On my way back from the doc’s this morning, I took the long way around so that I could go by Amber’s, the fab new French bakery on Fővám tér. I’m addicted to their almond croissants. For the last few mornings, as a reward for withstanding the discomfort of having daily infusions, I’ve rewarded myself with one, a sort of adult lollipop. It’s the least I deserve. [I score the nurses’ injecting skills by the degree of pain I feel, with 10 being barely anything and 1 being bloody sore. Wednesday and Thursday were 10s. Friday was a 2 – it didn’t work in one arm so we had to go with the other. And this morning was a 3. Same injection needed, four different nurses, four different scores. The mind boggles. Painless injection is a much underrated skill.]
Anyway, while on the tram, an elderly man stood beside me. He was in his late 70s (which, by my nonagenarian dad’s reckoning is still young). I made to get up, asking him if he’d like my seat. Thanks, but no. Then he said something to me that sounded very much like he was asking me for money to buy bread. I thought something had gotten lost in translation. He was well-dressed. Nicely turned out, wearing a good, if worn, leather coat, and shoes that shone from lots of care and attention. His hands were clean and he’d recently shaved. Surely he couldn’t be asking me for money? I’d been caught before and didn’t want to make the same mistake again.
A while back, I spotted what I thought was an elderly gent down on his luck standing, cup in hand, at the bottom of the steps at Blaha Lujza tér metro. I passed him by, walked up the steps, thought again, and walked back down to give him money. As I reached out to put the note in his cup, he lifted it to his mouth and drank from it. I was mortified. But he had a sense of humour, thankfully. So this time, rather than ask this gent to repeat himself slowly, I smiled blankly. He turned questioningly to the woman sitting opposite me, who shook her head. He thanked us and moved on.
We sat, both of us in shock. I told her I didn’t speak much Hungarian and asked her what he’d said. She repeated it more slowly. And yes, he had asked for money. I watched him as he made his way up the tram, stopping by each passenger and spinning his spiel. The replies he got alternated between smiles, frowns, brush-offs, shakes of the head, and angry words. But no money. Everyone was judging him. Perhaps they were upset that he’d asked them, putting them on the spot. Perhaps they were embarrassed that he’d had to ask in the first place. Perhaps they were dismissing him as a chancer. But a man of his age, with more dignity in his little finger than many of his fellow passengers could lay claim to? I wondered.
My conscience got the better of me. I went after him and pressed a note into his hand. My travelling companion passed me money to give to him, too. He thanked us again.
Somewhat numbed by the experience, I looked around and saw that the naysayers were now shaking their heads at me as if to say – You idiot. You fool. You stupid foreigner.
And yes, perhaps he is laughing all the way to the bakery, and if so, I hope he enjoys his croissants. But maybe, just maybe, the man was in real need; then the money we gave him might just make a difference. It’s a miserable, wet, cold, day, a day made for hot soup. Perhaps that’s all he needed.
I was reminded of Tolstoy’s story Where love is, God is. And the story of Baucis and Philemon in Greek mythology. Perhaps I’m being rather fanciful, but then, that’s nothing new. I wonder, though, how much better the world might be if we learned not to judge, but to trust that another person’s need is real. Suitably chastened, infusions done, my croissant spate over, I’m grateful for the lessons that keep on coming and for occasionally remembering to pay attention and listen.