Nincs probléma

As a child, I hated going to the dentist. I couldn’t stand the way this kind, well-meaning man would tell my mother that the p-a-i-n wouldn’t be too bad but that the d-r-i-l-l might be s-c-a-r-y. I was 10 years old for God’s sake. Surely he knew I could s-p-e-l-l? As a teenager, I dreaded going to the hairdresser.  My colourist once got into an argument on the phone with her boyfriend and forgot about my peroxide. This happened the same day my passport expired. I had to live with that photo for ten years.  As an adult, living in Budapest, I now break out in a cold sweat at the thoughts of going anywhere near a phone company. To date, by my reckoning, my attempts to get wireless Internet in my flat have cost me 21 hours, a complete set of fingernails, and my dignity.

For the purpose of this account, let’s not go with the usual Company A, Company B, or Company C. Let’s instead do something completely radical and call them, say, Company T, Company U, and Company V.

T is for thrasonical

My electrician assured me that my flat was wired for a phone and therefore I should get wireless Internet. Nincs probléma, he said. I cajoled a Hungarian friend of mine into coming with me when I paid the first of three office visits to Company T. I had every form of ID imaginable, including my birth certificate and vaccination records. Best be prepared. We explained that I wanted wireless Internet in my flat and that my KFT was registered at one address but that the Internet was to be installed at another. We filled in the forms, handed over the various proofs of identity and were assured that a technician would call out, to the right address, the following whenever.  Nincs probléma.

And call he did, on schedule, but to the wrong address. I called my friend. She called Company T. They said they’d have to reschedule. Nincs probléma. Then they sent me a letter confirming that I had cancelled my contract; shame we couldn’t do business, etc. What? I went back to Company T with yet another Hungarian-speaking friend and went through the whole scenario again: explanation, confusion, clarity, assurances, forms, ID, and signatures.  Almost two hours into the process, just as I’d signed my name for the umpteenth time, I was told: sorry, whoops, Company T didn’t service my building after all.  mmmm…

U is for unthirlable

So I tried Company U. I decided to phone. The woman I spoke to was a breath of fresh air. Of course they could supply me with Internet. Nincs probléma. What package did I want? I was on a high. I couldn’t believe it. The technician would be out in a couple of days. He came. He saw. He told me the wires wouldn’t reach from the second floor to the fourth floor. Terribly sorry and all that…but they couldn’t help me after all. Anyway, he said, almost as an afterthought, I should be dealing with Company T as they provide Internet to most of this building.  I checked with two of my neighbours and yes, one used Company T, and the other used Company U. mmmm…

So back I went to Company T. I knew the drill:  explanation, confusion, clarity, assurances, forms, ID, and signatures.  Just let me check one thing, the girl said, again nearly two hours into the process. Yes…. it appears that your building is oversubscribed. Sorry! Oversubscribed? I blew a gasket.

V is for verisimilitude

Next stop on the Internet tour was Company V. Same drill: explanation, confusion, clarity, assurances, forms, ID, and signatures Nincs probléma. But, wait! They could only give me mobile Internet. It wasn’t what I wanted but I was desperate. It worked fine for three days. All was well with the world. Life was good. Then, for no obvious reason, it stopped. I went to their office with my laptop and the offending stick. It works fine, the chap said, having checked it on his machine. He was busily texting his mate and not even looking at me! In a voice that would freeze the blood in Berlusconi’s veins, I reminded him that I was the customer; that I should be his priority; that he should cease texting and look at me; that I was paying for a service I wasn’t getting; and that my Internet DID NOT WORK. And then I broke down.  Dignity? What dignity? I flung myself across his desk and bawled.  I couldn’t take any more of this. People got hooked up with Internet every day. Why not me? He checked my laptop. He checked the stick. He did what he had to do. And he fixed it. Nincs probléma.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 April 2010

My Balkan affair

I think I’m in love with the idea of being in love. I’ve always been a one-man woman. I first realised this when I was 12 and had to make a choice between Pete Duel and Ben Murphy, the stars of that all-time-great TV show, Alias Smith and Jones. I just didn’t have it in me to fancy them both. It was tough. Now, some years later, I still can’t fancy two blokes at the same time. I’m trying, honestly, but it’s tough, and very limiting. I’m getting better with cities and countries, though. The more I travel, the more I realise that I simply can’t be in love with one place… I have to  broaden my scope a little and allow myself some leeway. It’s possible to love different countries for different reasons and, trollop that I am, I don’t feel the slightest remorse about embarking on my Balkan affair.

