Watching the World Go By

I have to admit to being an inveterate observer – not just of people, but of my surroundings. I have long enjoyed simply to stroll the streets of the city, noting such changes as have occurred since my last amble in that vicinity, and this reason alone explains my propensity for walking rather than riding, and for public transport over driving. But given a sunny day and sufficient free time, my greatest self-indulgence is to settle myself at a table at a street café, and simply to observe the eccentricities of the characters who populate this city, and who guarantee I never experience a moment’s boredom within its confines...

Some years ago, having a coffee in Pasaréti tér, my attention was attracted by an elderly woman approaching from around the corner – I was able to hear her before I could see her: she kept up a steady monologue to her equally invisible companion about the exhorbitant rise in her medication and the scandal of government subsidies being reduced on medicines. As she rounded the tree, becoming visible, I saw that her escort was neither her friend nor husband, but a somewhat portly dachshund. They continued past my vantage point, only to return some ten minutes later with the requisite medicaments, and with the elegantly-attired lady continuing her diatribe, pausing only to wish some acquaintance, “Good morning,” before disappearing once more from view.

Last summer, I was sitting lazily outside the Europa café in the sun, when my attention was drawn to an elderly man in tracksuit and trainers nearby. He stopped adjacent to a nearby lamp-post a mere few metres from my table, and, holding on to it, began to perform his constitutional exercises - much like a ballerina at the barre in a slow motion version of a silent movie. Paying not the slightest notice either to us or passers-by, he continued thus for some twenty minutes before shuffling on along up Szent István Körút.

Rushing to work in the rain just a week ago, I noticed an elegantly-dressed man in a suit some distance ahead of me who kept bending over as though to adjust his shoelaces. I soon caught up with him, stooping again over his shoes and oblivious to my stares as I saw him carefully remove a snail in danger of pedestrians’ feet, and put it safely to one side on the grass verge….

An ex-colleague visited recently from Basel where she now lives – her most frequent complaint with the city being its perfect organisation and lack of the ‘character’ she came to love in Budapest. We decided to eat out on the terrace of Két Szerecsen, where we caught up with the eighteen months since our last meeting. While we waited for our wine, we noticed a man crossing the road towards us, carrying two buckets. He stopped just the other side of the wooden trellis separating us from the pavement, and started digging up the soil in the large, concrete box there, in perfect view of several diners and any passer-by. He methodically filled both buckets with fresh earth – perhaps put in readiness for flowers to be planted the following day – and then returned from whence he had come, no questions asked.

Yet the most incongruous spectacle I still remember with great fondness, happened one June about ten years ago. It was almost seven o’clock on a sunny summer’s morning as I drove around Hősök tere, taking my children to school. As we turned onto the grand avenue that is Andrássy út, its wonderful villas bathed in dappled sunlight, its footpaths lined with flowers, I had to slow down dramatically in order to confirm what I thought I had seen, but could not believe: walking alongside the neatly trimmed bushes that border the flower beds, was a man leading a large white goat on a lead, waiting patiently while it nibbled the fresh greenery available for its breakfast!


Signs and Portents

I was 23 years old when, alighting from the dodgems in an English country fairground, I announced, ‘I want to learn to drive.’ Those brave individuals – including my husband and my brother – who volunteered to take me out to practise, were sorely tested. When asked how it had gone, my brother stated simply, ‘I didn’t know what fear was before this afternoon.’ This aside, I managed to pass my driving test first time, and to date have been the cause of only one accident with another vehicle. I have driven to a good number of other countries including twice from Budapest to England without any trouble at all. In fact, I enjoy driving.

However, I have to admit to having failed abysmally in trying to fathom the signs and regulations governing traffic in this country. Admittedly, I have no excuse, since the Hungarian equivalent of the Highway Code, KRESZ, is available on the internet; I am also not unaware that there is now a written exam in Britain which did not exist when I took my test. Yet the entire KRESZ document is comparable only to a legal contract: paragraphs and sub-sections, references back to previous (i) or (a) or (b) points, all swimming in a mass of dense text and convoluted sentence structures. Certainly not to be undertaken by the faint-hearted!

