Many things about Hungary – and Budapest in particular – fascinate me. I can’t fathom, for instance why the BKV feels it needs to tell me, a great fan of public transport and a regular passenger, that I can take one wrapped sapling tree with me when I travel. I can’t for the life me of understand the logic behind the ticketing system in the post office. And try though I might, I can’t quite see the need for nine types of wine spritzer (dependent on the ratio of wine to water) other than finding creative ways to celebrate the fact that Ányos Jedlik, a Hungarian, invented soda water. But what baffles me most are the supermarket queues the day before a national holiday.
What is it about the Hungarian psyche that drives it en masse to the supermarket the day before a national holiday? What sustains it as it waits patiently in ever-lengthening queues to pay for groceries that are far from staple necessities? And why does this happen the day before every, single, national holiday?
I will hold up my hand and admit to a mild dose of consumerism-driven panic the first time I witnessed the grand-scale closure of all shops on a national holiday. I had been warned, admittedly, but I paid no heed. But then I realised that my local corner shop stayed open and the carton of milk that I thought I’d have to do without for a whole day was in reach. That same corner shop also had eggs, bread, and bacon, alongside beer, wine, and (back then) cigarettes. Panic averted. Yes, I might have had to pay a few forints more for said same items, but at least they were available.
I can think of better things to do on a holiday than hit the shops to shop-shop, so the mass closure of all retail establishments for 24 hours doesn’t impact my life at all. Ditto with the bank and the post office. So why the queues?
All I can think of is that it is a reflection of times gone by. Perhaps it’s ingrained in the DNA of those who have lived under Communism? Perhaps it’s hereditary? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the option to spend is removed, however temporarily. I just don’t know.
I’m a hoarder … of sorts. I must have a spare bottle of washing-up liquid, a spare tube of toothpaste, a spare moisturiser, deodorant, shampoo… a spare everything. I hate reaching for something to find that it’s empty, that I have to disrupt my day and go out to buy a replacement. The alternative – not doing what I had planned to do when I’d planned to do – is unthinkable. In an effort to find out why I’m like this, I read an article a while back on the neuropsychology of consumption – about why we shop. The authors (Stetka and Yarrow) posit: ‘Buying usually involves relationships in one way or another. The motivation for almost everything we buy has something to do with connecting with other human beings.’So perhaps it’s not the fear of running out of food that feeds this almost maniacal need to stock up in the face of a national holiday, but that it could be our last chance to socialise for 24 hours?
English novelist J. G. Ballard reckons that ‘people nowadays like to be together not in the old-fashioned way of, say, mingling on the piazza of an Italian Renaissance city, but, instead, huddled together in traffic jams, bus queues, on escalators and so on. It’s a new kind of togetherness which may seem totally alien, but it’s the togetherness of modern technology.’ Perhaps that’s it… it’s not the goods per se that are the attraction – it’s the act of queuing, something that is practically guaranteed no matter what time of day you go.
First published in the Budapest Times 9 May 2014.