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