There’s a little old lady who walks around the balcony of the fourth floor of my building. She could be sixty-six, she could be seventy-seven, she could be eighty-eight: it’s hard to tell. Her face has none of the delicacy one might expect from a cosseted, salon type who has had the benefit of a gentrified life. Hers is more the weather-beaten look, a testimony to years spent out of doors, with little or no moisturiser separating her from the elements. The lines etched into her skin might well be laughter lines; and indeed she smiles quite a lot. They might equally be the sum of all her worries. I suspect that they say more about tough times and tenacity than tinsel town and tripping the light fantastic but then again, I could be wrong.
Circumnavigating her globe
She speaks to me of gloves, of swimming, of life in the country, modelling her concise, terse style on Hemingway’s famous short story – For sale: baby shoes, never worn. She is economical in her speech perhaps because she knows that I understand her in words and phrases rather than in complete sentences. She talks to me as if talking to a child. When I smile at something I’ve misinterpreted as humorous, I can see her wondering why I don’t speak Hungarian. She asks me where I’ve been just been and where I’m going next. I answer as best I can. Were I, in turn, to ask her just one question, it would be: When did you last leave the building?
Three times a day, she does two circuits of the balcony. In the colder months, or when it’s wet, she is accompanied by her granddaughter, her daughter, or one of the neighbour ladies. They walk closely behind her, ready to catch her should she fall. In the summer, she might brave it on her own, moving one short step at a time, hanging on to the balcony railing as she, in regal fashion, slowly circumnavigates her globe. Sometimes other neighbours come out and greet her and the procession takes on a festive air; other times she walks undisturbed, as if on a pilgrimage.
His kingdom is a cot
During the summer of last year, I met a young man in his early thirties who spends his days in a 4 x 6 cot in an orphanage outside Budapest. His life, too, is limited to his immediate surrounds. He is comfortable with what he knows and hates having anything changed – his clothes, his bed linen, his routine are fine just as they are, thank you very much. It’s impossible to judge if he is happy or content – I doubt he even knows what these words mean. He watches the goings-on in his world with a strange fascination that is measured in seconds rather than minutes. Communicating with grunts and gestures, he uses a language that his carers understand. Like my old lady, he, too, has as series of minders who look out for his welfare.
Measuring the mood
In my world, travel is an inherent part of how I live. I can’t begin to imagine life without the monthly, bi-monthly, or even weekly ritual of packing, unpacking, washing, ironing, and repacking. My perspective is governed by the global view of world politics that I read, listen to, and hear of second-hand. My barometer of how the world is feeling measures the mood in the street, in the shops, and in the pubs. I need that interaction with the outside world to give me some sense of what it going on; to help me make sense of the multitude of different stories that assault me each time I switch on my laptop or open a newspaper. I have blogged recently of my concern about where Hungary is heading, and I’ve been told that I’m overreacting. My barometer tells me otherwise.
In a strange way, I envy my little old lady and my young man; I envy them their apparent contentment. Her life is punctuated by journeys around the balcony, accompanied or alone. His life is punctuated by changing TV programs and the occasional visitor. Their immediate surrounds rarely change. They enjoy a regimen of sameness. No surprises. Each is cared for, looked after, never alone. Each smiles a knowing smile that says they’ve seen so much that I could never understand.
If I had the opportunity to shut myself off from the world, the media, the noise of daily living, would I do it? It sounds tempting, but as we face into 2012, a year which augurs untold transformation and change, it will be more important than ever to keep tabs on that barometer, to keep measuring the mood of the nations, to keep in touch with what is going on. As a pilot friend of mine might say, I need to continue my forays into the world, to ‘check my levels’ so that I can avoid the ‘leans’.
First published in the Budapest Times 12 January 2012