Creativity and insipid turnips

I saw something most peculiar today on my way back from the post office. A man on a bike, cycling along Üllői út, wearing a helmet. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, I hear you say. But bear with me. Pinned beneath the straps of his helmet was his mobile phone. The phone itself – not a hands-free device or a sophisticated ear piece, but the actual mobile phone. How inventive!

I can hear a collective sigh (or even two) at the thoughts of where this might be leading but relax! I’m not going to get on my soapbox about cyclists and the dangers that their inconsiderate behaviour poses to pedestrians. Neither am I going to get on my soapbox about social media and our increasingly dangerous need to be connected to the world 24/7. Instead, I want to talk about creativity. In particular, the creative ways in which governments attempt to extract money from the masses. I’d have thought that in a country with an average monthly take-home wage that varies between HUF 180.000 (€660) and HUF 250.000 (€880) depending on what you read, and a retirement pension of about HUF 50.000 (€175; again depending on what you read) this would be akin to extracting blood from a particularly insipid turnip, but the creativity employed never ceases to amaze me.

It’s a dog’s life

Take for instance the dog tax that local municipalities may impose tax on dog owners. The tax (ebrendeszeti hozzajarulas) is HUF 6.000 per annum for ‘normal’ dogs and HUF 20.000 per annum for ‘dangerous’ dogs. I have a surreal vision of a dog psychiatrist showing ink blots to a dalmation and charting the barks. Neutered dogs and those with electronic identification chips implanted are exempt from tax. And, the one-dog-per-household rule means that one dog can be kept tax-free. And dogs adopted from shelters are exempt from the tax. So by that logic I can keep ten dogs tax-free if they came from the shelter. I wonder how long it will be before dogs are left at the shelter on Monday and then ‘rescued’ on Tuesday. I also heard a rumour that the nine traditional Hungarian breeds are exempt as well but surely that sort of racial discrimination is against some EU rule or other?

The fat-free road

Then there’s the chips tax – HUF 200 (EUR 0.65) per kilogram for
products with salt content of over one per cent. Have you see the price of potato chips lately? Those in the country living with a poetic sense of community responsibility can take heart, knowing that as they crunch their way through a bag of chips, they are contibuting to keeping the economy afloat. Surely this is incentive enough for people to cast their health concerns aside and gobble up those calories. Where would the country be were we all to monitor our salt intake, scrimp on sugar, and head down the fat-free road to penury.

 It pays to be prepared

Just last month, the new traffic fines kicked in. Driving without a licence now attracts an on-the-spot fine of HUF 50.000 (€175) and if you don’t have that sort of cash on you (credit cards not yet accepted by the boys in blue), then the fine will triple! Yes, triple!  If you’re contemplating violating a smog alert, then be sure to have an extra HUF 40.000 (EUR 139) in your wallet just in case you’re caught. And, perhaps the strangest of all, if you’re one of those drivers who dares to keep an illegal blue light in your car, then that particular perversion will cost you a hefty HUF 30.000 (€103). The mind boggles. Who has that sort of spare dosh to carry around… just in case?

Limit your talk time

With a hozzáadottérték-adó rate of 27%, the turnip is already being squeezed beyond recognition. So what’s with the new 2 forint per minute levy on telephone calls? Granted I can talk for 10 minutes each month before the levy kicks in and if I talk for more than 350 minutes per month, then the rest will be levy-free. Twitter has already condensed our talk time to 140 characters. Maybe this levy will see us texting more and talking less. This is in addition the 0.1% tax on financial transactions. Can it be true?  Am to I be taxed on using my phone AND taxed on paying the bill?

I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s famous line: We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle. Now, there’s an image that would make me smile, if I wasn’t afraid that my smile might be taxed.

 First published in the Budapest Times 18 May 2012

Putting the foot back into footpath

The word ‘footpath’ can be traced as far back as 1425. Unlike the term ‘babysitter’, footpath is pretty much self-explanatory. In essence, it’s a path for those going on foot, or as the Collins English Dictionary so eloquently puts it:  a narrow path for walkers only. Simple. Uncomplicated. Footpaths are not bicycle paths. Cycling is not walking. Cyclists, unless they’re pushing their bicycles, are not travelling on foot. Ergo, cycling cyclists do not belong on footpaths. Could it be any simpler?