When my children were making their own intrepid attempts to commit these some five-hundred rules to memory (another sixty have just been added or modified), they also began to analyse and pass critical comment on my hitherto acceptable mode of conveying them about the city: ‘You don’t have to give way here – look, that street’s got the mackósajt sign!’ explained my son. This aforementioned mackósajt is the affectionate term for the upturned triangular Give Way sign familiar all over Europe, which indeed resembles the triangles of processed cheese (sajt) with the bear (mackó) on the label. What is not quite so well understood is that in order to determine that you have right of way, and that the drivers coming from your right have to stop, you are required to look along the road at rightangles to yours and try to spot the back of this sign! I have as yet not managed to achieve this at a speed which does not require me to slow down, especially in summer months when foliage may obscure the sign altogether – and I was taught to keep my eyes on the road (the one I am driving down!)

The truth is, that the most obvious difference when driving in Hungary – as in many areas of life – is that the regulations seem to provide more of a reference point than a series of unassailable rules; more of a general indicator of what the average driver is deviating from, than a rigid law. For example, probably around fifty percent of drivers do not wear seat belts, and most use their hand-held mobile phones as a matter of course. No sane pedestrian would expect a driver to stop for them – not even when that driver is a policeman – even allowing for any number of painted lines on the road or signs not obscured by greenery. So well trained is the average pedestrian, in fact, that when I recently stopped at a pedestrian crossing where the lights were out of order, and waved the man across, he steadfastly refused to move, angrily gesticulating at me to move on.

Thus, I continue to drive in the strange hybrid style born of a British training and a Hungarian penchant for jumping the lights – which must surely explain their time delay – and conclude that probably the best possible preparation for taking to Budapest’s roads would indeed be a few hours spent on the dodgems.


Easter in the Country

Living in the city, it is doubtful whether even the Budapestiek will have experienced a ‘real’ Easter: a gentrified and somewhat anodyne version of events is practised by some in Budapest, but the colourful traditions of the festival can only be experienced outside the capital.
The giving of young rabbits to children alongside both chocolate and painted eggs is, of course, to be found in the cities – though the feasibility of keeping them in a country garden (as opposed to donating them to the zoo, where it is strenuously denied that they are used as fodder for the carnivores!) is obvious. For those who attend church, people in country towns and especially villages, may take their Easter fare to be blessed on Easter Sunday morning. The freshly-baked sweet bread (kalács) is carefully covered in white cloths and carried to the local church where, weather permitting, services are sometimes held outside. Easter lunches, frequently attended by the whole extended family, can be as important an event as Christmas.
But it is Easter Monday which is witness to the real disparity between town and country. This is the day for locsolás, for ‘watering’ the girls. In Budapest, this consists of fathers and sons visiting female relatives, or maybe limiting themselves to those in their own family flat. The boys should recite a short poem to the effect that they noticed a flower wilting, and ask the ‘flower’s’ permission to water her. The girl acquiesces and her hair is sprinkled with (usually cheap and overpoweringly fragrant) cologne. Bottles of this dubious eau-de-cologne can be seen on sale on every street corner in the days leading up to Easter. Hereupon, the girl gives the boy an Easter egg – traditionally a dyed red one, and maybe also some money.
My first experience of this day was in Hajdúböszörmény, close to Debrecen. The family we were staying with had no fewer than seven (now adult) sons and one daughter. By ten o’clock the seven elegantly-dressed boys accompanied by their sons, and with my husband Paul in tow, left for their annual walk around the town, pockets bulging with bottles of cologne, the young boys with small baskets in which to carry their booty. They always called on every single female relative, from their 90-year-old maiden aunt, to the youngest newborn baby in the family. Two of the men also carried soda syphons – the real tradition of locsolás consisting of drenching the village girls with buckets of water!
I was left at home with the seven boys’ mother, her daughter and granddaughter, to prepare both for the men’s return, and any others who might meanwhile call on us. A large bowl of dyed red eggs had been prepared the previous day, and plates of smoked ham, boiled eggs, and kalács stood in readiness, alongside bottles of wine and homemade pálinka. We had several visitors, some of whom recited long verses of which I understood not a word, but knew I must answer igen when the recitation stopped. In return for being saved from wilting, I then offered the egg, food and drink.
It was well after noon when the crowd of men and boys returned – in various stages of inebriation, from the mildly merry to the totteringly tipsy. But the worst casualty of all was Paul – being less experienced, and not wanting to offend any of his hosts, he had accepted the pálinka proffered in every home, and was literally carried through the garden gate and into the house where he slept until late into the evening. Whose fate was worse we discussed at length: Paul’s hangover lasted only another twenty-four hours; my hair, following sixteen 'waterings', and even in spite of washing it daily, still reeked of cheap perfume for more than a week.