Friday, October 15, 2010

Jersey: Light and shadow

Yesterday I went to Jersey to visit donors (including the Jersey government) both to thank them for their generous support and sketch out our future lines of work.

It was a cool grey day that did not exhibit Jersey's charms to greatest effect but one of its features was delightful: people's helpfulness. No sooner had you paused, map in hand, looking lost than a 'local' appeared to show you the way, with unflagging courtesy (and 'local' meant here anyone who lived there, often, clearly by accent, not always an indigenous islander).

It exhibited one of the looked for features in a contained community - the sense of knowing one another leading to certain courtesies and disciplines of living together - that 'oil the wheels'. The good side of parochial. The bad side was presented by our talkative taxi driver (from the airport) with his insinuations of 'dodgy real estate deals' 'brown paper envelopes' and 'who you know'. That sense of incestuous gossip in a community and of imagined or real slights and minor injustices.

I was reminded of Macedonia. On arrival marveling at the fear free streets of a sizeable capital, of the young woman in the exchange office with no screen between her and her customers and once an open safe; and, of people's unflagging willingness to be kind to strangers. But this went side by side with darker currents: a fundamental lack of trust, a suspicious probing of motive, of a continuous torrent of gossip and the peculiar practice of envy.

This last quality was much in evidence in my first apartment. It was the only privately owned apartment in the block. Its owner a moderately successful businessman, making furniture, employing 12-15 people. The apartment (though not me) was held responsible for all that went wrong in the building in a way that was both irrational and magical. One day I opened my door to a man yelling 'voda, voda' (water) at me. He had a leak in his apartment and mine was its source. I patiently showed him round so he could see that there were no leaks. It was only when he was entering the lift, shaking his head unconvinced that I realized that he lived above me!

Envy is a powerfully distorting green eyed monster.

For every moment in Macedonia you imagined the benefits of close knit communities - of familial ties and shared lives - you would stumble upon the reality of some painful human frailty.

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