“My grandfather was an engineer and my grandmother was a geography teacher.”
I said that they must have had a good life since they lived in a small town outside of Krakow all their lives and they both had good jobs.
“Well,” Constanza said. “They were raised in Communism because that’s how it was in Poland back then.”
I had to admit that I didn’t know for sure what that meant. Harsher laws? No paycheck? Being forced to fly a flag that didn’t belong to the country you grew up in?
Constanza was a volunteer with the same organization that helps Ukrainian refugees that I have volunteered with for the past three weeks in Krakow, Poland. Her mother was from this small town about an hour from here; her maternal grandparents still live there.
She explained. “There was money during communism, but it had no value.”
I asked what had value.
“Cigarettes, alcohol and sugar.”
Sugar? I imagined cookies as currency. Sounds sweet, but would probably get annoying after a while… you know, all those crumbs.
“I want to see this small town.” I said.
“No. You will hate it. There is nothing to see there.”
I asked her what people did there.
“They grow potatoes.”
So it’s a farming community?
“No. That would make it too interesting.”
I laughed at her scowl.
She is from Italy but lives in France with her parents and after a summer in Poland, she will go to college in Spain.
This woman is on the go.
“Take a photo for my father so he can show it to all of his friends.”
I took several photos and told her that if she were my daughter, I would be proud of her too, for staying in "The most boring place on earth" so she might drive two hours a day to volunteer with refugees.
I told her that I just met her, but I was proud of her for showing up and doing the work.
She smiled and continued hanging girls’ coats on small hangers.
I decided to work with the restocking team today.
One of the floor managers would let us know what was needed in what department, such as: “Men’s Large Trousers.” I would get a box packed with men’s large trousers, hang each pair of pants on a hanger, then find the correct rack in the Free Shop to hang them.
Putting the clothes out could be a challenge. Most of the time everything was calm and the shoppers showed excitement over finding the perfect clothes. But other times the beneficiaries might rush you when you had new clothes and grab for what they wanted. It could get uncomfortable. It could get aggressive.
Especially in the women’s department.
I was pretty sure I could handle it since I’m older than many of the volunteers and wasn’t afraid to stand up to anyone who might be aggressive.
I carried out an armload of women’s small, short-sleeved shirts and was swarmed by twenty women. It was as if I was waving candy bars around hungry children. The beneficiaries grabbed at the clothes. They pushed each other to get closer to the clothes. One pushed me. Another tried to pull something out of my hands.
The biggest concern is for everyone’s safety, of course. But we also worry about people keeping their dignity. Most people carry their stresses with them. We want to keep all situations free from confrontation.
“No.” I said in a loud voice. “Back off.” I could only hope that they would understand my tone.
One woman kept grabbing at an off-the-shoulder t-shirt with sequins. Another pulled at that same shirt.
I turned around, walked back across the shop to the restock area and hung the clothes on a rack, away from the crowds.
Micha rushed up to me. “Are you okay?”
She heard me raise my voice.
“Everything is fine. I’m going to hold clothes here for a while.”
“Good.” She said. She went over to the women to let them know in a soft and compassionate voice that there wouldn’t be any clothing restocked for a while, but that there were plenty of clothes on the racks for them to consider.
Most of the women headed for the checkout, which was only fair. There was a line of people waiting outside in the heat of this 95 degree day waiting to get in.
Later when it was time to restock, two of the difficult women were still standing next to the rack. They knew those clothes would come out sooner or later.
Constanza said she would carry the clothes out for me. She picked up a bundle of clothes and held them steady so the hangers stayed aligned and would easily hang on the rack when she got there.
I walked with her.
Sometimes it helps to have two people delivering clothes.
Twenty women swarmed, but they stood around her and watched as she hung the clothing and backed away. There was a pause before the woman reached for the clothing.
We walked back to the restocking area.
“They didn’t grab at you?” I said.
Did they give her room because she was European?
This morning on my walk from the tram to the shop, two women stopped me. The older one said something.
Sorry. I only speak English.
She stood in front of me and looked deeply into my eyes.
What did she want?
I took out my phone and turned on the translate program. The woman repeated her phrase.
Oops. My translation program was set to Polish. I switched it to Ukrainian and tried again.
The woman spoke into my phone. She looked sad and stressed.
Was she lost?
For some reason, for the first time in the history of the world, the translation program wouldn’t work.
Sigh. I turned the program off and turned it on again.
The woman started to cry. The younger woman stepped in and said something.
The program wouldn’t work.
Now I wanted to cry.
A Polish woman walked up and said maybe she could help. She spoke to the women then translated for me.
The older woman said she had just arrived from the Ukraine and had never seen someone who looked like me and wondered where I was from.
I smiled and said I was from New York. America.
The women each touched my shoulder and walked on.
I continued hanging women’s long sleeved shirts onto hangers and though I didn’t ask for help, Constanza carried them onto the floor and restocked them for me.
Nobody rushed to grab clothes out of her hands.
Sure, there are things I am good at but some times a woman needs a little help.
The volunteers who are drawn to work with the neediest populations from the worst circumstances are mostly the kind of people I love spending time with. I have never met a kinder or more flexible group of people willing to gift their time and attention.
There is no competition. There is no arguing. There is no shirking out of work. We all have a common goal here:
(No. I didn't yell "Tequila!" Nobody did. )
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