On the Kindness of Strangers


The other night while admiring the holiday decorations in the main square, a man came up to us holding a camera bag. He thought we had dropped it and was seeking to return it. I thanked him for his efforts because while it didn’t belong to us, the guy was clearly trying to do the right thing.

While filming my documentary, and through my personal experiences over the years, I’ve noted that the primary complaint most Romanians have is about other Romanians. Obviously there are the legitimate complaints about corruption and poor governance, but I hear a lot of bitter acrimony towards their fellow, “ordinary” Romanian neighbors.

All this is really strange to me because generally speaking (and of course, there are going to be exceptions) Romanians are very trusting, kind and generous. A lot of times you don’t see this until you have a personal relationship with someone – and then the generosity can be astounding – but I am talking today of how Romanians treat total strangers.

Some of this is obviously colored by the fact that I am a foreigner. I realize that. But other examples, like the guy trying to return someone’s dropped camera bag, have no bearing on my nationality or native language. I cast my mind back to think of all of the examples of Romanians being generous to people they did not know and realized there was an entire article’s worth of material.

I’ve also divided this list into two categories: “generous” and “trusting”. Please keep in mind I am talking about interactions solely with people who are complete strangers and didn’t know me in any way.

Generous

  • Directions– Back especially in the days when I hadn’t traveled so much, I used to ask people for directions all the time. I literally cannot count how many times people would not only tell me where something was but actually walk/accompany me there. Although people outside of Bucharest never want to believe this story, it is nonetheless true.

    Years ago I had a blind date set up and I had to get to Piata Romana to meet her. I was in Piata Unirii and wasn’t sure which side of the enormous square had the correct subway station. I stopped a group of 3 young people and not only did they explain where I should go but accompanied me all the way there. We chatted and got along so well that they invited me to where they were going. They waited with me until the woman showed up. And when she suggested we go to X bar, I countered with the idea that we should remain with the group who had just befriended me – and so we did. And a good time was had by all.

  • Returned property – I’ve dropped things or set things down and had them returned to me dozens and dozens and dozens of times. I’ve left my mobile phone behind in bars and in taxis and had them returned. I’ve lost my keys and had them returned. I’ve dropped coins, bank notes and even my wallet once and had it all returned to me.
  • Volunteers – I’ve worked (briefly) with some non-profit organizations here and I know many people who do this on a full-time basis. There are thousands of ordinary Romanians right here in this city alone who volunteer, doing everything from nursing infants to helping sick people to caring for the elderly to visiting people in prison to building homes for the disadvantaged. There are a lot of people volunteering their time to help someone and they are all doing it completely without pay or recompense. It’s amazing. For one specific example of how tens of thousands of Romania volunteered, see my story here.
  • Taxi drivers – Yes there are occasionally surly, rude or fraudulent drivers but generally speaking I have never met such a collection of friendly, helpful and informative people. I have not only chatted and joked with them and heard wonderful stories but gotten useful information and excellent practical advice from them on every subject imaginable. This includes the entire spectrum from when I spoke only English to the time when I sounded “like a Hungarian” to my current state of fluency in Romanian.
  • Government officials – Yes of course I’ve met the rude, surly and unfriendly sort. But I’ve had many, many positive experiences from local clerks, postal employees, police officers (yep!), bus ticket inspectors, border control agents (vama), people at the CEC, etcetera. Absolutely none of these people knew me or were required to be friendly or helpful and yet they were.
  • Gypsies – Uh oh! Yes I know many Romanians loathe gypsies and that’s fine. I have no urge to emulate their behavior or lifestyle. But I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of interactions with them and they’ve almost universally treated me well. I’ve gotten useful advice and information from them and yes I’ve even received things from them, which is the complete opposite of the way most Romanians interface with them (either giving them money or else cursing them out). I also could never have learned Romanian without their help.

    A true example – when the ProTV crew was filming me in November, they watched me strike up a conversation with a group of gypsies here in town. About an hour later we took a break to drink a coffee and a moment later the same group of gypsies came into the coffee shop so I went over and talked to them. Just to prove my point, I said to Alex Dima (the ProTV producer guy), “Watch this.” And I went over to the gypsies and asked for (and received) a cigarette from them just to prove it could be done. He was completely nonplussed of course.

