IT WAS WHEN a brick came crashing down the chimney in our Bratislava housing complex, blowing the soot of a century of communal gas fires into our bathroom, that I finally began to understand why Slovaks are so down on life in their country despite ostensible signs of improvement.
The brick had slipped from the hands of a crew of workers erecting an unauthorised two-storey 'podkrovie' attic addition on our four storey building. Their construction permission from Bratislava Old Town had allowed them to repair a leaking roof, but some well-connected entrepreneur had seen an opportunity to erect some lucrative new dwellings.
The building, which houses about 20 families, now has structural cracks groaning down to the basement, as it was never designed to bear podkrovie. It has a crew of largely Ukrainian workers who hurl construction waste from the roof into the courtyard below, and who after work can sometimes be found sprawled drunk in the refuse. It has a new laddered scaffolding out front which is unguarded at night, and which gives anyone who feels the urge direct access through any window in the building. It has a warren of unhappy tenants who have no one to complain to.
Such is life in Slovakia, which in a recent UNDP report was listed in 38th position out of over 170 countries in terms of standard of living, but where residents are deeply pessimistic about the future, according to a Eurobarometer report this year (only Bulgaria was worse among 13 European Union candidate countries).
The disparity in such polls, according to politicians in Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's SDKÚ party, is due to the country's 'blbá nálada' (silly mood), according to which people feel unreasonably gloomy about a life that is actually quite good.
But is it so unreasonable that people feel depressed? For those not travelling by government BMW, and not safely ensconced in diplomatic residences above the Bratislava hoi polloi, je tu bordel (it's a mess).
I watched last week as a city policeman leaned out of the window of a patrol car to shout at a flock of money changers who stood outside the downtown Bratislava Tesco store, spitting and strutting and tempting tourists to exchange foreign currency for vastly inferior sums of Slovak crowns.
"Hey, you assholes," he shouted, "you're giving this entire city a bad name. I'm going to drive around the block, and when I get back here I want you gone."
A mountainous villain in a shell suit expelled a plume of smoke and shot back, "Who the hell do you think you're talking to? You must be new around here. Get lost before I smack you in the mouth."
The cop, undaunted, repeated his threat, whereupon the money changer removed his dark glasses and looked closer.
"I don't know you. Do you have a family? I should get to know your wife and kids. I can get your address tomorrow."
The cop drove off. After my son and I completed our shopping, the money changers were still there, swaggering over the urine-stained sidewalk.
When I was still single, living in Slovakia during the 1990s, such encounters would have seemed more comical than ominous. But with a three-year-old's trusting hand in mine, as we thread corridors of aggressive men and glue-sniffing prostitutes to get home in the evening, I notice a far more sinister reality.
It starts with the hookers we find in our courtyard beside the Bratislava regional police station, "just talking" to drunk men on the steps up to our flat. It continues with the used needles and condoms on those steps in the morning, the flares of dried urine, the occasional dead volcanoes of excrement.
The underaged boys who keep visiting the male owner of the flat beside ours, a man who appeared as a "hidden witness" in 1995 to testify in the name of the SIS secret service that the former president's son had 'kidnapped himself' to Austria in an infamous political crime (the SIS called the witness scheme 'Operation Homo').
It's about thinking of selling your flat in an insecure, construction burdened building, and contemplating the bribe money it will cost to achieve this in real time. A memory of the nine months in 2000 that it took a land registry office in Bratislava simply to approve the original sale contract.
It's about reading of the two young girls who were stabbed at midnight last week by skinheads on the Presidential Square in the capital. About the dozens of bystanders who refused to help or even call for help. About the taxi driver who refused to take them to hospital because they might have bled on his seats.
It's about reporting one scandal after another involving political thieves, kidnappers and even murderers who smirk and equivocate but never face justice.
This, I'm convinced, is how most Slovak citizens experience life - corrupt, unpleasant, dangerous and without appeal. It explains why only eight per cent of people in that Eurobarometer poll think life will improve next year, despite unarguable signs of increasing national wealth.
This newspaper last week published a travel guide called Spectacular Slovakia, which deservedly promotes the country's enduring attractions.
But let's not mythologise how Slovak people live their lives. For all the 'quaint villages' and 'stunning mountains' there are unplumbed gorges of corruption, slumbering valleys of alcoholism, brooding swamps of social aggression and apathy.
Let's instead admit the problems, especially as there's no way to pretend to our children that we live in a social paradise. Let's ask Tesco why they permit such vulgar, criminal brutes to ply their trade on Tesco sidewalks. Let's ask the police why hookers, reeking of glue sniffed, lean on a graffitied police headquarters building to wave drugged arms for clients. Why, on main city squares that simmer with suppressed extremist violence at night, the police are nowhere in sight. Why politicians talk in these fetid pre-election weeks of listening to ordinary people, and yet don't seem to grasp the roots of this deep national despair.
Editor in Chief