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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.

Listening

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.

Silence.

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!’

Watching

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.

Waiting

‘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

Diplomatic persons

The flight from the Ukraine to Azerbaijan was about half full. The first transit bus had disgorged its passengers and we had taken seat, expecting the doors to close at any minute. The overhead compartments were full, not of suitcases and bags, but of heavy winter coats and big fur hats. It was -12°Cin Kiev that afternoon.

I had one of the back rows all to myself and had my laptop out ready to boot up. Flights are no longer an opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Until I learn how to say ‘no’ and mean it, I will be forever looking for a few extra hours in a day.  The flight to Baku was earmarked to copy-edit a couple of a chapters from a book written by a gal from Belarus… a favour.

One more bus pulled up outside and about a dozen men in greatcoats and hats came aboard. I immediately pegged them as oil workers. It may well have been that flying into Kiev that morning from Budapest, I had been forcibly reminded of Alaska – of Valdez – and the oil industry and its accompaniments were on my mind. The white expanse of snow punctuated by wooden houses and bright flashes of colour as pick-ups navigated the icy roads. It was very similar to Valdez – without the water and the mountains and the trailer parks…

I had no doubt in my mind. The men were big and burly and dressed and pressed in street clothes that looked as if they’d been carefully closeted until now. Huge hands, broad shoulders, and loud voices – the sum of the parts was greater than the sum of the whole. They were oil workers and they looked as if they were heading home on leave. As they tried to fit their bags and coats into the already crammed overhead compartments, it became clear that they operated as a unit. One elderly, rather distinguished man, pointed to various compartments with a beautifully carved walking stick, instructing two of the men as to what could go where. Another was sent off to check with the cabin steward if they could use the empty back rows for their bags. A fourth was set to work repacking coats already stored.

They were carrying huge boxes that looked as if they contained 5-litre bottles of some unpronounceable liquor. So, maybe they were going on rather than coming off.  Yes, it made more sense that they were going back to work. The Azeri economy runs on oil and they were heading towards Baku. Happy that I’d figured it all out, I went to work.

We had no sooner taken off than most of the empty back rows had been claimed. The shortest of these giants stretched out and promptly fell asleep. Loud snores, grunts, and heavy breathing melded into one and took on an almost orchestral note that blended nicely with my percussionist keyboard tapping.

Later, as I entered the immigration all at Baku, I saw three signs: Foreign Passports, Azerbaijan citizens, Diplomatic Persons. I took my place at the back of a long, slow-moving queue, wishing, not for the first time, that I had a diplomatic passport. Then, as if from nowhere, my boys appeared en masse, and stood in the Diplomatic Persons line. I did a double take. Yes, all 12 of them, including la director with his wonderfully carved stick. Diplomats? Surely not! No way.  As a host of illusions shattered noiselessly around me, I wondered… mmmm, one doesn’t have to be a diplomatic person to be a diplomat!