Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Meeting with the Children

Today I had my first encounter with Roma children. I was in one of the largest shopping malls in Slovakia with two other exchange students, one from Arizona and one from British Columbia, Canada. We were sitting on a bench, eating ice cream and watching the people pass, just passing a long afternoon after school.

Suddenly a little girl, about 5 or 6 in age carrying a small black puppy stood in front of us. She had on a pink sweater, wrong side out, and some dirt smeared down her cheek. She had black hair, brown skin, and huge black eyes. She said something in slovak to us. All three of us blinked stupidly for a moment. The shock of seeing such a girl not 2 feet from us and then all that slovak just seemed to freeze us. Out of her mess of words though I caught "hladna" and "pät korun". Hladna means hungry and pät korun means 5 crowns, the slovak currency. I said this to my two companions. We all knew then. She was a Roma girl, begging for money.

Now any American would have quickly dived into their purse (I would at least hope so) and fished out some money. But we all paused, for many reasons. We sat and discussed what we should do. First of all, it is known that all Roma beg for money. Not because they are poor, but because they see no need to work when they get generous amounts of cash from the government every year and then can send their children out to collect in public places.

As we were discussing what to do, she moved to other people passing, holding out her hand and speaking quickly to them. Behind us on the other side of the hall her brother was doing the same thing.

In the end we all finally dug into our pockets and fished out some spare coins. None of us handed over any bills. She gladly took our money then showing her brother, they quickly hurried away into the crowd, no doubt to show their parents what they had been able to collect.

I am still torn though about whether I did "the right thing". We all were. After a few minutes my companions fell back into their conversation, as if nothing had happened. But I was shaken, and it took me the rest of the day to get over it. It is the fact that we knew exactly what was going on. Any other tourist or non-native wouldn´t have thought about it too hard but we knew exactly what was happening. The puppy in her hand, shirt wrong side out, begging that she was hungry, all part of the plan. In the end we decided that because we knew, and wern´t oblivious to the fact, that it was ok to give her the little change we had to spare. But then I still didn´t know if what we had done was good. Were we just feeding the Roma people, and doing exactly what they wanted? I try to tell myself no, but in fact we were. They send out their children to collect money via begging, and we handed over the money. It doesn´t matter that we knew, we still couldn´t resist and gave the girl change. I felt like I had just whole heartly supported what the Roma people do, begging for money instead of working. I do not want to support the Roma to be lazy and not work. But in fact I just had.

The rest of the afternoon passed without incident and we left the mall and wandered home. I didn´t tell my host parents what happened, and I don´t plan to. They would most likely scold me for giving money to Roma children and tell me next time to ignore them and tell them to go away, for that is what all the rich here do, they ignore the Roma people.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

After 6 Weeks

So I have been in Slovakia since August 17th and it is September 28th, 6 weeks to this day. I am pleased to say that I have officially settled in. The strangness has worn off and I have settled into a routine. Now that the first shock of being thrown into this culture has worn off I am starting to see the little differences, rather than just the big ones.

Of coarse the really big differences are there, the different language, food, and clothing. But after I have met many people and have been in different situations, I can start to see the little things. Like the way people greet each other. Often within families when 2 women meet they hug. Not here. The Slovaks do not hug, at all. I actually have not seen any type of hugging since I have been here. Instead they do a kiss on each cheek and a handshake. Shaking hands is very important here, and everyone does it. Also when shaking hands you must remove any glove that you might be wearing (hint hint Mr. President!) otherwise it is considered very rude.

Most travel books that I have read tell in some way how the Slovaks will not start random conversations while waiting in line or at the bus stop. But I have found this not to be true at all. Almost every day I am approached by a stranger either asking directions or wanting to talk. One day while waiting for the tram a lady approached me and started in on a conversation. When I asked her to please speak slowly, for my slovak is still not that good, she was very interested in who I was and what I was doing here. A very nice lady, though I did not catch her name, and after wishing me luck in Bratislava, and commenting on my good slovak, she boarded her train and I haven´t seen her since. I can´t decide if itś just my approachable nature or if these people just are more open than most, but I can almost always count on some conversation on my way home from school.

These 6 weeks have not proven easy, and there have been homesick times but the overall feeling has been good. I feel more settled in now like I actually live here rather than just visiting. I´m glad the feeling of complete tourist has worn off, and I blend in better. That does not mean that it will be all out smooth sailing from here but the first big hump is over and now I can sit back and relax for the time being.