I thought I was losing my sense of reason. I thought it was because I’ve lived in the one place for so long. I thought I’d bought into blind acceptance and had literally signed my questioning self over to the bureaucrats.
Hungary loves its paperwork. It’s very fond of its forms. It collects signatures like tegestologists collect beer mats or tyrosemiophiles collect cheese labels.
Years ago, when I knew no better, I went to get a pay-as-you-go mobile for my visitors. I had to sign a contract, prove where I lived, and hand over my passport. When I asked why all this was needed, it was explained to me that lots of people who inhabit the criminal world use throw-away phones to do their deals, so this added security was actually for my own good. Apparently, by producing that ID, by proving where I live, and by signing that contract, the powers-that-be would be able to trace me should my phone ever be used to contact a cartel in Columbia or dial up some dope. I was peeved at the implications but I signed.
A supplier once wanted to refund me money when I mistakenly paid a company bill twice. They sent it via the postman. I was out when he called so I had to go in person to the post office to collect it. I brought my passport, my company stamp, registration card, driver’s licence, proof of address, proof of directorship, latest blood results… but it wasn’t enough. There was one piece of paper that I didn’t have that the post office needed to refund me money. I haven’t double-paid anything since.
I find myself volunteering details of what I’ve had for breakfast, if I’m asked, so used am I to giving up personal information to nameless faces. But the other day, I actually stopped and asked why. Why do you need my name and address?
I was in the post office earlier this week (I love that place). I wanted to post two letters. I didn’t need an afá szamla (invoice). Usually I just get a receipt and go. But I also bought two of their rather lovely Hungarian-motif gift bags. And because I bought something other than a stamp or a scratch card, the lady needed to give me a personalised receipt. I said again I didn’t need an afá szamla. She said it didn’t matter. I was buying something other than a stamp or a scratch card (what part of this did I not understand?) so she needed my name and address. I asked why? And I got that ‘just because’ look. And I folded. I gave it up. I wasn’t brave enough to walk away.
The much underrated comedian Mitch Hedberg came to mind. (King of the one-line non-sequiturs; when he died way before his time the world lost a very funny man.) ‘I bought a doughnut and they gave me a receipt for the doughnut… I don’t need a receipt for the doughnut. I give you money and you give me the doughnut, end of transaction. We don’t need to bring ink and paper into this. I can’t imagine a scenario that I would have to prove that I bought a doughnut. To some skeptical friend, ‘Don’t even act like I didn’t get that doughnut, I’ve got the documentation right here… It’s in my file at home. …Under “D”.’
Now that I’m on record as having purchased two Hungarian-motif gift bags, I wonder what will come of it? Will my recklessness come back to haunt me? Next time I’ll just go to the papír iroda (stationery office) – they don’t ask questions.
First published in the Budapest Times 20 June 2014