Nota Bene: The Organization and the Man

There’s an organization in Bratislava called “Nota Bene” from a Latin phrase which translates as “Pay Attention”.  Frankly, I never paid attention to this organization or the people who are the face of it.  Travelling in many cities in Europe, I noticed modestly dressed people outside churches or museums selling a magazine.  I barely looked at them.  “I’m in Rome, there’s a lot to do, why would I want to buy and read a magazine.”  I never considered stopping, questioning, learning why so many obviously poor people are selling magazines.  I ran to get into line at the Vatican, avoiding the persistently long wait for the Sistine Chapel.  I had more important concerns.  Curiosity flew thru my mind, but it never built a nest.

Since moving to Bratislava, I notice these people and this magazine everywhere.  My husband bought one, googled NotaBene and used google translate to read the web site.  He did his homework.  He learned that NotaBene is one example of a “street magazine”.  These magazines exist globally with the intention of enabling the homeless to work for a small wage.  The seller is licensed thru NotaBene.  He or she pays for the magazine, sells it at a profit, and keeps the extra money as income.  In Slovakia, the local government and businesses, as well as major global businesses (Microsoft, SAP, Orange), provide the necessary financial underwriting.  The homeless participate in article selection and production decisions.  The magazine is printed monthly.  In Bratislava the magazine sellers are ubiquitous but seldom beg.  They stand with the magazine in their hand on display.  If you chose to stop and buy one, they are thankful.

We decided we like the business model and would buy two magazines each week.  Over time, we buy almost exclusively from one seller near our home: the “Notabene man”.   He’s always on his corner; when it’s freezing cold, when it is raining, when it is dark.  It’s his job, and he works hard at it.   He knows us now.  Sometimes he takes our money and thumps on his chest just over his heart.  It says “thank you”.  Sometimes he puts his hand out and gestures “no”.  He then tosses us an orange or a Mozart ball.  On those days we smile and wave.  It is his turn to give.   During the Christmas holidays we gave him a gift bag with food and a bit of extra money.  It’s the type of gesture we would make with our newspaper provider at home.  We want to honor his hard work, but we don’t want to patronize him.  We don’t want to be the rich Americans stereotype but rather friends, clients, neighbors from whom he can depend for business.  

In the nature vs. nurture argument, I tend to be a nurture person.  I believe if I was raised in a poor Slovak town; I might not have a college degree, work for a multi-national corporation, own a warm bed, down jacket, adequate food.  I might sell Notabene magazines.  Perhaps I would have risen above my circumstances but in the Vegas betting circles, I would clearly be the long shot bet.   Financial stability would be far less assured than my firmly middle class American upbringing provided.

It’s been bitter cold in Bratislava for two weeks.  We worry about the NotaBene man.  We talk about him each night; where is he?, is he safe?, is he warm?.  It finally poked above -10 C degrees.  While still too cold for me to venture far, the Notabene man is back on his corner.  We give him a bit extra during this cold spell.  He missed a week of work.  This undoubtably diminishes his livelihood.  That said, the NotaBene man seems happy.  He has a network of friends who stop and chat with him.  He has a job which is honest and decent work.  He provides a service.  He laughs and talks and visits.  He expresses his thankfulness even with no common language in which to communicate it.

The NotaBene man humanizes the often impersonal issue of homeliness.  When he is absent for a period of time, we worry.  He has taught us to pay attention.


To learn more about NotaBene Slovakia  and the street magazine concept, visit their website.   (Hint: if you copy this link into google translate and select from Slovak to English, you can then open the link and read it in English):  Here’s a translated extract from the Website:

What is a street magazine?

  • A magazine sold to help the homeless or people in need or at risk of losing their home.
  • Distributed exclusively thru a network of licensed dealers.
  • Dealers buy a magazine for 70 euro cents and sell them for 1.40 Euro – keeping the profit.
  • Worldwide, there are 100 similar magazines in 40 countries.

Categories: Insiders Bratislava

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