Einstein was of the opinion that two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity … and he wasn’t sure about the universe. Recognising that peculiar failing in others, we have been conning each other since the dawn of time. Some of us do it to survive. Others do it for the sheer pleasure of putting one over on someone else. More do it just because they can.
Since coming to Budapest in 2007, I’ve held forth on occasion about the various cons in operation in the city. The one that makes me laugh most at man’s stupidity is when Gorgeous Girl meets Average Joe in the street and suggests they go for a drink. Bowled over by his luck, Average Joe accepts and then, hours later, wonders what happened as he’s strong-armed to the ATM by the bar’s muscle to withdraw his daily limit to pay off the horrendous bar bill he ran up while chatting to Gorgeous Girl. I base my lack of sympathy for Average Joe on the fact that if he hasn’t been pulling gorgeous women at home, he should have stopped to wonder at his miraculous change of fortune when he hit Budapest. Note to Average Joe: Palinka is better at obliterating the past than shaping the future.
Last week, a friend was visiting from Malaysia. On the last day of her trip, at Blaha Lujza tér, she was stopped by a chap asking directions to the train station. As they were talking, a second guy approached and proffered his ID which identified him as a policeman. He asked to check their IDs and said he wanted to make sure that the cash they were carrying wasn’t counterfeit. In the heat of the moment, faced with a dual-pronged distraction, and seeing her lost tourist hand over his wallet without hesitation, my friend followed suit. Mr Policeman even went so far as to ask for a PIN to their ATM cards and then pretended to phone their banks to verify that the numbers were genuine. Satisfied, Mr Policeman moved on, as did the lost tourist.
Some minutes later, on checking her wallet, my friend noticed that her ATM card was missing. She can’t say for sure about the Hungarian cash. Thankfully, she had hidden her passport and euro (although our intrepid policeman had been keen to check that, too).
My initial reaction when I heard this was: You idiot! What were you thinking? Or not thinking? But my friend didn’t need any help kicking herself. Alarm bells should have sounded sooner, but they hadn’t. I wondered what I would have done, two days into my first trip to Budapest, had a policeman asked to see my ID and check my currency. There’s no doubt in my mind but that I’d have handed it over. And I’d have done it for a couple of reasons. (1) I was brought up to believe that the police are there to serve and protect. I’d have blindly trusted that ID because (2) I’d have been afraid not to.
Yes, afraid. I have an unhealthy fear of the law, particularly here in Budapest, but pretty much anywhere except, strangely enough, Belgrade. Perhaps I’ve read too many crime novels or overdosed on TV cop series, but when it comes to what police are capable of doing, in the name of the law or otherwise, I don’t draw any lines. While the law of the land might prevail in the long run, there is the matter of those hours between being arrested and talking to a lawyer, the twilight zone in which pretty much anything can happen.
Note to self: If approached by a policeman, ask for his badge number, his PIN, and call to see if it’s real.
First published in the Budapest Times 18 April 2014