  • Transportation– I’ve spent time with a lot of total strangers while traveling inside of Romania, including on my beloved train as well as buses and other things. I’ve had great conversations, lots of laughs, heard amazing stories, shared food, drank beer (and tuica), listened to music, danced and had a ton of fun and many good times with total strangers. I’ve even ridden in taxis with strangers on occasion. And every once in a while we got along so well that we exchanged contact information and formed a longer term friendship.And just so it’s clear, I’ve been everywhere from tiny villages to Bucharest, from Oradea to Botosani and there’s no difference between region or the size of the city. I’ve had good times everywhere.
  • Free food and drinks– I’m something of a “whore” when it comes to free food and drinks and, as you saw on the ProTV piece, it seems like total strangers are constantly giving these to me and I accept them all enthusiastically and gratefully. The food here is wonderful and so are the drinks. I literally cannot tabulate all of the times I’ve gotten to share food and drink with total strangers here in Romania, including both when I was obviously a foreigner and spoke English to modern times when I speak the language.
    My all-time favorite example of this happened a few years ago. I lost my wallet in the early evening and was completely without money. I walked into a bar, sat down, told the people nearby what happened and how stressed I was and asked them if they would buy me a drink because I really could use one. We all had a wonderful time and I was warm and toasty on the inside even if I was still dead broke :)
  • Service – Yes, it’s still quite typical for a lot of workers to be surly, cold or unresponsive. But long before I appeared on TV I was having chats, sharing jokes and receiving great service from the people at the corner stores, restaurants, banks (yep!), malls and just about everywhere else I go, including the awesome piata (food market). It’s none of that fakey, jokey American style of smiling because it’s required but genuine, authentic interactions with ordinary, “normal” people in the course of both of us conducting ordinary business. I now consider my vets to be personal friends and it’s all because of how warmly they welcomed me years ago when I first showed up as an ordinary customer.
  • Elderly and infirm – I’m in good health, thank goodness, but I see a lot of elderly and/or infirm people out and about in town. And I’ve seen thousands of examples of total strangers helping them. For a supposedly “hostile” society people sure do go to great lengths to helping out the elderly and/or infirm, whether it’s offering them a seat on the bus, holding doors, carrying their packages/bags, helping them cross the street or else giving them a little money.

Trusting

Even more than individual acts of generosity, Romanians tend to be almost shockingly trusting, especially compared to where I came from. This is a result of a society that is far less violent and antagonistic than America.

