Overheard in Budapest

Some years ago, I came across an annual Irish initiative that goes by the name of ‘Overheard in Dublin’. Throughout the year, people send in snippets of conversations that they have, literally, overheard in Dublin and then, come Christmas, a compilation of the best is published in book form. Some of them border on the ridiculous, others are nearly too extreme to be believed, and more again are downright hilarious.

eavesdroppingYou’re so sharp, you’ll cut yourself

An example of Irish intelligence was overheard at Dublin airport when two Irish lads were boarding an early flight, still drunk from the night before: ‘Will we get in the front or the back?’ says one to the other. ‘Are ya mad?’ came the reply. ‘Have you ever heard of a plane reversing into a mountain?’

You can’t make a racehorse out of a donkey

An example of Irish awareness was overheard on the train from Maynooth in Co. Kildare. One girl says to the other: ‘I normally get the bus home from town and I noticed the other day that it goes past a Mosque. I didn’t even know there were any Indians in Ireland.’ Ahem. It gets better. The other replies, laughing: ‘That’s probably the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard. Of course there’s Indians in Ireland! And anyway Mosques are for Jews not Indians.’ It’s been a while since Ireland was known as the island of saints and scholars.

Patience and perseverance brought the snail to Jerusalem

An example of Irish sympathy was overheard in the National Museum at an exhibition of 2000-year-old bodies which had been found preserved in Irish bogs. After viewing one of these bodies, an elderly Dublin woman turned to her son and said with heartfelt sympathy: ‘Ah the Lord ‘ave mercy on ‘im. I bet he never thought he was goin’ to end up in here.’ There are fates worse than death, apparently.

Now, my Hungarian, as regular readers will know, is not up to creating a similar initiative here in Hungary. But occasionally, I overhear gems in English.

She lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech

On the No. 6 tram on Monday, two young people were chatting in accented English. The fellah was wearing a miniature dumbbell pierced through his nose. She had hair the colour of Turkish delight that had sat in the sun for a little too long. He was recounting a story about being out over the weekend and running into a couple of girls who he and his mate took a fancy to. She was all ears, yet trying hard not to appear too interested.

Apparently one of the girls he had met had politely shaken his hand when the lads introduced themselves; the other had given him the finger, flipped him off. He reckoned that between the two of them, he had covered every extreme in manners and taste. He then went on to repeat the boring conversation that ensued and ended by saying that as they were leaving, he got his own back by shaking hands with Ms Polite and flipping off Ms Rude. Said it was payback.

As conversations go, it was innocuous, verging on the mundane. He didn’t even tell it well. But he did make an interesting point about the deterioration of manners in modern society and the chavvish behaviour of some young, ahem, ladies. I was mulling this over when the little old lady standing next to them leaned over and said (in heavily accented but perfect English) ‘You’re being extremely rude.’ Not giving him time to react, she followed on with ‘Your life is not so interesting that everyone on the tram needs to hear about it.’

You’ll never plough a field turning it over in your mind

He didn’t have to think for very long before he came back with ‘No one was asking you to listen.’ Her rejoinder? ‘I’m standing right beside you. How could I not hear.’ His polite and patiently spoken reply? ‘I said “listen”. Obviously you can’t help but overhear but no one asked you to listen.’ Classic.

It got me thinking. What’s more, it had me digging around for a quote I heard when I was in India a few years back, one that stuck in my head. Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986), author of the Future of Humanity, made the following point: ‘When you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.’

It’s a sad reflection on today’s world that we really don’t listen very well. We hear. But we don’t listen. Our speech is peppered with trite assurances, such as ‘I hear what you’re saying’. Our heads nod in understanding while our brain is already formulating a response. All too often we fail to really listen. We don’t hear the pain behind ‘I’m fine’ or the frustration behind ‘it’s alright’, or the fear behind ‘no problem’. We just hear what we want to hear, what suits us, what we have time to deal with. And that’s sad. We would do well to remember that a good listener is a silent flatterer.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 May 2013

Spanish humour

IMG_2589 (618x800)When I don’t have anyone to talk to, except myself, and having nothing good to read either, I tend to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.  This is a long-standing habit, not necessarily one I’m particularly proud of – but I figure that as long as I don’t mention names or give descriptions that would land anyone into a police line-up, it’s a free world.

