The Murphy Ultimatum

It’s her or me. There’s not room in this city for both of us. Either she goes, or I go. End of story.

I’m not one usually given to ultimatums. Personal history had taught me that in the war between either and or, or usually wins. And if or wins, I lose. So I go quietly along my way, occasionally raising my head above the parapet when I come across something untenable. And when the untenable moves further up the alphabet and becomes unbearable, I leave. Or I quit. Or I declare the person responsible persona non grata. But I don’t resort to ultimatums.

In his Devil’s Dictionary, my old friend Ambrose Bierce defines an ultimatum as ‘a last demand before resorting to concessions’. But I’m way beyond conceding. This woman’s presence is driving me demented.

Putting credibility at stake

You know of whom I speak? The new voice of BKV. The one that tells you to connect here for Metro Line 1, 2 or 3. Or for the railways. Or for the suburban railways. Let’s be clear: I have nothing against the woman personally – whoever she is. I’m sure she’s a lovely person who is doing what she can to earn a forint or two in a city where ready money doesn’t come easily. What I am objecting to is BKV’s decision to have a non-Hungarian announcer on its transport system.

I didn’t come to Hungary to hear the dulcet tones of a British announcer over the PA system. Yes, it helps to hear it in English, but give me good old accented English any day. I’m in Hungary. I’m not in the UK. I don’t need the added grief of having to double-check my whereabouts every time this petal makes an announcement.

Holding hypocrisy at bay

How hypocritical, I hear some of you say. Am I not the one first in line to complain about the incorrect use of English in this fair city of ours? Am I not the one who finds it difficult to trust the quality of food in a restaurant that offers chicken stripes and cucumber soap on the menu? Am I not the one waging a none-too-silent war against apostrophe abuse? Én vétkem, én vétkem, én igen nagy vétkem. I am guilty on all three counts.

Ergo, shouldn’t I be happy that the BKV has seen fit to partially compensate for the less-than-stellar English it used to feature on its notices and signs by employing a native-English speaker to make announcements …  in English?

Perhaps. But I’m not. I feel robbed. I feel cheated. I feel misled. And, of course, this somewhat irrational response to what researchers would credit to be a move in the right direction – i.e. the main road to credibility – has me second-guessing myself.

Rationalising with research

A couple of years ago, researchers from the University of Chicago (Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar), ran some experiments testing the correlation between credibility and the difficulty in understanding a non-native speaker. They talk of ‘processing fluency’ and ‘processing difficulty’. In a nutshell, they posit that most non-native speakers have an accent and that having an accent could make them seem less credible for two reasons:  (1) The accent is a signal that the speaker ‘doesn’t belong’ and (2) it makes the speech harder to process.  In the case of an accent being a signal, the researchers say that it is the prejudice of the listener and not the accent itself that impacts credibility. This I can buy. They also say that people tend to believe non-native speakers less because they are simply more difficult to understand. mmmm… I wonder.

So, back to her nibs on the tram.

Discovering what lies beneath

Her English is perfect (even if her hammed pronunciation of Moritz Zsigmond tér grates on my usually deaf nerves). Her accent is native. Her speech is faultless. And yet I have trouble believing that I’m in Budapest and that if I get off at Ferenc Korut (oops, I meant Corvin Negyed), I can connect to Metro Line 3. Why do I find this so irritating?

Given that some Hungarians speak more accurate English than many native-English speakers I know, I just can’t see the sense in this. Not being one to shy away from a little navel gazing, I devoted a full 13 minutes to figuring out what was at the root of my antipathy. And it’s simple…really. Borrowing an analogy from a wise man I met recently in Palm Springs, I don’t want Europe (and Hungary) to go the way of the American melting pot where cultures combine to form a hybrid and no-one is really sure who they are any more. I would rather see it adopt Canada’s mosaic approach: individual countries forming a lovely picture, each retaining its individuality. Let’s not cross the narrow line between assimilation and obliteration.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 August 2012

Hat tip to Craig at Clearing Customs for alerting me to this study.

Put your inner magpie to good use

I’ve been trying for a while now to inviegle the masses (you) to collect your soaps and shampoos as you wander the globe staying in one hotel after the other. You (or your company) has already paid a hefty price for the room and methinks that the soaps, etc., are included in this price. A fair logic, no?

Add this to the fact that each of us has a little magpie in us – that fleeting thought that says – oh, I might need that when I next go camping or I could use those for my guests. We drop a couple of the unopened bottles in our toilet bag and then hoard them at home – never used.

When I was in Alaska I collected these miniatures and then donated them to a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. It’s not too difficult to imagine that when your life is upside down, when you’ve had to flee your home for fear of your life, when the man (or woman) you once loved and trusted is beating you senseless – then something as seemingly insignificant as a bag with your very own soap and shampoo can make a difference.

When I was in Chichester I did it, too. It took a while but at the height of the travel season, I was sending bags of toiletries to the various shelters around town. The staff had the kids make gift baskets for their mums on Mothers Day. All it took was a little coordination. I’ve found a shelter here in Budapest that caters for homeless families and I’d like to start the same again. Collect those soaps and shampoos and give them to me personally or drop them off at Jack Doyle’s or the Caledonia with my name on them.

I was reminded, yet again, of the importance of acting on the little things when I read a recent post on the Clearing Customs blog. It recounts the story of Ugandan Derreck Kayongo and his experience when he first stayed in an American hotel in the 1990s. He noticed that his partially used bar of soap was replaced every day – the old bits thrown out and a new one put in its place. The son of a former soap maker in Uganda, he decided to right this wrong – to turn this act of wantoness into something good. He founded the Global Soap Project. Over 600 hotels across the USA donate their partially used soap which is then reprocessed into new bars and distributed to 21 countries, including Haiti, Kenya, South Sudan, Guatemala, and Afghanistan.

Soap, I hear you say. Why soap?

According to the Global Soap Project, many places in the world today have the same problem. Their ”Soap Facts” page gives the following information:

  • 1.4 million deaths can be prevented each year by handwashing with soap
  • Children under 5 who wash with soap can reduce their risk of pneumonia by 50%
  • 1/3 of the world’s soap is used by the U.S
  • 7 million children have died due to disease that could have been prevented with proper hygiene since 2009
  • 2.6 million bars of soap are discarded daily by the hotel industry in the U.S. alone

My project isn’t nearly as ambitious. But if your hotel soaps and shampoos can make even the smallest difference in someone’s life – isn’t it worth the hassle to collect and deliver?