From the July/August 1994 issue
SHE WORE A SEMITRANSPARENT WHITE SHIRT, AND underneath I could detect her fine lace bra. When she leaned toward me to take my passport, I could tell she was using good perfume, too. She had a modern haircut and spoke proper English. Yet, while I watched her standing behind the reception desk at the Sheraton, I felt awkward. There was a strange, unfriendly air about her. She answered my questions brusquely, almost impolitely, as if information were a gift, dependent on her goodwill, and not part of her job. And she did not smile. This was a sure sign that I was in Sofia.
Here, receptionists, bell-captains, elevator operators and waitresses do not smile, not even for $260 per night, which is what one pays for a room at the elegant, marble-hailed Sofia Sheraton. The staff seems too proud to smile, indicating to guests (who already feel foolish paying for something they don’t get) that: “Yes, we are here for you, but you won’t see our smiles, because they are priceless.” They look as if they have never heard of courtesy. Above all, they look as if nobody ever told them that they are there to serve.
The Sheraton is not an exception. When I entered the Austrian Airlines office on Maria Luiza Boulevard, the two young women there barely lifted their eyes. Instead of answering my question, one just shrugged and continued to talk on the telephone: “Really? And then? What did he say?. . .” After waiting half an hour, I got the wrong ticket. I left without receiving an apology; the person was even angry with me for not taking the incorrect ticket! Needless to say, not for a moment did I detect the trace of a smile on any member of the staff.
At the Pirogov hospital, where I went for a medical test, a woman in the laboratory started to shout at me as soon as I opened the door. Accustomed to that sort of treatment in Yugoslavia, where I grew up, I waited for her to calm down. When I finally had a chance to explain to her what I needed and why, and when she realized that I was a foreigner, she decided to take pity on me, which, of course, is nothing but the other side of power. The point is: there was no difference in attitude toward me as a guest, a customer or a patient. People acted as if I was at their mercy. In any case, they certainly did not bother to be polite.
BUT HOW, IN TRUTH, COULD THEY HAVE LEARNED differently? Where would they have seen a smile? Living among grim faces tinted by the drabness of daily hardships, they had no chance of knowing another way, much less changing overnight. Did they even recognize the need to change?
I remember my first flight to the United States in 1983 and I remember it because of a single episode. As we landed at JFK, a stewardess thanked us for flying Pan Am which was strange enough to my ears and then she said: “We are proud to serve you.” Her sentence struck me. Proud? How could anyone be proud to serve”! It was a kind of cultural shock to me. I was not accustomed to the word “serve” having a positive meaning. In my Eastern European vocabulary, it could only mean something bad: servitude, slavery, humiliation.
There was another cultural shock. On my first morning, when I went to a bakery, the woman behind the counter smiled and said: “So, how are you today?” I stood there, confused for a moment. “I’m a bit tired, I have jet lag,” I answered, but before I could finish she had already asked the next person the same thing. She clearly had no intention of waiting for my answer. I felt embarrassed. I was still not quite conscious that I was confronted with a code of communication that had nothing to do with her interest, the truth or my real feelings. The only proper and expected answer, I soon learned, was: “Thanks, I’m O.K.” But even this felt so much better than the suspicious, unfriendly expressions on the faces of salespersons in my part of the world. So, when another woman greeted me with a smiling “Have a nice day!” I smiled back and said, “You, too!” I suddenly realized that this sort of smile is important, and that it looks nice as well.
Sofia is a good place to observe the clash of the capitalist and Communist worlds. In the last three years the city has changed its face. It is booming with a new spirit of free enterprise. There are many new privately owned shops for food, clothes and electronic goods. But these businesses are not competing for customers. Even the street vendors have not yet discovered the trick of charming people into buying a pencil, a chocolate or a banana. They look at you as if your only aim in life is to steal their banana. Perhaps they don’t need to try so hard, since people here are hungry for everything new and Western. Also, if you keep in mind that until recently one had to bribe a salesperson to get a decent piece of meat or a pair of good shoes, the attitude of consumers and sellers is understandable, if hard to stand. But the reasons go deeper. In this ex-Communist country there is capitalism, but not the comprehension of it. Call it facade capitalism. Take, for example, the principle that a customer is always right for the simple reason that he has money. Here the logic of employees is just the opposite: “Don’t for a moment think that you are better than us because you have money! And if you have money we have our pride.” Capitalism is a confusing new process. It is confusing because everyone has to work hard, and yet only a few will get rich. It is confusing because it does not guarantee you a job, or security, or medical care, or a pension. The idea of social justice, even if it means no more than poverty for everyone, is still present, if not in politics, then in the collective psyche. People are not used to the fact that someone has money, and they react with aggression and contempt, laying bare a conflict between a new economy and the old Communist moral values.
If I go back to our education, to our textbooks with fat capitalists and starving workers, to our lessons in Marxism on class exploitation, then I can see where this non-smiling culture comes from. The liberated Communist working class has its pride; serving someone is not part of the ideology. This, plus egalitarianism, makes one understand that serving cannot be part of the code of communication here. Indeed, it could mean humiliation.
THE SAME GOES FOR A SMILE. YOU CAN wander from a shop to a hotel to a restaurant to a cafe private or not, doesn’t really matter and have as much chance of finding a smile as you would of striking gold. The reason? Not so long ago, a smile could provoke distrust. Why is that person smiling? Does it mean that he or she is happy? And how is it possible, with all this misery around us? To show happiness was a provocation, a reason for suspicion. If under communism everyone was unhappy, then it follows that no one would be smiling. It is logical, too, that smiling would not be a part of one’s profession. In Sofia, I became aware that what we call habits or social customs, under the new circumstances, reveal crucial misunderstandings, even signs of a culture clash. To overcome them, the former Communist world needs more than the introduction of a free-market economy, of private initiative or even democracy. “When I go to Sofia again, and see a smile, that for me will be a real token of change.
Leaving Sofia, I took a taxi to the airport. The driver of the old Lada did not even look at me. He muttered the price with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. The car was vibrating from loud disco music; his C.B. line was open, constantly transmitting static. But I did not say a word. I did not dare. His message was: “This is my car, and I do what I please. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” I thought. “Yes, Mr. Taxi Driver, I got ya!”
Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian writer, is author of the novel Marble Skin (W.W. Norton).
® Copyright 1994 by Slavenka Drakulic. Reprinted with permission of the author from The New Republic, May 23, 1994.