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How an unlikely community of neighbours was created

You do not make a community with barbecues, Dušan Martinčok claims, adding that it is rather heavy topics and issues that can bring people together.

Dušan Martinčok (Source: Sme - Jozef Jakubčo)

Dušan Martinčok (1975) graduated from law studies and was doing translations of legal documents for several years at the Court of Justice of European Union in Luxembourg. In 2011, he founded the community project Neighbours in a Yard / Susedia vo Dvore, which focuses on relations in urban neighbourhoods. Together with Táňa Sedláková, he founded the civic association Zrejme (Let’s Mature), which appeared in connection with abolishing the daycare centre for seniors in Záhrebská Stret in Bratislava; he engages in inter-generation dialogue.

“When we know our names and stories, it is even easier to sort out practical issues,” lawyer Dušan Martinčok believes. His husband Michal helps him in the effort.

Sme: You had a good position at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and, moreover, in a country where people with different sexual orientation have the right to get married and adopt children. What made you return to Slovakia?

Dušan Martinčok (DM): We simply like it here. Me and my husband Michal are from Košice. In Bratislava, we started doing many activities in the past, and we knew we could continue them and be useful after returning there.

Luxembourg is a country where everything seems to be ready. Processes work well, public space is favourable towards everyone, so you rarely have a reason to be frustrated. In Slovakia, this is not quite true, and with Mišo, we knew we could contribute towards improving the situation here, too.

Sme: In 2011, you decided to found one of the first community of neighbours in Slovakia, if not the very first one. What were your relations with neighbours then?

DM: In 1999, when I arrived from Košice to Bratislava and bought a flat through a mortgage, I felt very alienated. It seemed people did not talk among themselves, or even greet one another.

We had a beautiful courtyard, which was the heart of the block of flats. But people didn’t use it, and seemed to have zero connection to this public space. The only time they were meeting was during “house meetings” of tenants, which represented the height of animosity and hatred. We decided with some other neighbours to try change this.

Sme: Were neighbours friendlier in Luxembourg?

DM: In Luxembourg, people also live in their shells, as everyone comes from a different country. In the house where my flat was, everyone was polite, but existed more or less on their own. Although neighbours do not know one another, they are not so frustrated and angry because someone was stealing post or plaster was falling. The maintenance of public space and common house spaces functions perfectly there, so people can afford to just be themselves.

In Slovakia, we are mutually isolated, and at the same time, those other things don’t work either, which results in terrible frustration and hostility.

Sme: What did you expect from the first meeting of the Neighbours in a Yard / Susedia vo Dvore community?

DM: I was very insecure, due to the fact that I didn’t even know the people around me. We feared we would stand there in middle of the courtyard, and nobody would come. The exact opposite happened. We found out this is something people crave for, and need. There were around 30 of us in the yard, and it was sheer joy. I felt great satisfaction.

"Some say “Look, the man from the east is creating animations here again!” Of course, there are some who have never come, too. I always feel the moving curtains during an event..."

Sme: Have you managed to reduce the number of neighbour disputes?

DM: I am confident that we have. I felt we first needed to find the way to each other, and only then solve practical problems. Unless we know the names and micro-stories of all of us, we cannot move on. Thus, we created the Neighbours in the Courtyard initiative, whose motto is "Get to Know Your Neighbour". My experience is that practical issues can then be solved easier, too.

Sme: Are there people who have not come to courtyard events yet, and complain, for example, about noise?

DM: Some considered me a fool until now. Some say “Look, the man from the east is creating animations here again!” Of course, there are some who never come, too. I always feel the moving curtains during an event. But this is marginal.

Once, a lady called the police, but considering we have organised 50 events now, this is a very good number. She called Saturday afternoon, complaining about noise and hustle-bustle. The police arrived to watch the alternative puppet theatre, and were enthused, feeling sorry for us for having neighbours who mind this.

Sme: Your courtyard is open for everyone. Are they all happy with this?

DM: Not all agree with me. Many blocks of flats nearby decided to put bars on their gates, even though it had been possible to pass through the courtyard for many years. We are an open courtyard – not just physically but also mentally: we accept otherness and diversity.

I am very happy we have a community of people with children from the neighbourhood who attend our events. I feel it as a gesture of solidarity towards those who don’t have the luxury of having a park right under their windows. Many courtyards were turned into parking lots and thus, it is crucial for me to offer ours to others. They like the courtyard and want to contribute to it becoming better.

Sme: Do you already have successors?

