To answer or not to answer…

There’s something quintessentially Irish about popping in on a friend unannounced. There’s no need for phone calls to see if they’ll be there. You take your chances and if they are, great. If not, there’s always tomorrow.

Little explanation is needed other than ‘I was in the area’. They might be calling to have a cup of tea, to get fed, to drop off something or pick something up, to find out what happened last night or is going to happen next week. No matter. The point is ‒ they visit.

This visiting was drummed out of me when I went Stateside. My American friends rarely did drop-ins. The thoughts of someone rocking up unannounced was enough to induce palpitations. I put it down to being house-proud, fastidious about what part of their life the world could see, uninvited, unannounced. In Ireland, we have no shame. It’s a ‘take me as you find me’ thing. Of course there’s the frantic scurrying to clean up the mess as the car drives in, that precious minute before the doorbell goes during which a critical eye is cast around the room and anything that shouldn’t be on public display is shoved behind cushions or into drawers. But generally, no one really cares as long as there’s a cup of tea on offer.

In Budapest, with its street-side csengők (doorbells), there’s no warning. You can’t see someone turn into your gateway or drive up your avenue. You can’t spot the car slowing down or have a look out the window to see who is making their approach. When the csengő goes, you’re at the mercy of your own curiosity.

I’m caught between the Irish ‘take a chance and see if I’m home’, the American ‘call ahead and tell me you’re coming over’, and the Hungarian ‘wait till I invite you’. Pepper that with an innate curiosity and salt it with the fear that I might miss something by not answering the door, and you might come close to understanding just one strain of my many neuroses.

I stand in my hallway, looking at the intercom, wondering if I should pick it up. I mentally check what day it is, what time it is, and think who might be outside trying to get in. Chances are it’s a flyer distributor or someone flogging something. But what if it’s not? What if it’s someone who knows where I live but doesn’t have my phone number? Or a friend whose phone battery is dead? Or a neighbour who has locked themselves out? The angst, I tell you. It’s enough to drive a woman to drink.

As a rule, if it’s in the morning, before 11, then I usually answer as it might be the postman with a parcel. If it’s about 4pm in the afternoon, I’ll answer too, because that’s when my favourite florist makes their deliveries (Murphy? Optimist?). But any other time of the day, I dither. To answer or not to answer, that is the multi-million-forint question.

The dirge of rapid Hungarian that is fired up the line if I do answer and don’t know the caller used to be frightening. But I’ve found a way to separate the tenacious from the timid. My tentative lassan kérem (slowly please) is either met with an exasperated sigh and a dead line as the caller hangs up (in which case I didn’t want to know them anyway) or an exasperated sigh and a slow repeat (in which case I buzz them in and see if they materialise on the fourth floor). ’Tis the stuff dreams are made of. Who says my life in this big city isn’t exciting?

First published in the Budapest Times 3 October 2014