A Few Days in Bratislava

It’s different from Prague. Most noticeable immediately is the size of the place. The main train station is none too large. Following Christmas, it’s practically deserted, and that makes it seem smaller still. Today that finally changed, with folks returning to work and the city waking up a bit.

The smile worn by the bus driver is nice. It makes the place feel warmer.

Prices are in Euros, which seems like a hopeful effort at tying Slovakia to greater Europe, while a few days of life here seem to suggest it’s got at least as much in common with Russia as the European Union. I say this because after two days of snow falling, there hasn’t been a single plow run along any of the city streets. “It’s never snowed at the end of December before,” says Jenia. “It took them by surprise. Just like Russia.” The sidewalks are slippery. The people aren’t outgoing and friendly. That’s not to say they’re rude, but they’re not what we fuzzy Americans would generally expect. Lots like Russia. And of course the Slavic languages have lots of similarities, too.

The downtown is pretty and there’s lots of cute cafes. The architecture is nice, though it doesn’t look half as old as Prague does.

So my impression is that this is Eastern Europe, and it is tangibly different than Western Europe. Not bad, but different.

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Merry Christmas from Prague!

Hello all! The holidays find us enjoying the nippy winter weather of the Czech Republic, in a neat little apartment in the Malestrana area of Prague. What a wonderful change from the pleasant but boring UAE December. The city is filled with Christmas cheer–there are stalls set up all around peddling mulled wine, trdelnik (a scrumptious not-too-sweet bread cooked over coals), and roasted chestnuts. There are concerts of Christmas music all around, and choirs performing on the old town square. Angels wrap gifts inside the windows of the Swarovski shop, and tourists bump into each other while sipping from steaming cups as they gawk at the astronomical clock. It’s a great place to be, steeped in European tradition. Happy holidays!

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Murder.

Murder.

The word hangs in the air. It settles like a heavy fog around you.

At least when it refers to a victim who is someone that you might easily have known, that friends of yours encountered, who lived in the same building as other acquaintances, and who was killed someplace that you’ve been.

Last week’s killing of Ibolya Ryan came as a surprise to us teachers, nay, us expats, here in Abu Dhabi because it occurred in a place so ordinary, so mundane, so average, that it was entirely unexpected.

There was no love triangle, no drunken stupor, no fit of rage or even a minor altercation. It would seem to be an act of cruelty by a deranged killer fixated on Americans.

The Emirati reaction has been sensational and swift. The Abu Dhabi police released videos on the subject, first showing security footage of the attacker fleeing the scene at the Boutik Mall, and then of the same person elsewhere, setting a primitive explosive device. Within 48 hours, police swept into a palatial villa and arrested the occupants—the woman, the prime suspect, was even removed from the property without being allowed to cover her hair. The videos are set to music, a puzzling choice, but they demonstrate efficiency and efficacy. That aside, the perpetrator turned out to be a woman who has to this point lived a life of evident luxury. That’s a point of interest, because most people who are well-taken care of aren’t prone to be extremists or likely to rock the boat which has always favored them.

The Gate Towers are just across the road from the Boutik Mall on Reem Island.

The Gate Towers are just across the road from the Boutik Mall on Reem Island.  Yup, been there.

It needs not be said that the Emirates is one of the very safest countries in the Middle East, and generally much safer than the States. It’s a country teeming with expatriates, one where the population predominantly hails from elsewhere. There are lots of Americans, and the number of Americans had been swelling since ADEC started recruiting heavily. Look on Teach Away’s website—there’s a picture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and a banner that says “Always Hiring.”

But what about this new development? What about murder in the midst of it all? What does this mean to recruitment of teachers in the future? What does it mean to us here, right now?

The Arc is one of the beautiful new places recently built on Reem Island.

The Arc is one of the beautiful new places recently built on Reem Island. There’s quite an expat population there, many of whom frequent the Boutik Mall next door.

Last week friends from the States were here when the whole thing went down. They were surprised to hear of it, and I was somewhat surprised that their friends back home hadn’t sent them the same barrage of “Stay safe! Be careful!” messages that many of us teachers received. When they did hear about the vicious attack, they weren’t put off of the Emirates, though. They recognized it as an isolated incident, and could tell you that the odds of a similar attack occurring at home might be just as high (or as low, depending upon your point of view) as here.

That’s how we look at it, too. That’s right, friends, don’t get your panties in a wad; don’t let the sensationalist news media reports which tie the US Embassy’s standard warnings about living abroad make you think this place is unsafe. It’s not. Abu Dhabi is safer by far than Atlanta. It’s safer than Detroit.

But yeah, that word murder really does cast a pall over things.

Yesterday I got my hair cut by a hairdresser who does a great job at this place in the mall.

“Look around,” he said. “At Starbucks–no whites, no westerners. Before, there were many in the morning, other times of day. The women, they are afraid. I cut my client’s hair yesterday at her house, because she wouldn’t come here. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to go to the mall. I don’t feel safe.’”

He spoke quietly. “This is a sensitive topic,” he said. “Business is affected. I think many Americans will go home soon because of it.”

I’m not sure why it’s sensitive. I’ve talked about it with my Arab coworkers, with my fellow teachers, and others. It’s something that does strike home, because that’s how random violence works. It makes random people afraid, because they know there’s no overlying logic, no definite targets, and no reason why it couldn’t have been one of us.

But what about that pall that’s cast? How do you deal with that? Even knowing the perpetrator has been apprehended, even knowing that, as the press says, the killer was a lone wolf?

The same way you deal with murder elsewhere. You feel. You grieve if you need to. You use common sense in daily life. And you try not to feed negative conceptions of what it means to be American.

There is no reason why Americans should be hated. We’re not a bad people. We’re not better than anyone else, either. We’re just people, and we have the same fears and joys in life as people all over the globe. So in the course of being a person, be one that is an ambassador of good will wherever you are, at home or abroad.

And that’s the only good takeaway I can offer.

Don’t fear for me or Jenia or little Turtle. We’re as safe as ever.