I met my neighbour in the lift on Easter Saturday, as I was heading to the train station. She asked me where I was going. I said Serbia. She asked where. I said Subotica. She said, rather dismissively, ah, Szabadka…that’s still Hungary! And for many years it was and for many people it still is.  Since the 2002 censuses in Romania and Serbia, Subotica has become the largest city outside Hungary in which Hungarians are the largest ethnic group, although they have only a relative majority 34.99%. But oh my, what a difference.

The Hungarian borderguards come on board at Kelebia. Some twenty minutes later, there’s the Serbian border check,  about 100 yards from the train station in Subotica. It takes a while…up to an hour to clear them both.  And there’s no point in hurrying or getting exasperated because it’s not just about crossing a border, it’s about completely shifting your mindset.  Maybe it was because it was the Easter weekend. Maybe it was because the sun was shining. Maybe it was because everyone uses ‘Ciao’ rather than ‘Szia’ but you know immediately you’re in another country and it’s nothing got to do with the language or the currency. You can feel it. It’s in the air. You’re in the Balkans.

Subotica is a city. Once the second-largest in Hungary, it’s now the fifth largest in Serbia. And it’s chock full of Art Nouveau buildings. It’s beautiful. Families stroll the streets. People sit at outdoor tables drinking what looks like orange juice and coffee. The beer is good, cold and cheap. The service is excellent. People are friendly. They’re happy. They’re chilled out. They’re helpful. And they know how to laugh. Deep, belly laughs that spill over and are infectious. They’re fashionable, too. While Puma and Adidas seem to sell as well as they do in Dublin, in Subotica they wear their tracksuits with style. Colourful, coordinated, and, dare I say it, almost cool!  Those not in their leisure gear look as if they’ve stepped off the catwalk in Milan. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. There’s a certain panache that no amount of money can buy and this city has it!It took us a while to figure out how to order a tejes kavé though. It translates into a Nes coffee, often listed on the menu as Nescafé. I wonder if any trademark guys ever come here on holiday?

Although the hotel we stayed in, Hotel Gloria, deserves every one of its four stars, you have to wonder who stays there. I couldn’t find a single postcard on sale and the currency exchange booths seem to cater more for locals crossing over and back than for tourists. Perhaps people simply don’t get off the train…they leave Budapest and go straight through to Belgrade. Or perhaps, the Suboticans respect those brave enough to disembark and that’s why we were treated so well. How about this for a conspiracy theory:  they don’t want tourists! So the view of the outskirts is deliberately bleak. It’s been dressed up to look like a rubbish tip. The kids have a ball spreading the litter about, the houses are deliberately rundown and the gardens purposefully overgrown. If you hadn’t planned on stopping, nothing you see would entice you get off the train.  And if you fell for this trick of theirs, then you’d miss something glorious.

Many of the buildings are being or have been restored. More are in desperate need of some care and attention. The trees lining the streets create weird and wonderful shadows. It’s other-worldly. Even the graffiti is different – it’s almost reflective. We had great plans, IM and me, to find the house where Kosztolányi Deszo was born abut no-one seemed to know where it was. There is very little signage to show what anything is and what’s there seems very personal, as if it’s to remind the locals of what has happened rather than to educate the foreigners. To my shame, I know so very little about what happened here not so long ago; it came as such a shock to see such recent dates on war memorials.  But where other countries seem to want to forget, Subotica is very much about remembering. There’s  a huge fundraising effort ongoing to restore the synagogue and it’s already showing some of that old spectacular greatness. The plaque in the garden reads: In memory of 4000 Jewish citizen with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the fascist death camps during the World War II. We visited many churches. You know of course that every time you visit a church for the first time, you get three wishes? And interestingly, it was outside the Orthodox church that the Roma children had gathered, hands outstretched, palms upwards. With muttered ‘I’m not an ATM’ or ‘Do I look like a bank’ the people gave their coins. It made me sad to think that from such a young age, these kids are being taught to expect handouts. Their mothers waited outside the church while the men hovered at the corner, keeping a manly eye on things. I wondered briefly why I hadn’t see them in such numbers outside the Catholic churches… and if that’s indicative of anything or nothing at all.

I don’t know many Serbs but the ones I do know are  imbued with a passion for life and for living. They have a presence about them. They’ve lived through things I will never fully comprehend and despite this, and perhaps because of it, they have an appreciation for living in the now. They understand the transiency of time. No matter their size, their strength, both physcial and mental, is tangible.  One day soon I will make it to Belgrade and then further afield, perhaps to Croatia, Kosovo,  Bosnia or Montenegro. They say you know you’re really in the Balkans when all you can find is Turkish coffee. I am glad I didn’t just plunge in…I quite enjoyed my Nescafé.

