“A Soft Answer turneth away Wrath.”

Updated: 7 days ago

King James Bible, Proverbs 15: 1

by Vincent Guy

Credit: Adi Goldstein. Unsplash


Scene One. December 1973

I’d been teaching English in Milan. Two colleagues, Gary and Andrew, driving home to UK for Christmas, invite me to join them. As a non-driver I sit snugly in the back. It’s the Great Oil Crisis and the world is imploding around us. In Italy we’re only allowed to travel on alternate days. People are riding horseback along the main streets. Credit cards are no longer accepted; it’s cash only. Half the petrol stations are already out of fuel. The best route seems to be through the Monte Bianco Tunnel. As we approach there’s a queue several miles long. The French lorry-drivers have blocked the tunnel in protest against who knows what. We join the queue in orderly British fashion, but some drivers have other ideas, honking to push past. My colleagues refuse to give way and, as fluent linguists, toss some strong Italian words out of the car window. The pushy car empties, men approach, dressed in some kind of hunting gear; there are shotguns in the back of their vehicle. My colleagues get out to negotiate. Negotiation for the other team means a punch in the eye for Gary, while Andrew is shoved backwards over our bonnet. Still huddled in the back of the car, I feel I should contribute, climb out and grab the bonnet merchant by the upper arm. It’s solid muscle, like gripping the steel cables in a giant crane. As I’m wondering what impression I might make on this metallic flesh, a voice announces: “Siamo in cinque!” ("There’s five of us")


He sounds like a referee, but clearly calling for the opposing team. A simple fact: we’re outnumbered. Gary and Andrew, forced to yield to superior numbers, get back in the car and move it out of the way. The huntsmen manage to nudge a few metres further along the queue, without much progress towards the tunnel mouth, kilometres ahead. My pugilistic skills remain untested. Oddly enough, after a Christmas in candle-lit 3-day-week Britain, when we get back to Milan to tell our story, friends say: “Oh, you’d have been all right. You had Vincent with you.”

Scene Two. February 2009

Evening. Darkness. As I’m cycling homeward a few hundred metres from my house, the door of a parked car opens abruptly in my face. Forced to swerve, I half-turn my head to hiss at the driver:

You Silly Ass!”

Pedalling onward, I hear the screech of rubber. He’s giving chase. In front of my house, he somehow corners me between the front door and a wall. No escape. He looks threatening.

Between gnashing teeth, he growls:

You called me an arsehole!”

A few weeks previously I’d fallen off the bike, leaving me with a frozen shoulder. I can’t even lift my right arm to defend myself. He looks at least a head taller than me. My heart pounding, I think I’m going to come out of this with something worse than a frozen shoulder. I look him straight in the eye:

No, I didn’t.”


As I speak, I consider whether I should clarify what I did say, but my thundering heart tells me it might upset him even more. As I look at him he seems to shrink. Now he’s my height or perhaps even shorter. He turns, gets back in his car and drives away. My heart rate still dangerously high, I walk up to my front door and close it behind me.

Scene Three. April 2019

Having celebrated Greek Easter with friends in Crete, I set off with my companion, Kalliopi, in our hired Fiat Panda for a cruise into the hills. Scenery magnificent, villages shabby with Balkan cement architecture, old ladies in black staring into space, old men in black probably talking politics. I set a time limit of 4.30 to turn round. As that time approaches, we land up in a slightly larger village, Zonianas. In the central square, half a dozen urchins appear, demonstrating their command of global English by telling us, along with appropriate hand gestures, to “Fuck Off!”


Past them, we seem to run out of road. In a dead end, the boys reappear, more shouts; they stand in front of the car challenging me to drive into them. One starts to twist the windscreen wipers, another bashes at the car with a bottle, then sprays the contents at the window, another one lies down in the road, pretending to be run over. One manages to open the passenger door, which somehow hasn't been locked. I manage to shut it again and drive off. But still no way out of town. Find ourselves circling the football field and back in the square. The whole thing starts all over again. Finally, we manage to drive away from these rascals, but still don’t find the road to escape the village. Another cul-de-sac. A kindly lady tells us to reverse. Reluctantly, but with no choice, I do so. Back in the square; this time, no boys. A car drives by, we wave, he stops, looking rather grim, sceptical on hearing of our troubles, but tells us the route out.


Driving home, hearts palpitating, we wonder if it is wise to drive across the island again tomorrow.


That night I reflect on my sense of impotence: the scene was completely unexpected, I didn't know the way out, didn't feel master of the rented car, didn't even speak Greek. But then realise it could have ended much worse. They could easily have stolen our bags with wallets and cameras; we couldn’t have given chase. I might have driven into one of the boys, by mistake, even deliberately. If one of them got hurt, we could expect no sympathy from the villagers. Had we managed to drive away from the scene, an older brother, or a father, would have raced after us, knowing the road, with a bigger car, beaten us up, pushed our car into a gorge. Who knows?


Next day, we pack while perusing the map for our next destination. As we are leaving, our host Giorgos comes in to say goodbye. We are unsure whether to tell him about our encounter, but we do so.


You went to Zonianas! That village is notorious. They shoot policemen up there, it’s a no-go area, centre of the drug trade for the whole Eastern Mediterranean, the shame of all Crete. You should have asked me! “


What are the elements here? Provocation is one. Perception, how the people involved read the situation. Bulk, weight of numbers, physical size. And Progression.

Provocation and Perception:

Who is doing the provoking? In the Alps my friends’ use of a single word (stronzo, if you speak Italian) was almost enough to see all three of us hurled down the nearby precipice. I’ve been in other minor incidents where a single swear word has been taken as the most extreme insult. To me on my bike the touchy driver was out of order in leaving his door swinging in my face. But he misheard my fairly mild hiss as an insulting curse, enough to trigger his road rage. In the Cretan village the lads seemed to be attacking us well-meaning tourists without rhyme or reason, or did they see us as the intruders, encroaching on their tribal territory, threatening the family business.


Bulk:

The Alpine hunters were likely all experienced brawlers, extremely fit; a calm word from one of them to point out their numerical advantage was enough to bring the show to a close. It certainly surprised me that my Milanese friends imagined I could take care of myself and others in a punch up. I’ve not really been in a fight since primary school playground, and even that may be a distorted memory; I might well have been just one of the onlookers. Of only average height, I do have good shoulders and a tendency to look people directly in the eye which some have even complained about. So maybe I project the image, even if I could never deliver the goods.


Cyclists are essentially vulnerable; a car is virtually a lightweight tank. Once out of the driving seat, my opponent was no longer a giant. My ‘soft answer’ made us equals and he could not hear my thumping blood.


The village boys outnumbered us; our fears were ramped up by the sense that their adult relatives could appear at any moment and put an end to the dispute, or even to us.


Progression:

These are not static scenes but changing every second. It’s what makes boxing or football exciting to watch: the outcome can surprise us at any moment. And such clashes can emerge from nowhere, out of the blue.


As the Roman author, Vegetius*, wrote in the late 4th century:

Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.”(“If you want peace, prepare for war”)

He no doubt had in mind keeping swords and spears well sharpened. Personal challenges like those I’ve recounted here call rather for the prepared mind.


US President Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919), had plenty of experience of conflict, both physical and political. He put it thus:

Speak softly and carry a big stick

It behoves us to be ever alert, ready to stay calm, to give that soft answer; but not too soft.

*Nothing is known of Vegetius, except that he wrote two books, one a five-volume ‘How to’ on military matters (how to arrange and fortify a camp, how to deal with indiscipline in the ranks, how to mount a siege etc), the other a treatise on veterinary medicine.

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