The Good Slovak Samaritan

BRATISLAVA – I didn’t want to blog today. I need to write more of the Double-Secret Probationary Project I started this month. Oops, I’ve already said too much.

But then I witness a great act of stranger-to-stranger kindness, the sort of thing that is so rare in post-Communist, every-man-for-himself Central Europe, I notice when it happens.

It’s always easier for foreign correspondents in remote, off-the-beaten-path locales to highlight the negatives about the host society. Lord knows, I've made a career out of it. Our breed tends to have an over-inflated sense of purpose: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. Or maybe it’s just me.

Now, imagine you read that trickle of distasteful stories: inter-ethnic conflict, government corruption, etc. Couple that with the occasional natural or man-made disaster. (See: Hungary, toxic red sludge.) What impression does the international community form about these pipsqueak tribes in the hinterlands?

Nothing too flattering. That’s why I feel the tug to occasionally recognize, and publicize, the brighter side of life out here. It’s also the first prong of my formula for good-bad-and-ugly reportage. Or is a better word “bloggage”? Maybe that’s too disparaging. Man, that Jordan sure has a lot of bloggage on his site.

Bloggage be damned, I must report what just happened in the cold, drizzly streets of Bratislava. First, let me set the scene.

I’m sitting in the Café Vienna, ambitiously named for our regal Austrian neighbor, which long ago spawned café culture across Central Europe. It’s a hybrid, half-smoking-half-non-smoking kaviareň in the heart of downtown, and buzzes with clientele all day long.

Back when I took Slovak lessons, I used to drop in here once, sometimes twice a week, before class, to eat a decent tuna platter and tear through Slovak homework. It’s been months since I was last here.

I’m seated in the middle of the non-smoking section, toward the front, within view of the glass-enclosed dessert display and the café’s best feature: its floor-to-ceiling windows. They allow a sunny view onto a main square dominated by the historic central market, now mid-refurbishment.

The smoking section starts just two tables away, separated by a stairwell down to the WC. That’s not much defense, as the cigarette fumes tickle my nose, riling my allergies. Hey, that’s the small price I pay to luxuriate in these stimulating – if carcinogenic – coffeehouses.

To the left, in the corner, is a Slovak Mia Farrow. With fair skin, high cheekbones and thinning blond hair, she’s one of the many well-preserved females among the middle-aged set in Bratislava. Since I already wrote last time about The Inordinately High Proportion of Attractive Slovak Women, I’ll stop right there. No need to taunt my wife, who is herself as lovely as they come. (Nice save, huh?)

Sadly for the Farrow-lookalike, sitting all alone, there are fewer than 3,000 Jews left in Slovakia. I’m probably as close as she’d get to finding her Woody Allen.

To my right, a morbidly obese woman with friendly smile and deep belly laugh is having coffee with a companion. Unlike my “obesogenic” homeland, it’s still rare to see adults that large in Central Europe. To be sure, though, more and more children here follow our ignoble path, plumping up on fast food.

Enter the seemingly schizophrenic woman I cited the other day, the one who shrieked at herself. She sits at the table just to my left. It now hits me: this is the very café where I first saw her … debating herself.

My young waiter, tall and lanky, leans in to cheerfully greet her. “Dobry den. Dobre chut.” Good day. Good appetite.

A very decent gesture. The old woman, who's about 75, smiles up at him, visibly pleased.

She then proceeds to drink her tea with a teaspoon, spoonful by spoonful. The entire mug. She pauses to belch and wipe her nose. Oy, it’s about time I look elsewhere.

Then a waitress, a pleasant brunette, crouches to chat with her. So, the elderly woman must be a regular here. I already envision this whole scenario, where she, like most other retirees, lives off a measly pension that provides her just enough to cover food, utilities, medicine – and a splurge in a café. This in an ever-pricier Bratislava, where an espresso with milk (they always charge extra for cream) may now cost you 2 euro. While the average monthly salary has reached about 750 euro, monthly pensions are less than half of that.

I’ll wager that this woman's desperately lonely, and comes here for the company.

Suddenly, I’m disrupted by a popping sound to my right.

A boy of about six, the age of our younger son, sits with his parents. We ourselves just busted out the winter coats, so it’s unsurprising to see this lad still wearing his coat. Even his winter hat, pulled down over his ears. He’s understandably distracted, pulling a new 16-wheel truck from its wrapping.

When I hear the pop, I spy the father, seated across the table, withdrawing his hand from near the son’s head. He’d slapped him. On the cap-covered ears, or above. I don’t know how this kid could have misbehaved to such a degree that Pops would get rough. I certainly hadn’t heard a peep.

Yelling at your kids is one thing. I’ve been known to raise my voice at mine. Can’t let those vocal chords waste away. But a whack like that? I see the makings of a hate-filled childhood.

(Um, am I veering toward the negative again?)

I’m busy typing all this when I notice my waiter head outside. On the sidewalk is a homeless alcoholic, who looks that he’s fallen on his face multiple times. It’s that lumpy and ravaged.

The man stands, trying to light a cigarette butt picked off the ground. But his shaky hands and gusty winds conspire against him. The waiter, in black, short-sleeve uniform, emblazed with the Coca-Cola logo, is soon beside him, lighting what little of the cigarette remains.

The homeless man thanks him, and staggers off.

Wow. Greeting the schizophrenic was one thing, but what he did for the homeless fellow is downright extraordinary. Most people would've averted their eyes, ignoring him altogether.

A short while later, when ordering my second espresso from the waiter, I ask if he speaks English. He does. I tell him what I saw. “It was velmy simpaticky of you,” I say. Very simpatico. I’ve dropped a strategic dose of Slovak into the conversation; he knows I’m no tourist.

The waiter thanks me for the compliment. Other customers beckon, though, so he tells me he’ll be back.

Ten minutes later, he’s back. Pavol, 25, is from northeastern Slovakia, up in the Tatra Mountains, known for its spectacular peaks and sizable population of bears and wolves. More specifically, he’s from near the Polish border, a small village named Cerveny Klastor.

In my mind, I’m translating the name. Red … He cuts me off: “How do you say in English, Klastor?”

I’m flipping through my mental dictionary. “Monastery,” I say. Yes, the village of Red Monastery.

He asks what I’m doing here. Since my window is tiny, I mention the blog and cut right to my question.

“I’m curious: why did you help him?”

He’s taken aback, but amused by my interest.

“Why? I don’t know why.”

That’s not enough. I persist.

“Not everyone would go and help him. Why do you think you did?”

He pauses, gazes out to the street. Searching his soul. Or for an excuse to get the hell away from me.

“I was a little bored … or do you say ‘boring’?”

Bored, I affirm.

“I was bored, and I saw him.” He grins. “I also wanted some fresh air.”

I laugh. “Ah, you had other motivacie?”

His smile widens. “Yes, you can write that that’s what I was thinking: two things, one action.”

Maybe so. But on an otherwise dreary afternoon in Bratislava, that’s more than enough to earn my nomination for Slovak Samaritan of the Day.

Michael J. Jordan, who arrived in Lesotho in 2011, is the lone Western foreign correspondent living in the country – and covering its crisis.