Geneva conventions

I was proposed to in Geneva. Earlier this year, in January. As I stood outside these very gates. And I was flattered. He described himself as a political refugee from Zurich. An older man whose face had weathered many winters but whose eyes were still those of a very early spring. He was fun. He asked me if I was married. I said no. He asked me if I had any children. I said no. He asked me if I was in love. I said no. He asked me if I spoke French. I said no, but that I could read it and write it, I just couldn’t roll those r’s. Then he asked me if I believed in God. I said yes.  He paused. Smiled. And then asked me what I thought my mother would say if he called her and asked to marry me. I said she’d be delighted. That delighted him. He laughed. He said we could have a good future. I didn’t doubt him for a minute. This was Geneva, the city whose streets are literally paved with gold, where if you’re ‘in’ you’re in!

It had been twenty years or more since I’d last visited the city and I didn’t remember much about it other than the high prices and the pink bicycles that you could pick up and ride for free. I had vague memories of the lake but couldn’t for the life of me conjure up the feel of the place – how I’d felt when I’d been there. Now I was getting a second chance at a first impression. The city offers free travel in from the airport. Impressive. When you check into your hotel, you get a free travel pass for the duration of your stay. Very impressive. I met my host, the inimitable MM, the man from Belgrade. After a quick beer, he took me on a walking tour of his part of the city. It was late on a Thursday night but the place was quiet. Few people walked the streets and those who did spoke softly. The restaurants and cafés were almost empty; few, if any, showed signs of that bustling night life I had come to expect from a major European city. The liveliest place we came across was Serbian owned. No surprises there!

There was no litter. The streets were clean. Any that might be dropped overnight would be gone again by morning. What graffiti I could see was tasteful, almost arty, serving more to transform an existing monstrosity into something more appealing. We walked up through the cobblestone streets of the old quarter, passed the statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I had forgotten, if indeed I ever knew, that Geneva was the centre of the Calvinist Reformation in Europe. His church and the museum are well worth a visit. Hearing Calvin lecture on issues that are still so relevant today was slightly surreal. Religious freedom was limited here, as it was pretty much in all of Europe in the 1500s. The maxim of cuius regio, eius religio  (whose region, his religion) meant that you simply adopted the faith of  your ruler. Makes you wonder about the origins of the phrase ‘When in Rome…’ If you didn’t like it, you moved elsewhere. Switzerland, too, had its witch trials.  Between about 1530 and 1600, numerous witch trials were held in both Protestant and Catholic cantons, often ending in death sentences, the most common form of which was burning at the stake.

Geneva is in the southwestern corner of Switzerland. Most of it in fact, borders France. It was once an independent republic and, even today, still considers itself a republic in the Swiss confederacy. During Napoleon’s time, it was annexed and occupied by France. Liberated in 1813, it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815 as the 22nd canton. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, each a member state of the federal state of Switzerland. Perhaps America is a lot closer than we think!

The city itself is a veritable garden: there are 310 hectares of parks, 40,000 trees in public areas, 428,000 plants, including 40,000 rose bushes. The famous flower clock unfortunately, was out of order, because of vandalism. Is this a sign of the times, where lawlessness has breached the borders of a country that is known for its clock-work precision and almost puritanical ways? Down by the lake, the Jet d’eau is very much alive and spurting.  It really is something to behold. And again, my thoughts return to America and to Old Faithful, but without the steam!

The Plaine de Plainpalais didn’t look much that night. But the next day, when it hosted the local farmers market or the day after when it morphed into a flea market, it was truly spectacular.  A posher version of Esceri here in Budapest, more expensive and more upmarket. But then, that’s Geneva in a nutshell.

I’m very gullible, easily impressed. My life so far has been a series of one spontaneous move after the next. In the aftermath of visiting a new city, I can almost always imagine myself living there. Almost always. Geneva is a fine city. It has lots going on. It has more than 200 international governmental and nongovernmental organisations headquartered there. It is the home of the United Nations, windowless banks, designer watches and fancy hotels. It is clean, beautiful, and gentrified.  It offered me a glimpse perhaps of how life might have been, had I made different choices. I was there to work and I was lucky enough to have the time to see more than just the inside of an office. I had an excellent guide. I enjoyed my stay. But I doubt very much that I’d ever want to live there.