Irena Biháriová: How a Romani woman from Progressive Slovakia got a hug from an ultra-right voter
On Saturday I was taking the train home from Banská Bystrica, where I had been training teachers. Since I have already travelled more than 5 000 km around Slovakia this month, I was quite exhausted and did not want to talk to anybody.
My fellow passenger, however, was in exactly the opposite mood. After complaining to me, with a smile, that he had beeen a driver for 26 years, that he was on his fourth beer, and that his "old lady" would be cursing him out for it, he announced to me in medias res that next week he would not be giving a shit about the presidential elections.
He said it was because his preferred candidate was not in the running [Marian Kotleba]. As I said, I didn't want converse, so I just responded courteously that my candidate had remained in the running, fortunately.
"Aha, so that's what you're made of!" he responded. Apparently it did not deter him.
His desire to enjoy the shared journey with me became even stronger. "My dear lady, I'd do just one thing - grab a machine gun and shoot everybody in that Parliament dead," he declared.
Mentally I said to myself: Mother of God, this guy is the last thing I need. A half-hour long monologue ensued that contained everything: Aversion for the USA, migrants, "Gypsies" - in short, it was all there.
The passenger only interrupted his lecture whenever he went to the toilet to light a cigarette. If you had wanted to experience the prototype of a "frustrated Kotleba voter" who does not comprehend the first thing about politics but is existentially angry about them all the same, you could not have found a better one.
I told myself that I could at least test some of our cunning communications strategies on this guy. The only problem was that I was genuinely tired and I didn't have the wherewithal for an empathetic, explanatory, kind conversation.
"Well and just imagine, I saw a video about a woman in Germany who had hormone injections to become a guy, and then she got pregnant," he continued. "A pregnant guy, you understand."
I couldn't hold back any more at that, and I interrupted his monologue: "What happened, did she remain pregnant? Did your salary get cut because of that? What problem do you have with immigrants? Sir, if something were to happen to you, God forbid, while travelling abroad, you can be certain most of the health care personnel will be exactly people who came from somewhere else."
He took no offense, but continued his monologue with a smile. Next he expressed aversion for democracy and nostalgia for socialism.
At that moment I was on the alert, I understood it all now. I closed the laptop I had been long trying to hide from him behind and listened to him with both my ears and my heart open.
"Madame, you know what, I could give a shit about this kind of democracy. What did I get out of the revolution? Vacations in Yugoslavia? What good are elections to me when for 30 years they only bring to manage our wealth these beasts who steal what we built during socialism? Even that Fico was going on and on about the economic miracles we have here. What miracles, madame? Average salaries, employment?! Do you know how much money I make as a truck driver with 26 years of experience? 550 euros a month! My father was a driver his entire life, he died at the age of 60, behind the wheel, he didn't even live to retirement. My mother had a mastectomy, the cancer has metastasized everywhere, and my brother and I together could barely manage to arrange the doctors for her. From a pension of 280 euro per month she has just 99 euro left over to live on," he said.
"I want you to understand about those migrants. Do you know what they did to me? I had to go to prison in Greece because of them. They've got a clever way to escape the lasso of the customs agents, no problem. I went to open the door to my truck for the customs officer, and there were seven black pimples stuffed in there. They immediately put the handcuffs on me for smuggling, but they gave those guys blankets and tea. Can you fathom that, dear lady? To get me out of Greece cost 40 000 euro. Then a former police officer on a motorcycle ran into me. Can you guess whose fault it was? Sure, they blamed it on me even though the expert said that it was difficult to prove. Do you know what will happen if I lose my driver's license, madame? How will I make living, doing what?" he asked.
He fired one story after another at me. It was all there - poverty, powerlessness, grievances, an inability to stand up for his rights, a feeling of a total lack of dignity that life had thrust upon him for the last 30 years.
As bizarre as it may seem, at that moment I felt genuine empathy for him. "Sir, I understand all of that. I myself am a poor Romani woman from a poor Romani family. Do you think it's any different for us?" I asked, finally taking the floor.
"My mother worked for 30 years in a bank until she got cancer and they forced her to quit while she was on sick leave. They said they just want women aged 30 and younger behind the counter. She dedicated her life to that bank, all the clients loved her. My parents couldn't afford vacation before or after the revolution, they've never been to Yugoslavia either. Yes, I understand most of all that we have lost basic support from the authorities, that there is no God today who stands up for you when justice is on your side. There is no God to help you find a doctor who will treat you irrespective of all the insurance company's points and tables," I told him.
"To tell you the truth, dear sir, at this moment an aunt of mine to whom I am very close is dying, she got herself to the hospital and it was there that she had a stroke, but the personnel didn't notice her there for an entire day. They gave her high dosages of Warfarin, and her blood poured into her brain all day long. Nobody in that hospital knew anything about it. My Mom had to run around the hospital in a panic searching for doctors to come take a look at her. After three days, they told her my aunt had a brain hemorrhage and my Mom should take her home. Can you understand that, sir? The kind of misery that my Mom, who herself has two cancers, is taking her home to? My husband and I work like crazy people, we're lawyers, but even we will not be able to afford any trips to Yugoslavia this year. I don't make any money and my husband is still eking out the money he got from his last job. Do you understand, sir, that actually I am not 'made of' anything? I'm just one of hundreds of thousands of people with a life like this," I said.
"The difference between us is that I believe change for the better is possible with Progressive Slovakia, not with Kotleba. Believe me, that guy will just shout for the next 10 years about what does not work here, but in reality he does not care about your life. He will not stand up for anybody or protest against the wealthy corporations, he will not address injustice in health care. No, he makes his stand in front of the Gypsy settlements - because he knows they are the only people afraid of him. How are our Roma to blame for privatization, for the goons, for the VAT fraud - the Roma have already paid the worst price for the process of transformation," I told him.
Šurany was coming up, and that was his stop. We were quiet.
He was digesting my monologue. Apparently he had not anticipated that the vice-chair of a political party that is crudely labeled as an ultra-liberal party of profiteers would not only comprehend the matrix of his life, but would be living in a very similar one herself.
He came over, hugged me, and said: "You know what I really wish for? Rather than all those politicians on television, I'd rather see you there as one."
This was the first time in my life I had ever shared a hug with a Kotleba voter. All it took was to acknowledge the wounds he had, to honestly reveal my own, and to demonstrate to him that even though we have different skin colors, origins, and educations, at the end of the day we are all suffering from the same problems.
This is what is meant to bring us together, not divide us. Yes, recently we have been speaking a great deal about creating unity.
More than soldering together our parties, though, I am interested in whether and how we are managing to connect with our fellow human beings. Including ones like my fellow passenger.
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