by Niall Doherty

I’ve always found it tough to be assertive. I feel like much of my life has been an ongoing battle with shyness, trying to grow more comfortable in my own skin, learning how to speak my mind unapologetically, figuring out how to stand up for myself.

I’ve made immense progress over the years, but I still have a ways to go. As the three stories below demonstrate, sometimes I still stumble, sometimes I feel like Donnie Draper, and other times I get schooled by an eight year old.

1. Five For Flinching

I’d walked out of that train station before, when I arrived in Bucharest a week earlier. So I knew what to expect.

He was a wide guy, but not very tall. He approached and asked good-naturedly if I was in need of a taxi.

I was. And I knew how much it should cost to get from the station to my buddy’s apartment: about 20 Romanian Lei.

— How much to Revolution Square?
— [Thinking for a second] 30 Lei.

I shake my head and look at the floor.

— Too much, I tell him.

And I immediately kick myself mentally for flinching. My words said one thing, my expression another.

— Okay, 25 Lei, comes his response.

I don’t push it any further. I almost feel like I should give him the full 30 as a penalty for my cowardice. All my talk about being courageous and I can’t even look this stranger in the eye while I try bargain with him.

But it’s not long before I quit beating myself up and start replaying the scene in my head, editing as I go. This time around I hold the cabbie’s gaze and negotiate confidently.

Words, facial expressions, body language… all congruent. I imagine it working out much better that way.

2. Kostas the Greek

I’ve been working my ass off ever since I got to Istanbul. It’s now Saturday evening and I’m headed towards the nightlife of Taksim, determined to let loose and have some fun before I leave town the following afternoon.

I’ve just left my hostel when two men stop me on the street, speaking a language I assume to be Turkish. I offer my usual response…

— Sorry, men. I only speak English.

One of them switches easily, asking if I know a good place to eat nearby. We get to chatting. He asks where I’m from, what I’m doing in Istanbul. He’s a stocky guy, shaved head, stubble. He carries himself well, confident, direct.

They’re both Greek, mid-thirties. The chatty one introduces himself as Kostas.

I keep the conversation playful, as I often try to do when I meet someone new. We’re sharing laughs for a minute or two.

But then the vibe turns.

Kostas starts talking about “Turkish pussy”, and loudly makes fun of a random passerby with unusual hair. Realizing that these aren’t my kind of people, I’m about to excuse myself and move along when Kostas throws it out there…

— Hey, we should hang out tonight. Where you headed?

I know I’ll kick myself if I flinch again. I keep my head up and respond calmly…

— I’m heading to Taksim to find some nightlife. And if you don’t mind, fellas, I’d rather go alone.

I’m pretty sure I glimpse a sneer flash across his face, followed by the words…

— Yeah, we do mind actually.

He holds eye contact for a second, then turns to his buddy.

— What do you say? Wanna go hang out with this guy?

I speak again, more firmly this time, never taking my eyes off him.

— Men, no offense, but I’m going to Taksim, and I’m going there alone. Have a good evening.

With that, I turn and walk away. I don’t look back until I’m around the corner and halfway down the next street. Nobody’s following me.

A warm thrill rises inside my chest. I feel powerful.

I know it’s going to be a good night.

3. Four-foot Opportunist

He couldn’t have been more than eight years old.

I didn’t even notice him until I was already at the machine, with 20 Turkish Lira in my hand, calmly waiting for the ticket-buying process to become self-evident.

He comes up beside me, all bright-eyed, dirt-cheeked and enthusiastic, unfamiliar words spilling from his mouth.

I try explaining that I don’t understand a word he’s saying, and motion for him to run along and bother someone else.

But he has no intention of letting me off so lightly. He points up at the machine, then takes the 20 Lira note from my hand, assertively, not aggressively.

I’m mesmerized by the audacity of this kid. I watch him put the note in the machine, first turning it around and upside down as if there’s some special trick to the whole note-entry operation. He proceeds to push the button for a single ticket, after I indicate that a single is all I need.

Then, stepping right between me and the machine, he gathers all the change and the token that spills into the tray. All done, he turns and starts counting eighteen one Lira coins into my amused hand.

I’m waiting for him to hold a coin for himself, but he doesn’t. It’s all there when he’s done counting, eighteen coins and a bright red token.

I pass him back two coins and pat him on the shoulder as I walk towards the gate. He follows me beaming, making sure I know were to put the token to get through said gate. Once I’m at the other side, he flashes me a thumbs up, then turns his attention back to the ticket machine.

As I leave Istanbul behind, two thoughts cross my mind.

First: While I consider them cute right now, I’ll probably grow real weary of kids hustling my foreign self for change at every metro, train and bus station from here to Kupang.

Second: I’m pretty sure that one particular kid will do just fine in life. Unlike Kostas the Greek, he’s learned to be assertive without being pushy. I hope to perfect that balance myself some day.

P.S. I’m currently riding a three-day train from Ankara to Tehran. Comment moderation will be a wee bit slow.