Food for Thought

January 16, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Posted in Bun, Me, Transylvania | 14 Comments
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It took us 20 minutes to get out the door — unfold the stroller, find the lost mitten, refill the sippy cup, extract the blanket from the baby, go back for the charging cell phone — but Bun and I went for a walk last week.

It started to snow as we shuffled up the hill. Round, lacy flakes settled on the top of Bun’s boots like doilies on an armchair. Just enough fell to cover the icy, slushy muck piled on the edges of the road. We navigated past buses, taxis, and magazine stands, taking a left and a right and another left with only a vague idea of where we were headed.

But eventually, we found it, a little orange shack nestled close to the university dorms off Strada Republicii. Imprimante, the sign said. Through the open door, I could see copy machines lining every wall, purring happily as they spit hot toner fumes into the air.

I pulled out my USB stick and handed it to the guy inside the shop. He popped it into his computer, punched a couple of buttons, and sent my 200-page file whirring through one of the machines onto perfectly white double-sided A4 sheets.

We both stepped outside to wait. I distractedly entertained Bun and wondered if I had enough cash to cover my project. How much did copies cost in Romania anyway? The guy stood on the other side of the mat and lit up a cigarette.

While I furtively glanced around for a price list and tried to shield Bun from the secondhand smoke, a girl walked our way. She had on a hot pink jacket and a red knit hat. Her hands were tucked in her jean pockets, and her cheeks were rosy. I figured she was a student, just back from the holiday break, maybe about to cram for her physics exam.

She stopped at three large green dumpsters a few feet from us. I wondered if she had a juice bottle or a croissant wrapper from breakfast to throw away. Instead, she put her hands on the edge of one of the dumpsters and heaved herself into it. She tossed a couple of trash bags onto the sidewalk and jumped down beside them.

I turned away, shocked and a little revolted, as she ripped open the bags and began rummaging through them for something she could eat.

For 10 minutes or so, we stayed there. All four of us. Me staring fixedly at the yellow highlighters for sale on the back wall of the shop. Bun hollering for a rock from the sidewalk. The guy smoking his Marlboro Light. And the girl digging through the garbage. The oblivious copy machines hummed contentedly behind us.

Nobody said anything. The girl didn’t look at us. We didn’t look at her.

Eventually, my project finished and the guy stacked my papers and rang up my total: 21 lei. Seven bucks. For 200 copies. I marveled over how cheap it seemed and tucked the receipt into my wallet. Without really thinking, I grabbed some bills to give the girl and tugged the stroller through the gravel toward her.

Just around the corner was a little grocery store. A loaf of bread, bag of apples, and some chips would cost about three bucks. I knew because we often stopped there, my husband after the bus deposited him on our corner after work and me when I needed a pastry fix from the bakery inside.

The girl could easily buy food for a few days with what I would give her. But something stopped me.

Was it the warning a fellow expat had given me about Romanians and money, about the perceived mathematical and social gap between “rich” foreigners and “poor” locals? Was it my fear of making the girl feel ashamed? Was it my own embarrassment? Either way, I quietly stuffed the money into my glove and walked away.

Marshmallow-sized snowflakes continued to slink lazily down from the sky. The scent of freshly stacked reams of paper and the sound of wet, rustling plastic slowly faded as I pushed the stroller down the street, up the hill, and away from a kind of poverty I could no longer pretend didn’t exist.

What would you have done? What if you had been the girl? How do you reconcile social problems in your community with your own comfortable lifestyle?


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  1. Difficult decisions. Many families in Romania have had their salaries and pensions cut, yet the cost of food and other necessities is priced so high. My inlaws in Bucharest have a heating bill of more than 300 euros every month, yet their combined pensions are less than $250. How r they supposed to eat? Meet their other obligations? This past week there were uprisings in piati universitata due to this issue. When I arrived in Romania in 2002, 10 years ago, a loaf of bread was about 5,000 lei. Now that same loaf of bread has more than quadrupled in price. For the average Romanian this means scarfices and difficult decisions. The young lady decided to fund food, a basic neccessity. Cannot fault or judge her.

    Many times when I traveled throughout Romania, I would make bags of food to give away. I would buy pâté, bread, cascavsl, cucumbers what ever I had or could put together. That way if I saw someone in need, I did not give them money, I gave them food. Just a thought.

  2. Your female intuition kicked in and gave you the warning. You did the right thing and did not give her the money. I would of given her the money only if I was safe locked in a car with the baby and give to her thru the window crack.

  3. The hospital where I work is surrounded by poverty. I have done many things when faced with it (they come right up to your car when stopped at a light, tapping on the car window). I have looked at them kindly and said no behind my locked door. I have driven through a red light when a particularly creepy guy wouldn’t take no for an answer. I have given one older man the only cash I had on me (five dollars). I have given another a cold bottle of water and a granola bar that I was saving for a snack while working my shift.

    It’s very hard to know what to do. But when you are a woman, especially alone with a baby, safety has to be a priority. In the situation you were in, I THINK I would’ve gone to the store and bought those sandwich fixings, then returned and handed them to the girl, if she was still there. But I’m not sure…

  4. HI, first of all, I would like to say, I LOVE your writing! Once I started reading, I thought I was reading a short story. I didn’t realize it was literally your short story. You are wonderful with words and putting us at the scene. Well said!

