Monday, October 13, 2008

A Memory

I was living as a student in Vienna a few years back, and there are lots of Turkish immigrants there. I love the Viennese, but I must say that their attitude toward immigrants is often not very friendly- I'm reminded of the very aggressive attitudes we see in the states, toward whatever group is believed to be threatening jobs or security or whatever we value.

Anyway, I remember being told that in Europe, people don't get involved in charity or volunteerism nearly as much as they do in the states. I was taught that the reason for this was the socialization of medical care, etc.; people believe that the government is going to take care of citizens. Fair enough. But I noticed that every single day, I passed the same very old, very frail Turkish woman, sitting with her legs stretched out. She looked as though she would not be able to walk, perhaps not even stand. She always wore all black, even a black shawl over her head.

As winter approached, I noticed that she was shivering. I couldn't believe that this woman would CHOOSE to live a life where she sat all day and night on a sidewalk, freezing, with one hand extended, if she had any other options. So finally, feeling guilty that I hadn't taken more notice of this "fixture" of my daily walk, I bought some rolls at the grocery and put them on her lap. I will never forget that moment, because it felt frozen to me. Everyone on the street who was in the immediate area, looked at me. The woman stopped shaking when she felt the bag in her hands. I walked away quickly because I could tell that I had done something that was NOT the cultural norm. I didn't want to draw more attention to myself. I hated feeling embarrassed for something that I knew, in my heart, was the decent thing to do.

I'm sad to say that I stopped walking that way after my experience that night. Maybe I was afraid of the glares I'd received, or afraid that I'd discover that she had been a sham. I want to believe that what I did made some difference to her, if only for a night. And I wish that we could have an attitude of compassion and love, no matter what country we are in, no matter where the person we're giving to is from, and no matter what we expect of someone higher up than us. There will always be people who fall through society's cracks, and if you and I can't do something for them, WHO WILL??