AS A child one of the first parts of my anatomy that I remember learning the value of were my elbows. Spending a lot of time with Babi (my Slovak grandma) meant that I had plenty of exposure to a phenomenon I refer as 'tram elbow' (the Slovak equivalent is široké lakte).
This technique manifests itself in a variety of locations, including supermarkets and tram stops - in fact, wherever the ethos of 'survival of the fittest' comes into play. Don't be fooled, however - even the most frail-looking characters I have encountered on trams in Slovakia are masters of this deadly technique.
The trick of 'tram elbow' is to focus on the target (e.g. an opening door, and the people trying to beat you through it), take position, tense shoulders, ensure body is poised at angle ready for action and then - attack.
Walking sticks, musical instruments, rucksacks and bags laden with pečiva (bread rolls) are all useful tools in carrying out this technique. It is, I think, fair to say that the concentration of 'tram elbow' is higher in a city environment than in the regions - I know this from my own experience of working in London - but nevertheless I find it a fascinating indicator of cultural subtleties in Slovakia and consider it an area worthy of further exploration.
While I always marvel at the tenacity of people, both in the UK and in Slovakia, when they find themselves waiting in line - especially in the hospital waiting room - I see a clear distinction between the way Brits and Slovaks handle it. Brits switch off, mutter under their breath, convey vague signs of irritation and stick to the unwritten rule of 'put up or shut up'. Slovaks, on the other hand, have a less passive approach to this daily sport. Their gusto for this pastime never ceases to amaze me.
A vivid memory has remained with me from the time I moved to Slovakia at the age of 18 to teach English. After a few years away from the country, I was both horrified and comforted to discover that 'tram elbow' was alive and well in the local potraviny (grocery store) around the corner from the school apartment where I lived.
Each morning I would stop by on my way to school to pick up something for lunch. Without fail, Monday through Friday, as I turned the corner I was met by a sinuous trail of people that wound through the prefabricated columns supporting the shopping zone. At half past six the doors were propped open and the throngs of people poured inside, instinctively converting to 'tram elbow' mode.
It soon became apparent that the focus of these people's efforts was the bread, the fresh morning bread with its glistening brown crust. The hunters grabbed their shopping carts, made a break for the aisle, snatched a piece of greaseproof paper and began to test the bread frantically, squeezing the loaves in turn to establish which was the freshest.
This behaviour fascinated me, as it exposed a characteristic close to my heart - the need to fight for individual needs. To me it seems as though by defending their position in line, people are making a statement about their individuality. Whether this is a way of expressing individuality or simply fulfilling a desire, as is the case amongst my 20-something contemporaries, to have the best of everything, I don't know. But I know for sure that 'tram elbow' in the UK takes a very different, much less proactive form than in Slovakia.
So next time you're waiting in line for something, at the post office to buy stamps, in a hospital waiting to clamber into the elevator or at a swimming pool in the blistering summer heat, eager to be the next one down that water chute to cool off, notice the level of 'tram elbow' activity around you - the grandma in front fencing crutches with another grandma or the small child prodding a bony elbow in your ribs to get ahead - and consider why they all act so agressively. I'm not convinced there is a simple explanation but such behaviour is, for me, a key element which affects the way in which I build relationships.
On a final note, I read in the newspapers recently that in the US it has been known for people to hire individuals to stand in line for them and reserve their places, freeing them to spend their time doing other things. I've heard the same thing happened in Bratislava last year when people were waiting to cash in their FNM privatisation bonds.
Neat idea - but the Slovak in me has to ask, "Where's the fun in that"?
Letter from Abroad is a bi-weekly column chronicling the experiences of Slovaks who have moved to foreign countries.
The next Letter from Abroad will appear on stands March 25, Vol. 8, No. 11.
11. Mar 2002 at 0:00 | Susie Chambers