There’s nothing quite like a holiday to bring out the best (or worst) in people and from my lonely vantage point – Zone 7 of Playa de las Canteras – I was quite happy that I didn’t have a sparring partner to hand.

IMG_2588 (800x426)

People say the most idiotic things. And, loathe though I am to admit it, women are the worst culprits. This need to fill the silence and say something just to check to be sure that their man is still alive must drive many a sane man, mad. Mind you, I know a couple or four men who can’t stand the sound of silence, either.

‘Isn’t that a lovely beach, John’.
Where’s poor John to take that opening volley?
‘It is, love.’

‘Should I read my book or my mag, Dave?’
‘Your book – you’ve been wanting to finish it for ages.’
‘You’re right – I’ll just have a flick through the mag first though…’
Deep sigh from Dave masked by rustling of his newspaper…

You see all sorts of couples. Those who are on their first holiday abroad together and on their best behaviour, their conversation is punctuated with lots of ‘I don’t mind… ‘ and ‘Whatever you like….’  Those who know each other inside and out who don’t need to talk but communicate rather with raised eyebrows, shrugs, and nods of the head. Those who are on the brink of breaking up and are using the holiday as a last effort at holding it all together. Conversation here is punctuated by digs in ribs, derisive snorts, and rattling ice cubes.

It’s the couples who laIMG_2548 (723x800)ugh that are the most amusing to watch – and funnily enough, they were mostly Spanish. Subsequent investigation has revealed that the Spanish are quite famous for their sense of humour. And depending on which blogs you read, you’ll find this described as everything from cheesy to genius. And back in 1957, a sense of humour was actually put on trial.

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If you’re in Las Palmas, drop by the Museo Elder de la Ciencia y la Tecnología whose motto is ‘it is forbidden not to touch’ and check out their humour commentary exhibition outside.

Grateful 16

Image from

I wasn’t reading. I was standing. There were no seats available on the tram. And as I’ve not yet mastered the art of simultaneously reading, standing, and holding on, I needed some other sort of diversion. In my defense, they were talking quite loudly: a young one of about 25 and and older woman tipping 65. Both Hungarian and yet both speaking in English, each with her own peculiar accent. I thought they knew each other but no. It was a chance encounter.

Conversation started with a casual comment admiring a watch. Not a wrist watch, but one that hung from a 36-inch chain around the young one’s neck. She was at pains to point out that she had her own style and that this was her nod to feminine form – the biker jacket, boots, jeans, messenger bag, and nose piercing all said something else. She’d spent some time in the UK working all sorts of jobs and was contemplating returning. She had a peculiar fascination with the fob watches that nurses wore over there and I suppose it’s as good a reason as any to go back. Conversation turned to the cost of living and how much cheaper it was to live in Hungary than in the UK or indeed the USA.

The older lady had returned to Budapest from California after 30 years on the West Coast. She’d come home to an aging mother and some cousins as all her friends Stateside had moved away or passed on. She was quick to point out that if you’re 25 and earning, with a future littered with paycheques looming ahead of you, then yes, life was better, not as expensive. But if you’re on a fixed income, with no promotion or payraise in sight, then life ain’t so pretty.

This has struck me before. Pensioners on fixed incomes, at a time in their lives when they should be enjoying the fruit of a lifetime of labour, are instead beset with worry. We’re living a lot longer. Seventy is the new fifty. And we need our money to stretch.  This plagued me earlier this year and although at least now I have a pension in the making, I can’t help thinking of the hundreds and thousands of older people in Budapest who are watching their pennies.  Position that against those who work work work and save save save only to drop dead two weeks after they retire. There’s a balance to be struck.

