It’s a Sunday in Bratislava.
Benjamin, Peter and myself have just played a round of the Settlers of Catan in a tea house.
Peter, the winner, goes home, Benjamin and I talk a bit more and walk to the tram stop.
We’re waiting for a tram and talking in Dutch.
An older guy, but bulky and tall, starts yelling at us that we need to pick up a plastic bottle that’s lying on the tram tracks.
At first I want to just ignore him, but our eyes lock and a determination comes over me to not let this wash over me just like that. He breaks eye contact and goes and picks up the bottle. He walks past us, throws it into the bin and keeps yelling at us that we need to be polite, that we need to behave, and that we should keep the city clean.
He stares into my eyes and I stare back with anger boling up in my gaze. He breaks eye contact again, but keeps yelling.
I -for once- lose my temper and start yelling back. We didn’t do anything and he’s the one misbehaving and being an impolite, arrogant and silly bully. I feel I’m getting into one my very rare rages and I don’t want to let this go until he apologizes.
He steps towards me and says ‘what if I just punch you in the face?’
He swings his fist at me, but it stops right in front of my eyes. A gesture I had expected.
What I did NOT see coming, was his next move.
He grabs me by the hair and pulls me towards him, clenching me against him.
I’m yelling at him and saying he can’t behave like that, that we have a lot of respect for Slovakia, that we both speak Slovak and that he’s the one being a jerk.
He lets me go and starts…
The guy starts sobbing and profusely apologizing.
He keeps apologizing, and when it gets to him that we were speaking Dutch to each other, he starts calling his niece on the phone. Apparently, his niece lived in the Netherlands for something like 12 years, but she’s back now. He wants us to talk to her in Dutch.
She’s not picking up. He tells us she came to visit him this weekend.
She probably knows he’s been drinking and doesn’t pick up the phone.
I shake his hand and say we are leaving.
He offers us beer from his bag.
To calm him down even more, and also out of curiosity, I ask him where he works.
To our great surprise he says he’s a retired geography professor.
He taught at the same university as Benjamin.
We walk away, the guy is still apologizing, but to get rid of him we walk to the next tram stop. In Bratislava tram stops are often only a two minute walk away from each other.
Benjamin looks a little dejected. I ask what the matter is.
‘Well, I teach at a Slovak university. Is that going to be my future?’
I slap him on the back: ‘Of course not, don’t be silly!’
We could both easily fall into the trap of blaming this kind of behavior on Slovakia, of saying that this is typical for Slovakia, that things like this don’t happen in a western country like Belgium, as many Slovaks themselves would assume, but that’s not true. I’ve seen a lot more violence in Belgian schools than in Slovak schools for example.
And if you look closely at it, it’s really a very innocent incident.
In the end the retired professor just feels useless today, and in his desire to keep the street clean, it becomes clear that he would love to have something to do, to contribute to society, to be significant, to find meaning in something. Also his need to connect peeks through. Look at how quick he was to offer us beer or put us in touch with his niece.
All in all I get on the homebound tram feeling mostly empathy, and a slight little pain on the surface of my skull, because he did got a tight grip on me. Slovak guys are more muscular than western guys.
To be completely honest, it was a lot of fun. It made me feel alive.