I was walking home from the river in Bratislava the other night in running shorts and a T-shirt. As dusk fell over the city, it suddenly struck me that I was walking alone in a city in near darkness without real fear. I had just been jogging alone along the river, past trees and thickets and decrepit old buildings. Though six months ago I never would have never attempted such a run, months of feeling safe have made me bold.
Of course, there are terrible skinhead attacks in Bratislava. There is substantial Mafia crime. Perhaps, it can be argued, citizens enjoy relative safety here not because of the police, but in spite of them. But the fact remains that as a white woman who looks a bit like a Slovak, I feel about a thousand times safer here than in New York. In New York, jogging at dusk is cause for a psychological exam.
When I first visited Slovakia last winter, my dinner host told me it would be no problem for me to walk home alone late at night, from downtown to my pension near Americké námestie. Not wanting to be timid, I sauntered out, then cowered down, NY style, pulling my jacket hood over my head and assuming my street-wise "screw you" gaze. Every grey building and shadow held a nightmare. But I got home all right. And after a while, I started worrying a little less.
My apartment building now is right in the center of town near the presidential palace. For the first month or two, I didn't like walking at night on the ugly concrete plain of Hodžovo námestie, past the odd shaped stains on the sidewalk, the broken glass and cigarette butts. But never once have I been followed, or even looked at in a way I didn't like. The door to my apartment building stood ajar for three months because it was broken, but never once was anyone strange lurking inside. After a while, I stopped putting my keys in my hand before approaching the building, a New York habit we learn to minimise the time we have our backs turned to the street.
Though I don't think about it so much when I am there, in New York my behaviour is circumscribed by fear - the fear of getting mugged, raped, or harassed. In New York, if you know you will be walking alone at night through all but the best neighbourhoods, it would just be stupid to wear a little skirt, or a tight shirt, or a little dress without something bulky over it...and even then I probably wouldn't. Sometimes I wonder if women in Slovakia know how lucky they are that they can dress the way they do.
Walking on the New York subway platforms alone dressed in skin tight clothes would be another cause for a brain scan. Here, a woman wearing practically nothing can step onto a bus and barely turn heads. In New York, that woman's mere presence on the street might cause a traffic jam. In Bratislava, women want to look good on the street, they don't mind getting noticed. In New York, we hide under our baggy jeans, our cool, undirected stares. Here, it is pretty safe to look sexy to strangers. In New York, our ultimate dream when we are alone at night is to blend into the scenery.
For all the bad things about Communism, this legacy of relative street safety is surely one of the nicest. Though there are backlashes against people who stand out, things are still much better for the homogeneous masses than what I am used to. Crime will get far worse unless the police take action against rising drug use and pursue and punish skinheads and other bigots. Theft will rise if the government continues to cut social benefit checks without providing jobs. But for now, I would much rather walk around the center of Bratislava alone at 2 a.m. than most western cities I can think of. Slovakia has no idea how much worse it can get.