While in the USA recently, after the fifty-sixth repetition of a description of my life in Budapest, each telling gathering a few more exaggerated threads, my inquisitor looked at me and said: Sounds like you’re living the dream.  He was right. I am.

This week, as my meds wear off and I return to reality, I am truly grateful that even with the ups and downs, all is well in my world and life is indeed treating me kindly.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52



Dropping the eaves

Deliver me from inanity, from the idiotic, senseless, banal conversations that people engage in these days. A born eavesdropper (I prefer the term ‘naturally curious’ to ‘nosey’), I am suffering for my art. And it is an art. To sit and listen in to someone else’s conversation all the while appearing as though I don’t understand a word takes a certain skill. To compose my features so that nothing registers, no matter what I overhear, takes talent. The effort it takes to harness that natural reflex to interject with an opinion has released many a holy soul from purgatory. Yes, I am suffering; suffering to the point of resigning my membership of the International Eavesdropping Fraternity. I’m on the brink of handing back my membership card and cancelling my annual dues. Why? Because there is simply nothing worth listening to any more.


While sitting at Ferihegy Airport having a coffee, waiting to board a flight to Kiev recently, this British couple stood up from the table beside me.

‘I’m going to stretch my legs’, she says.

‘Ok’, he says.

‘Well, we’ve been sat in the taxi coming here, and that took nearly an hour. And we’re going to be sat on the plane for nearly three hours. And then we’ll be sat on the train. And then we’ll be sat in the car going home. So I need to stretch my legs.’

Bad grammar aside, who cares? Hubby obviously didn’t need it pointed out – he would be sat with her every tortuous inch of the way. I certainly didn’t need an explanation for such a simple intention. Have a heart, lady…

On the flight itself, I sat in front of a youngish North American couple – they seemed thrown together more by chance than by design so I’m using ‘couple’ here in its most literal sense. They were on their way to Tel Aviv. The cabin steward was going through the usual safety instructions and was showing us how to fasten our seatbelts (really – is there anyone left in the world who doesn’t know how to do this?). Ms North America pipes up:

‘I was on a flight once and this big guy who was sitting beside me mistakenly strapped his belt into mine.’

‘Really?’ asked her companion, a little incredulously. ‘Really?’ I thought… thinking that this opener had the hallmark of an interesting anecdote that might even be worth writing about. (Was I was right, or what?)

‘Yeah’, she replied.


That’s it? That’s all? ‘Yeah!’ God Lord, woman, where’s your imagination? Where’s your follow-through? That’s all you can come up with? ‘Yeah!’


Much more interesting are the foreign-language conversations that I earwig on. To get any sense of meaning from those, I have to position myself so that I can glance surreptitiously at the speakers. After all, apparently only 7% of our communication is done through words – the other 93% is tone, inflection, body language, all those word-free ways in which we get our message across. So, strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to understand the language in order to understand the message. The Italians are best – arms waving madly at what could be anything from a description of a terrible tragedy to an account of a recent shopping trip to Milan. Next in line, for my money, are the Russians where tone and inflection are often so incongruent with the message that couples might equally be declaring undying love and affection as threatening to leave and take the fur coats with them.

One of the consummate joys of eavesdropping on a foreign-language conversation is that I can make it up as I go along. And if it’s Hungarian, so much the better. I get to fill in the blanks between the few words I recognise and take it from there. My eavesdropping world is an anthology of short stories just waiting to be written.


‘How rude’, I hear some of you say. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t be listening in to other people’s conversations. And if they spoke sotto voce, I probably wouldn’t be bothered. But plugged into iPods and living in our stereophonic worlds, we have lost our ability to speak normally. With social media bringing a whole new meaning to sharing, we’re losing the run of ourselves. And, as American novelist Thornton Wilder put it: ‘There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.’

In my ideal word, people would only speak when they had something to say, something of meaning, something that other people needed or wanted to hear. Imagine the quiet, the calm, the peace. Imagine, too, how we would really listen to each other instead of tuning out, how we would value each other’s interventions, and how conversation would take on new meaning. Just imagine!

First published in the Budapest Times 12 March 2011