  • Here, watch my baby for a minute – I’ve actually had people who had to dash out to the car or run a quick errand ask me, a total stranger, to watch their toddler or young children for a couple of minutes.
  • Midnight children – I cannot even count the number of times I’ve stumbled home in the small hours of the night only to see very young people (12-14 years old) walking along all by themselves, in no danger or stress. They’re just bopping along, going wherever they’re going. I can’t say I’ve ever seen this in my entire life in America except perhaps in the very poorest of inner city ghettos.
  • Daddy’s beer – I’ve also seen very young children (in the daytime) lugging home enormous 2-liter bottles of beer. I’ve also been in the store when they purchased these and other items (like cigarettes), which is possible because the store clerk knows their family and knows that they’re just running an errand for the adult in the house.
  • The kiosk – A lot of products are sold from the windows of sidewalk kiosks and it never fails to amaze me that no matter the hour (it could be 3am), you ask for something and they put it in the window in your grasp before you pay for it. It would be simple to snatch the items and run off into the night but no, it never quite seems to happen.
  • Buses and Trains – Both of these systems work on a concept that is incredibly trusting – you get on board before you have to show your ticket to anyone. And while yes, some people abuse this, over the years I’ve witnessed people undergoing hard times who explained to the inspector why they couldn’t buy a ticket and then gotten a pass. On most buses, most people pay to ride even though the chances of getting caught are very slim, and it’s largely based on the honor system, which amazes me on a daily basis.
  • Taxis– Let’s face it, Romanians take a lot of taxi rides and it’s incredible how successful that system is, especially considering that 1) you don’t pay until after you get where you’re going and 2) everyone knows that the driver is carrying around a lot of cash. And yet robberies and instances of people running off without paying are virtually non-existent. I’ve even met my fair share of female taxi drivers, including some who work at nighttime. It’s awesome.
    As an addendum, I should add here that I myself have ridden in taxis when I was incredibly drunk and nearly comatose and yet no taxi driver has ever made a move to liberate me of my cash either.
  • Store robberies – When I first moved to Romania there was a grocery store near to my apartment that I was always afraid to shop in. Why? Because the cash register was about 1 meter from the door and I was continually afraid that the place was going to get robbed. Now I’m used to this level of trust and yet it still amazes me (in a good way) just how few businesses are ever robbed at all. Thieves might break in at night and steal goods but threatening customers with a weapon and taking the money is rarer than demon possession in this country.
  • Money handling – Years ago some American friends of mine came to visit me and my one friend palmed me a $100 bill to go convert into lei. He didn’t realize that people wave money around all the time here without any problem whatsoever. People walk away from banks and currency exchange windows with huge wads of cash, people fan through their wallets, people count, sort, stack and handle money here in plain sight with nary a problem. I’ve even seen workers in a bank using dolly carts to wheel around bricks of cash right in the lobby, all without anybody worrying or stressing. Try “flashing” cash in America and see how long it remains in your possession!
  • Weapons – There’s a cop who lives in my bloc and I’ve known him for years. He doesn’t carry a weapon (on duty or off) and except for a few (other) officers, I can’t think of a single person I know who carries a weapon of any sort. Here in Romania you just don’t need it. You don’t need a gun, you don’t need a knife and you don’t need other weapons such as tasers or mace or anything else. I’ve certainly been in almost every major Romanian city, including Bucharest, and been in the “bad” parts of town and never had the slightest need for a weapon of any sort. The only time I was ever attacked was by some people who knew me and while I won’t go into the details here, I kind of deserved it ;)
  • Single women – Probably the greatest indicator of the state of a society is how many women you see walking around unaccompanied. You might remember my story a weeks ago but if you grew up here you might be shocked just how rare it is in other societies to see young (often very attractive) women walking around, safely, in all conditions and at all hours of the day and night.
  • Eat now, pay later – With the sole exception of McDonald’s (and other American imported franchises, such as Burger King, etc) there is not a single restaurant of Romanian origin that I’ve ever eaten in that demands payment up front. Again this seems “normal” to people who grew up here but I come from a land where most people pay before they eat, not after. I’ve sat at large tables where we’ve consumed millions and millions of lei worth of food and drinks and never once were troubled about paying upfront.
    Likewise, I’ve been in many, many bars where we’ve consumed our drinks, adding up to very large amounts, and didn’t pay until we were ready to leave. Back where I come from you either pay for drinks as you receive them or else you leave your credit card at the bar to “secure” the tab.
  • The check – Still to this day whenever you go out to a bar or restaurant, there is a curiously trusting phenomenon. You call for the check (nota de plata) and the waitress brings it over, tucked inside a little “folder”. You’re then trusted to put the money in the folder. You then gather your belongings, say la revedere and head out the door. It would be incredibly easy to not put any money in the folder and just walk out as the wait staff almost never check – and yet people seemingly never do this.

I could go on with a million more examples but these will suffice I think. Obviously there are people who do bad things here, who rob, steal and defraud others. I’ve clearly dealt with rude, surly and inhospitable people. But my point here is that, generally speaking, Romanians treat total strangers incredibly well most of the time. And that goes for both when they think you’re a foreigner and when they think you’re a fellow Romanian.

Just today I had to make a number of purchases in town and received nothing but the best treatment. I think one person recognized me but the others did not (I don’t think) and yet they were nice, chatting with me and treating me extremely well. Likewise, I saw an elderly lady being helped out of the store and I saw a blind man (with his guiding stick) crossing the street with ease, people leaving him a clear path to go on about his way.

Perhaps I should dig into my “archives” and tell you about some of my experiences in America and elsewhere, if only to help contrast this amazing country with other societies, for the benefit of my readers who grew up here and don’t quite grasp just what a generous, peaceful and trusting country this really is.

Since I didn’t really know anyone when I moved here, I literally depended on the kindness of strangers and you see how well that turned out :)