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14 Feb 13

The Unbearable Lightness of Kindness

Eleonora Veninova

People in the region are considered very kind – but why, I wonder?

According to a widespread belief, advocated by foreigners who have lived or visited the region, the hospitability, warmness and generosity of Balkan people is unsurpassed in Europe and is an excellent recommendation for this otherwise troublesome, poor and war-ridden region.  

Seeing the everyday battles of political parties, interest groups, countries and peoples of the Balkans, between themselves and within themselves, I often find myself in opposition of this claim.

But then I realize that people are truly kind and giving in Macedonia and in the neighboring countries, considering what they earn and how they live.

The real question is, how can they afford to be so kind in systems that are so economically, socially and politically cruel towards them.

The answer lies somewhere in the question itself: they are kind at the cost of the system.
Before moving to live in Ethiopia, I had to undergo some medical treatments and vaccinations that are recommended when traveling to most African countries. It turned out that if I did all the procedures that were recommended (but not required), I would have to pay over 600 euro.

After reasoning with a doctor at one of the state clinics, I asked her to do only the required procedures, but not the recommended ones, calling upon my good health. The doctor looked at me with scolding eyes, gave me a lesson about malaria, yellow fever, typhus and other deadly diseases, but respected my decision.

She sent me out of her office with the words that, “You young people don’t take your health seriously, and when you’re old, you’d wish you had,” and asked me to come the next day, during the break.

When I came the next day, there was no one else in the office. When she saw me, she hurriedly started performing all the procedures she recommended, in the end asking me to pay only for the required ones.

“Are you allowed to do this?” I asked, naively. She answered that the equipment was already there, the medications were going to expire soon, and they’d have to throw them away, so it was better to put them to use.

I left the clinic with a mix of elevated belief in humanity and a sense of guilt. The doctor had showed me a level of kindness and understanding that’s sometimes difficult to get from people you know, let alone strangers.

This is not an isolated case. A friend recounted a similar story in a town in Macedonia. She went with couple of friends to watch a play in a theater in the town, where the tickets cost around 1.5 euro.

When the man at the ticket office realized that they had come to his small town from the capital, Skopje, specifically to watch the play, he was so happy about their enthusiasm that he did not want to charge them. Feeling perhaps the same sense of guilt that I did, they insisted on paying something. In the end they bargained with him into letting them pay half price.

What’s common in these two cases and many others is that people exercise incredible kindness and willingness to help, especially when they do it at the cost of the institution or public body they work for.

It’s probably a relic from the old socialist system, when everything that was state-owned and public and actually belonged to the people for their own use and the benefit of others.

Another example illustrates this. A couple of months ago the police charged several citizens in southwestern Macedonia with stealing traffic signs. But that’s not the news. The news is that the citizens used the signs for grilling peppers, since they’d concluded that traffic signs are excellent for this culinary process that marks the first step in preparing the famous dish, ajvar.

I truly believe that the traffic sign thieves were telling the truth. In their understanding, the signs were public goods, to be used by the wider public outside of their conventional usage.

I don’t think that all the good deeds by Balkan people are done at the cost of others. People can be very polite and helpful without expecting something in return. However, in a system that’s not fully functional and does constant injustice to its citizens, it’s tempting not to be polite at someone else’s cost.

Eleonora Veninova is alumni of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. The programme is initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.

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