Everyone is a foreigner somewhere. I’ve been a foreigner for almost half my life. And while there are days when I wish that I fit in, that I could speak the language well enough to get by, and that I had an innate, almost intuitive understanding of all things cultural here in Hungary, there are other times that I delight in being a külföldi. And if I have to be a foreigner, being Irish is perhaps about as good as it gets. But then, I’m biased.
I don’t think there will ever be a time when I don’t hanker for something from home – be it crisps or chocolate or tea. There will always been comparisons in my mind, ratings and yardsticks that help analyse how I feel about something and offer some sense of perspective on an issue that’s bothering me. And yet when I’m in Ireland for any length of time, I find myself hankering for some things Hungarian. And when I’m somewhere else entirely, it’s a toss-up as to which country I’m using as my meter.
I was in Békéscsaba this weekend – a town of about 80 000 people half way between the cities of Debrecen and Szeged, the second and fourth largest cities in Hungary, respectively. And, as is somewhat the norm in smaller cities and towns in Hungary, English isn’t as widely-spoken as it is in Budapest. But I got by. My myriad questions on local customs and traditions were met with patience and tolerance, with everyone happy to take the time to make themselves understood and to help me understand. The hospitality shown was second to none. Because everyone so obviously wanted me to have a good time, there was little option but to enjoy. And enjoy I did.
I remember my first trip to India and how before our meetings started, I’d ask my hosts some questions about stuff I’d seen on TV the night before or things I’d noticed in the street. And far from begrudging me the time I was taking from their busy schedules, they went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that I enjoyed my stay. It was as if showing an interest in their lives unlocked a door that might otherwise have stayed closed.
The more questions I ask when I travel, the happier people are to spend time with me. French Nobel Laureate Anatole France reckoned that curiosity is man’s greatest virtue and he had a point. It’s only by asking questions that we can ever hope to understand what’s going on. And we don’t necessarily need every question answered, either. It’s enough to ask.
My mother reckons I was born asking a question – my initial wail apparently sounded very much like an elongated whhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyy. In primary school, when I moved from one class to the next, my old teacher would warn the one who was getting me that I had a thing for asking questions. And it would seem that I’ve never lost it.
This week has been a good one. I caught up with some old friends. I caught up on my sleep. And I got to travel. Most of my questions were answered and those that weren’t are not keeping me awake at night. I met some really interesting, inspiring people who, by taking the time to talk to me, to answer my questions, have made my world all the richer. And for this I’m truly grateful.