The prologue

As cyclists across the city rise up on their pedals at my exclusionary language, let me offer two words: Margit hid. Currently under reconstruction and likely to be that way for the foreseeable future, pedestrian traffic across Margit hid is restricted to one footpath. Traffic is two-way. Four thin people can walk abreast but more often than not, pedestrian traffic is reduced to single file from both directions as people of various shapes and sizes navigate the narrow walkway. It’s like walking a gauntlet. Walkers adjust their pace to strollers. Runners stop running. With a couple of polite interjections and seizing up the flow of oncoming traffic, those on foot dodge their way across without doing any damage. But ignoring the large posted signs advising them to dismount and walk their charges across the water, a sizeable number of cyclists still insist on cycling. On my latest venture to the Island, I counted eight bikers biking and just one pushing. It’s inconsiderate, unnecessary, and downright dangerous. Tempers are fraying. Unrest is brewing. Pedestrians are pissed off.

Act I: Scene I

Last week on Margit hid: Cyclist, weaving his way in and out through the thread of people crossing the bridge, runs his handlebars into the ribs of a pedestrian. It hurts. Pedestrian says so. Cyclist shrugs, apparently not at all bothered, and makes to continue on his way. Pedestrian, a regular bridge user and victim of other near misses since reconstruction began, grabs cyclist by the wrist and asks him to dismount. Argument ensues. Cyclist dismounts. Pedestrian walks on. A woman coming from the opposite direction gesticulates wildly at pedestrian – something is happening behind him. He turns to see a kryptonite bicycle lock bearing down on him. Pedestrian grabs cyclist by the wrist. And on it goes, around in circles.  But it’s not just Margit hid. Szabadság hid staged similar scenes when it was under reconstruction, and can now be found on many of our city’s footpaths.

Act I: Scene II

In our carbon-challenged world, everything possible should be done to encourage people out of their cars and onto their bikes (or their feet). I’m all for cycling and the health benefits it entails, even if the health benefits of cycling in the shadow of exhaust plumes are a little dubious. Cyclists are in a Darwinian contest for survival with motorists. They’ve been hard done by. They take their lives in their hands every time they shove off.  Last week on Kiraly utca:  Inconsiderate driver opens his car door without checking his mirror and knocks cyclist off his bike. Driver gets out and checks on cyclist. Cyclist writhes in agony. Driver pulls out mobile and calls for help. Aggression is notably absent. Interesting hierarchy.

Budapest has 170 km of pathways for bicyclists, which includes cycling paths, cycling lanes, and side streets designated as suitable for cycling. This is targeted to increase to 300 km by 2015. And although I’m sure that it’s nowhere near enough, that’s what we have to work with. I can empathise with the frustration of having pedestrians walking along designated cycle paths. I’ve been blown out of it by cyclists on more than one occasion when I’ve failed to realise that I was walking between the painted red lines, and deservedly so. That’s their space. And as a pedestrian, I have no business being in it, unless it’s an emergency (a little like using the men’s loo).

The reviews

At various stages in my life, I’ve played all three roles: the motorist, the cyclist, and the pedestrian. I know that if you put all three actors in a room for an hour they’d have no trouble trading accusations and recriminations. And key to each diatribe would be the word ‘consideration’. Inconsiderate drivers pull out without looking and knock down cyclists; inconsiderate cyclists break red lights and knock down pedestrians; inconsiderate pedestrians stray into cycle paths, and force cyclists to ring their bells. Three actors each playing a part in what is becoming an increasingly aggressive street performance where one plot-line might read: cyclist, feeling victimised by motorist, turns on pedestrian.

Were I directing this particular play, the last line would be an impassioned plea to cyclists: get off your bikes and walk the bridge…and give me back my footpath.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 August 2010