In this quarter of the year I have seen a number of pieces of journalism about kindness, its power, and whether we as Australians have enough of it. At the same time I saw an article in The Age about the kindness of some Roman policemen that seemed to touch the hearts of many. An elderly couple, both in their late 80’s, had been heard crying in their apartment in Rome, the police had been called by neighbours, and when asked what was wrong the couple had told them that they were lonely, and a bit frightened by events they saw on their nightly news. The policemen’s response? They made the elderly couple a bowl of pasta each, with burro e parmigiano, and sat talking with them awhile.
I got to thinking about kindness and whether it was a cultural value or a human value. Were some societies kinder than others, or did they value it higher?
The actions of the police did not surprise me at all. It illustrated what I have always felt about Italians, and experienced living in Italy, they have what I call a ‘human first’ approach to life. That is, above everything I am first a human in their eyes. I may also be a customer, a tax payer, a recipient of a service, a citizen with rights and obligations, a patient, a competitor, a tourist, a student, a stranger, a passenger, a worker, a bank account holder, a voter. But before all of these things I am a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a wife, a husband, and a human. This means I am responded to first, as one of these categories, before any of the others. This has its advantages and its disadvantages.
I remember one time when I had been living in Rome less than a year and the gas rings on my stove top didn’t work anymore. My Irish flatmate and I did not speak much Italian but we were sure that the phone number on our gas bill was where you reported any problems with your gas supply. We were surprised when we were told that someone would be out to check within half an hour. Services did not usually respond that quickly. We were even more surprised when twenty minutes later we opened the door to four men wearing gas masks attached to oxygen tanks, full protective clothing, and carrying machinery and pipes.
Instead of being angry that we had called the National Emergency Services because we couldn’t cook our pasta, they kindly took off their protective gear, and fixed our gas faucets for free.
Last month when I returned to Rome for a visit, rather than take a taxi to my apartment from the train station with my luggage, I wanted to walk through the quartier and savour my return. As I dragged my huge suitcase over cobble stones, cracked pavements and between parked cars, picking my way slowly to my old apartment I was both sweating and crying at the same time, overcome with joy at being back.
Are you OK Signora? I got asked every 10 metres. Are you lost? Do you need help?
No, no thanks, I kept replying, I’m at home, I’m OK, thank you.
I remembered another time, exasperated with frustration, when I demanded to know from our local Roman bus driver why the bus was always twenty minutes late, and why two of the same number bus always arrived together every forty minutes instead of one every twenty minutes. He told me that they didn’t want to leave the other one alone at the bus depot.
I remember the conversations I have with some Australians about how 20,000 refugees a year arriving in Australia seem to be too many for them. While Italy receives 100,000 a year in a country the size of Victoria, and with three times our population, without locking them in prison or deporting them. It’s the human first principle at work again, to one countries demise we might surmise, given Italy’s economic crisis. But to the overall improvement of global kindness as a cultural value we hope.