Something to consider about being insular

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

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9 Responses

  1. I’m very ambivalent about travelling – I like it, and at the same time am reluctant to spend money on myself. I usually have no one to go with, which makes me lazy in any case, and being acutely conscience-stricken over the vast waste of time that my working life was I tend to over-concentrate on jobs that people really appreciate and which I enjoy doing . . . which leaves me tied up with months’ worth of whole books to translate. Time for a change, perhaps.

    1. Conscience-stricken over the vast waste of time that my working life was? Never! As for having no-one to go with, I find solo travelling the best kind – there was a time when the general consensus amongst my friends was that were I to marry, we would have separate honeymoons!

      Mary Murphy

  2. A well written and thought provoking peace. It certainly puts things in perspective. A large part of the expat community in Budapest seem to spend their lives packing, unpacking and telling the world about it on facebook. So many are talking about leaving for good without much or any thought for the old ladies and young men around us. This article has certainly made it to my discussion group. It currently includes three budding members for Hungary’s Parliament. I am sorry to say I don’t think it will make any impression on the current crowd.

    1. When I lived in Valdez Alaska, Tim, there were those who worked for the pipeline and those who didn’t. Most of those on the pipeline had come from out of state so were expats of a sort. Their propensity to go to Anchorage to shop (because they could – paid big money) instead of supporting local shops (many of which have since closed down) always seemed to me to be irresponsible and short-sighted. I shopped local because I wanted the choice – I didn’t want to wake up one day and find that I’d no option but to go to Anchorage (306 miles away). However, I couldn’t properly articulate my argument – other than say we had a collective community responsibility and by living in Valdez we were part of that community. I feel the same in Hungary – by choosing to live here, be it for work, retirement, personal reasons or whatever, we also share that collective responsibility – but again, it’s an argument I have trouble articulating.

      Mary Murphy

  3. A well-written piece, of course, as Mary’s always are, but what thoughts does it provoke in the expatriate? Out here by the Balaton I don’t know what you’re saying in Budapest, but many of you are tied by employment and other factors and, like it or not, can’t just be up and away ad lib. What responsibility have you for the old ladies and young men about you? Why should they care about you? We that are voluntarily expatriate in retirement are in principle freer to please ourselves, but Ady’s famous aphorism ‘mi urunk a pénz’ applies to us too – have you tried to sell a house lately? As so often, Mary adumbrates a thorny problem in true Socratic fashion!

    1. It’s a sad reflection on twenty-first-century living that money is indeed our god, Bernard. I’m fortunate (or unfortunate in some people’s eyes) that I don’t have any dependants. I’m not working to feed a family or keep kids in school or university. I am my sole responsibility. Living and working in Hungary (not as an expat on an overseas package with the accompanying allowances) but as a sole-trader, has taught me a valuable lesson. I look at my life and what I earn (a sum people in Ireland wouldn’t get out of bed for) and the quality of life that I have here and I know it’s not something I could easily replicate anywhere else. To reflect on the quality of life here in Hungary is something more and more expats seem to be doing – and maybe for the first time appreciating what they have. The question for me is how much is enough? If the financial crises in Ireland taught me anything, it is the danger of greed and the necessity to cut one’s cloth to one’s measure. When ‘need’ replaced ‘want’ in our vocabularies, the world might begin to right itself.

      Mary Murphy

    2. The expats fall really into two mains groups. Those just passing though for a year or so and those who have made Hungary their home. Some of us have Hungarian partners and businesses based here so we are not in retirement. I used to fly in and out of Budapest quite a bit in the course of my work, as do quiet a few expats, ignoring what was around me. That has changed and now I meet a large number of Hungarians each week. Most of my social circle is Hungarian and I feel privileged to be included. The current despair among many is saddening. I do feel part of my Hungarian community and my Hungarian family. I could escape if I choose to and I do tend to view thing from both the inside and outside looking in. In that way I may be different to most of those around me but I still have a conscience and roots here. Many Hungarians care what is around them. We have two old ladies in my nine apartment building and they are watched by the rest of us, but they also look out for us, including that strange English guy. I did not get that when I lived in London. Many Hungarians care in their own quite way without having to wear a T shirt saying so.

      I am not sure I would liken Mary’s folksy wisdom to an Irish Socrates but sometimes she just hits the pulse of our times in a way we cannot ignore.

  4. Mary I didn’t support local before I certainly do now. I am not sure Mary when you decided Hungary was home, but it took me a while. I think it crept up on me a little over a year ago when I was involved in a certain charity event. I was incensed by those expats around me who called it an expat event when over half those working on it were Hungarian. I feel privileged to now be working in a new foundation with Hungarians who just wanted to give what they could. I now rarely frequent ex-pat events and only occasionally visit one of the ex-pat bars. Indeed I feel uncomfortable by the talk in some of theses places and I am not interested in anything where my partner and Hungarian friends would feel out of place. I certainly endorse what you say about money. One of the joys for me are the little food gifts I get from the “mother in law”. Hungary is great place to find the best of human spirit, sadly its leaders seem to be lacking theirs.

    1. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation, Tim. Ireland will always be home-home and I’ll always be Irish. That will never change. Home for me is wherever I am currently living and striking the balance between past and present, what was and what is, is what has been key for me. So much depends on why people move to new countries, as Bernard pointed out. It’s an individual choice as to how much you get involved if you know that your time in a place is limited and also how curious you are as to how things function outside the expat community. There is no right and wrong – it’s very much a matter of choice. I’ve found that balance and it sounds like you have, too.

      Mary Murphy

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