    If you feel uncomfortable buying her food and taking it to her or handing her money, then I would definitely buy the food and hide it at the dumpster for them to stumble upon.

    There is a gas station near my children’s school that has a man sitting in front of the store everyday. He is homeless, but he will not speak to women. He lost his wife some years back, and just completely shut down. He will not take handouts from the store owner, but she hides him coffee, drinks, and food outside for him. Although, I am female, I took the chance of talking to him one day and he responded without looking at me. I went to McDonald’s and bought him a meal and returned with it and some money. He actually accepted it. I then brought him some clothes another day, as it was getting cool out and he was dirty. I also told him of a place that pays daily for physical labor jobs and suggested maybe he could sweep or rake or something that wasn’t too laborious. I’m not sure if he ever went though.

    Sometimes, we just have to outsmart them and figure out ways to make them comfortable receiving. We also had a man in town who pushed a grocery cart everywhere. Ambulance drivers have told us, he also lost his wife and if you tried to give him money, he would get angry. He had plenty of money, he just couldn’t bear life without her and strolled around all day, dirty. It is so sad to see people living like this. I have always wished I had the energy and the money to start another homeless shelter in town, with resources to help them return to a better way of living.

    I am not sure if the lady will return to the same dumpster, although she probably will. Even if she doesn’t, there will probably be others who are also hungry. I doubt any of them would refuse food from you. In case they do, or you worry about your safety, you could stop in the store from time to time and buy things to put there for them to find, or bring leftovers you haven’t eaten with disposable silverware, if you save uneaten food from the stove after cooking. Our fridge can sometimes become overloaded with leftovers. Some of them probably haven’t had a good home cooked meal in a while. A few dollars can go a long way sometimes. I hope I have been of some help. You seem like a wonderful person. God Bless You!

  5. I would like to say that I would have given her the money or bought her food. But I don’t think that would be completely honest. If it was just me, on foot (as in without the safety of a vehicle to drive away in), with my child, I probably would have walked away too. Though it’s unfair of me to assume this young girl could be dangerous, there is something about being in a vehicle that might make me braver.
    Maybe ask the Marlboro man if people frequent the dumpster? And if so, I like the previous comment about leaving some cash there for them to “find”.
    PS – Why are you printing out 200 pages… are you sriting a novel for us to read?

  6. That is a toughie! I have driven/walked by someone without even looking, or politely said “sorry, I have no money on me”. But I have also given loose change or up to $5. It depends on the situation, the person, my mood. I find it does feel good to do something like give money or food, but the fear of the unknown – especially on foot with a child – is too great sometimes. This was a great read, Stacia. I felt like I was right there with you! 🙂

  7. Generally what I do when I really feel that tug (I don’t always) is I buy the food and bring it back. I do not give money anymore, though sometimes it’s the “easy way out”. In the end it does not “help” most of the time, but it soothes our conscience.

  8. Social context and barriers are difficult. If I had felt that tug in my heart to give to her I would have. The worst that could have happened was that she would have declined, or thought you to be rude. Or she could have been extremely grateful at the gesture of kindness. If you feel that compelled to give in that moment, then go with it. It’s not every day that we feel that tug of compassion that leads to action.

  9. I don’t know what I would do. If there truly exists an awkwardness between the poor locals and the “rich” foreigners, I would be hesitant. Typically here though, I am often hounded by homeless – California has a nice(r) climate and tends to attract because sleeping on the streets is feasible. Hence, I often overlook them. There are a few though that catch my eye on my commute and they “work” by selling this newspaper for homeless people to make money. And I’ll just give the regulars a buck or two – but one time, at Christmas, I gave a guy a $10. Figured it was the time of year.

  10. Sometimes, our car has been approached by someone looking for a handout. I’ve offered food and been turned down. I’ve read on other blogs that people will keep bottles of water and granola bar-type snacks in their vehicle to offer. We support local charities who help the homeless, or those in need.

  11. This is tough. In the city, I pass by homeless people every day and I admit, I don’t give them anything because a) with so many of them, how do I decide who gets it and who doesn’t? b) I support my local charity so I do feel like I am contributing in some way.

    But all the same it’s hard to turn away from poverty with good conscience.

    Great post, btw.

  12. I have no idea what I would do. I want to think I’d offer to take her in the store, if I had enough guts to try to communicate. I would hesitate to shop and then give food to her — that seems like it could be taken wrong (i.e. “You don’t trust me with money.”). Tough, tough call.

  13. That’s a tough one. I’m not sure what I would have done. I think you probably made the right choice.

  14. Is it possible that she is a freegan? I saw a segment on Oprah featuring individuals who want to bypass consumer culture by doing things like dumpster diving. That’s doubtful and I didn’t suggest it to be snarky, but there’s always a chance. Living in a large city for a decade, I never quite figured out what my response was. It definitely wasn’t consistent. I bought the StreetWise newspaper from the guy outside my grocery store about every other trip (by the way, it was the same guy for at least six years) and would give change to people at exit ramps until my husband made me stop (while pregnant) for safety reasons. Such choices are no longer part of my daily life (though my husband says there are homeless people near the commuter train station). Our school/parish has a small food pantry and of late, I have tried to make a donation once a week when I pick my kids up from school. It’s not a huge contribution, but I feel like it’s something, and I’ve found it makes me more mindful while at the grocery store, thinking about what my family really needs and what I can put in the cart for others.

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