and one-half of the bottle of sunflower oil.
We parted ways as she packed the minimal groceries into a bag and I headed home. We parted ways in a bit of an awkward way, exchanging the casual ‘Szia’. I could tell she was disappointed that I didn’t purchase all the groceries she had wanted, and I was disappointed that she didn’t say ‘köszönöm’.
What started out as a potentially all around positive experience, which the exchange of do-gooding and groceries, ended with an almost uncomfortable parting. As I traced my steps back to my flat, I reflected on this strange experience.
At first, I was verging on offended as the woman showed little gratitude towards my generosity. She didn’t get everything she had asked for as we did our best to communicate on the way to the shop. Shouldn’t she be happy for the amount that I did provide her? Yet, there’s this unfair advantage that I have in life based a lot on luck and love, which allows me to decide how much generosity I feel is enough. How is it that I, a wealthy (again, but world standards, I wouldn’t call myself wealthy in most contexts), white, educated Canadian can determine how much this woman can ask of me, for these bare essentials. This woman has likely worked harder than I and likely suffered more than I could even imagine. In a way, perhaps she has earned the right to ask me to meat and potatoes, to ask me for help. I’ve had this help my whole life without ever thinking of asking for it.
I came away a little irked but the more I turned over why I felt that way, the more humbled and befuddled I became. I don’t have any answers, but all I do know is that I will strive to be compassionate. I can’t always be generous, and I don’t know what level or type of generosity is good, or bad, or hurting, or sly. I think it will be different every single time. But, if I interact with the world with compassion, then hopefully I can be better able to share what I have.