Thursday, June 30, 2011

Deep in debt

The burden of debt weighs heavily on my conscience. As I write this, I am on a train, rolling through Poland. We stopped for about 45 minutes just outside of Warsaw in order to reconfigure the train, splitting off Amsterdam-bound cars and switching to an electric engine. I got off the train to stretch my legs, hoping to buy a bottle of water at the same time. I did get my walk, but I piled up an inordinate amount of social debt.

First I decided to visit a real restroom. Seeing an attendant, I asked her in Russian if I should pay a fee. She waved me inside and said something in Polish. As I stood there, I played back what she said and finally understood that she wanted money and the number fifty was involved. Sure enough, I saw a sign near the sink advising that the fee was 2.50 Zlotys. I had no idea the value of a Zloty, but I offered her a 5,000 ruble note, which would get me five trips to the toilet in Minsk. She had no use for this strange bank note and gave it back to me. Checking the exchange-rate app on my phone, I learned that 2.50 Zlotys is indeed about 5,000 rubles but I didn’t go back because she didn’t want that money and the incremental cost of my toilet usage couldn’t be much more than zero anyway. (Sorry to all my Belarusian readers. That sentence was hard, wasn’t it? I used to be an economist.)

Instead, I went over to the guy selling bottled water in the tunnel underneath the train platforms. I asked him if he spoke Russian or English, and he teased me in Polish about how I should really learn his language. I understood enough to follow, and we continued to negotiate in our respective languages. He didn’t want any amount of Belarus rubles, but he pointed out the lady on the other side of the tunnel and said that she’s from Ukraine. I didn’t really think a translator was going to be much help since he clearly had no way to get rid of my money. (Actually, it’s really hard for anybody anywhere to get rid of Belarus rubles. You can buy all you want, but heaven help you if you buy too many of them.) Anyway, I went over and spoke to the Ukrainian lady.

She had a little table beside her, displaying underwear and other small items for sale. Like her Polish neighbor, she refused my Belarus rubles, but she fished in her pocket and counted out a stack of coins, which she handed to me. Grateful, I gave the coins to the other merchant, who gave me a bottle of water. At this moment my conscience finally awoke. I could have bought a bottle of water from the conductor for 5,000 rubles, so why had I accepted this charity? I tried to press some money into the lady’s hand, but she refused, pointing out that she can’t do anything with my money and she knows how difficult travel can be.

The really touching thing is that I’m pretty sure she knew I didn’t really need her charity. She just saw an opportunity to help me out and she did it. Actually, maybe I did need her charity. The result of this kind act is that I feel a very urgent compulsion to “pay it forward,” that is to reflect her kindness in other situations I might have overlooked otherwise. OK, Prague, here I come.

1 comment:

  1. Love and kindness go around and you received the fruit of the seeds you spill before.

    Alla

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