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Culture Shock: Women and children first? Not on the bus

Anyone who has used public transportation in Bratislava will agree that it is at best a daily adventure, and at worst a hellish experience. The shock value is a bit higher for most foreigners less conditioned to the routine, and even three years of moshing on local busses and trams hasn't dulled my amazement. Having grasped for various explanations, including 'cultural differences' and simply inconsiderate behavior, I'm almost ready to embrace the local fatalism of most natives. But one last rant for the record couldn't hurt, could it?
It is likely that most English-speaking foreigners have their first unpleasant experience with public transport as soon as a vehicle arrives at the bus or tram stop. Somehow, the nicest-seeming people turn into complete barbarians when the doors fling open and the free-for-all begins.

Anyone who has used public transportation in Bratislava will agree that it is at best a daily adventure, and at worst a hellish experience. The shock value is a bit higher for most foreigners less conditioned to the routine, and even three years of moshing on local busses and trams hasn't dulled my amazement. Having grasped for various explanations, including 'cultural differences' and simply inconsiderate behavior, I'm almost ready to embrace the local fatalism of most natives. But one last rant for the record couldn't hurt, could it?

It is likely that most English-speaking foreigners have their first unpleasant experience with public transport as soon as a vehicle arrives at the bus or tram stop. Somehow, the nicest-seeming people turn into complete barbarians when the doors fling open and the free-for-all begins.

Teeth bared, boarding passengers start their battle for seats even before the first exiting passenger steps off. The cute old lady with the kerchief on her head is all pointed elbows as she fights her way through the crush. Her otherwise amiable husband pokes you in the ribs with his cane as he straight-arms the lady with the stroller on his left. Meanwhile, the driver adds to the mayhem by beginning to close the doors before half of the new passengers have boarded.

But it's on the bus that the real fun begins. Bodies exuding noxious odours and a miasma of foul breath stand jammed together like sardines, creating a fog of misery especially in the warmer weather. Anyone without gray hair or a cast on at least three limbs has no right to a seat.

Now, the custom of surrendering one's seat to an elderly person or a mother with young children is a charming one. However, the older generation, cheated out of so many of life's dignities by an unforeseen switch to capitalism, are determined not to relinquish this one saving grace of age. So determined, in fact, that they can be quite vicious, and have produced a backlash among young thugs who prefer to flop into seats and then ignore expectant mothers or quivering grannies who are too timid to press the matter.

Bus and tram drivers seem all to have graduated from the same Mario Andretti driving school. They don't seem to realize that city busses don't, and shouldn't be asked to, corner like formula one racers. Passengers who lack surfing skills fly into the laps of others. Most bus and tram drivers also have no sense of finesse when applying the gas and brakes. With them, it's all or nothing - full throttle or screech to a halt.

If you happen to be stationed near the driver's cab, with your face jammed against his grimy window, you may acquire some valuable insight into the interior workings of these curious men. All have immaculate city transport regulations posted in their cabins, but many smoke while driving and all come to work dressed like tramps. Some bring stereos to work, which they play at fearsome volumes, presumably to drown out the complaints of passengers as they lurch around corners. And any other vehicle which commits a traffic offence brings a stream of obscenities from their lips which would embarrass Caligula.

The Bratislava public transportation system remains functional and affordable, but its many failings demand courage from its patrons. If nothing else, taking the bus offers cheap entertainment.

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