Clobbered by Courtesy

You can learn a lot by taking the bus around Belgrade.

The first thing I learned was how much I missed having a car. Once I got over that (about 7 minutes ago, approximately), I began to realize how much taking the bus is like following Rod Steiger through the doors of imagination into the Twilight Zone. The surreal is real on the bus. And it all happens in real time.

The first hyperdimensional shift happens on the approach to the bus stop. This is the moment when you realize that people taking the bus are suddenly completely alone. You may be a good citizen and a pleasant part of your community, saying hello to the neighbors on the elevator and holding the door for Mrs. Pavlovic, but as soon as you get within reach of a bus stop, all other people fade away.

People on the bus exist in isolated bubbles. We do not see each other. We crowd close together, sometimes nose-to-nose, but they do not affect us. We have our bubbles. All around us, people scratch themselves in odd places, pick their noses, sometimes talk to themselves. All things that NEVER happen outside the bus-bubble. And, oddly, we say nothing.

Why? Because our bubbles protect us from civil responsibility. On the bus, we get a pass for all of this behavior that usually would have us gawking and pointing and alerting the media.

Case in Point. You are standing on Kralja Petra trying to remember in which café you were supposed to meet someone, and someone comes up and stands one centimeter from your face and then begins humming to himself. You might be taken aback by it. You might leap backwards and trip over the person you were looking for behind you.

You might have a psychotic episode.

On the bus, however, this happens regularly. Safe in our bubbles, we crowd closer together than hormone-amped teenagers at a nightclub. Hands touch legs. Legs touch elbows. Backs press against shoulders. Shoulders meet chins. And all we stand there quietly as the bus lurches forward.

Bubbles, however, can be broken.

This happened to me a week ago. I was quietly jammed into the door of the 26 at impossible angles and trying to maintain normal breathing. When the doors opened at Dusanova, new passengers looked at the human wall that we formed and decided to press in. I made a noise.

As an aside, I often make noises unconsciously when dismayed, appalled, or unnaturally pleased with something. This was an oh-my-god-what-are-you-thinking noise.

My noise, it seems, started a chain reaction of bursting bus-bubbles. A man somewhere behind me, crammed in at a 67-degree angle, was clearly outraged!

“What did you SAY?” Tone: louder than necessary.

Nothing, I answered. What would I say?

“You think they don’t have the right to get on the bus?!?” The voice was menacing.

I didn’t say anything, bre! That was meant to establish rapport: it failed.

“Who do you think you are, coming here to take OUR busses?”

I withdrew back into my bubble, but 67-Degree Man did not finish his monologue until Trg Republika, where I disembarked and reassembled my body parts into their proper sequence.

Upon reflection, I realized that he had been performing an act of Civil Nobility. He rushed to the defense of (whoever it was with the brilliant idea of pushing onto a fully saturated bus) and chivalrously defended them (her?) against my belligerent noise.

But because of our bubbles, the noble act has to be aggressive and hostile. It would not be enough (as it might be in the US or England) to clear your throat meaningfully. Defending the pressers-in, this guy had to whack me on the head, break my bubble, and shout. And when I jostled myself off the bus, I did not feel that I had received a correction in the social graces. I had been clobbered by courtesy.

I made a dismayed and disgruntled noise. Privately, so as not to be whacked again.

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