DM: Yes, it is important that this does not depend on a single person. People who don’t even live in the courtyard organise the events – I am very happy about this.

Sme: In an interview, you mentioned the screening of a film called Angles, with a homosexual motif, and one of your neighbours dissuaded you, arguing this is a controversial issue. Did your neighbours know you are gay?

DM: Sooner or later, they inevitably found out. I don’t avoid this issue. When I moved in, this was something of a nice rumour. I am very happy when it spread around as soon as possible and I don’t have to deal with it and resuscitate people who have a problem accepting it.

As for the screening, director Róbert Švéda talked with the audience about what motivated him to create this theme, and I talked about myself. It was an important moment for creating a community. Community is not formed with barbecues, but rather by mastering harder things, confronting questions that are uncomfortable for some: be it this, or the issue of homelessness, which we also handled.

Apart from this, it is also formed by fighting for vital things, such as a daycare centre for seniors. Then, people unite and identification with the space we live in deepens.

Sme: In the community, you also organised the debate on the new centre for homeless people. How did you feel about it?

DM: Very uneasy. Never before have I witnessed people talk with so much hatred as they do on social networks: too much resentment and hatred and lack of information. Future managers of the Domec project (the daycare centre for homeless people) who wanted to help homeless people on the streets, enable them to wash themselves, find a job, and accommodation. Others in the discussion attacked them for the homeless growing in numbers, arguing there will be even more of them.

I am very glad that despite the opposition of locals, Domec operates well and is doing an excellent job. Recently, a neighbour lady told me she was sorry for signing the petition against establishment of Domec, and then she asked how she could help. Such a mental turnaround was possible through the first-hand experience in her vicinity. There are still many people opposing such projects but this will not change in a day or even in five years. Long-time work is needed here.

Basically, we are glad social facilities for the homeless are founded, for abused women or for seniors but many do not want it close to their homes. Somewhere away from the city, preferably. This mental set is a shame.

Sme: There was a daycare centre for seniors in your courtyard, too. What made you visit it?

DM: It is in the middle of our courtyard, a house with a garden and a green fence. We knew some elderly people were there. Once, we knocked on their door with my neighbour and friend, Máša, who is 65, and she asked if we could enter and spend some time with them. Nurses were surprised and didn’t quite understand what our goal was. Ultimately, they agreed and it became a tradition: we started going there regularly for “coffee Mondays”. I am an amateur barista, so I took a coffee machine and made cappuccinos for them. Máša baked a cake.

We met with Máša in the morning, and picked everyone whom we saw in the yard. Finally, we were a delegation of five, six people. We came to the centre, sat at a huge table and talked. For them, it was important to have some change, for the live world to come and see them. For us, the things they said were unbelievable.

Sme: Finally, you went protesting with the seniors from centre because the borough officials wanted to close it down. Who came up with the idea?

DM: Mrs. Poštolková, who is already 92, said: let us get banners and go to the town hall. We didn’t take her quite seriously at first. I thought I gave her a double espresso instead of normal one. But then we realised she was right and we have to do everything we can. We made a petition, which was signed by 2,000 people, and we agreed to go to the mayor. If nothing helps, we will announce a demonstration at the local office.

We did so, and one April morning, we were there- about 15 of us, aged between 26 and 91, and we protested with banners. Coincidentally, the mayor was returning from lunch, and he got a bit surprised. It was a very strong moment, old people standing there against the man who has power and he was able to say he was sorry.

Sme: Ultimately, you failed to keep the daycare centre open. Were you disappointed?

DM: Despite the fight not ending successfully, it was a truly freeing experience for us. We proved that being 90 years-old does not mean I am just the object of other people’s decisions, but that I can stand for my rights. The older ones would not have made it without us, nor us without them, so we needed to join forces. I am very proud of that.

Tomorrow, we are going to shoot a video for our crowdfunding – for a book we are going to promote together, which deals with the daycare centre.

Sme: Where you confronted with hate in Slovakia because of your otherness?

DM: No, but I have lived in metropolises where people don’t have to worry that much about showing their true selves. I am also lucky to have good family relationships.

What is awesome in Luxembourg is everyone is willing and helpful. It is bizarre that you travel thousand of kilometres away, and suddenly, a well-respected couple turns into two strangers. It reminds me of a fairytale of the prideful princess when it was forbidden in one kingdom to sing, and in the next one, it was allowed. When someone crossed to the country where singing was allowed, they started singing quickly, while in the other one, they had to keep silent again.

© Sme

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