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Falling on deaf ears

Having just spent a king’s ransom on navigating my way around London and its hinterland, I now appreciate Budapest Transport Company, or BKK, even more. Always a fan of Budapest’s public transport system, this admiration has grown ten-fold in the aftermath of packed Tubes, standing-room-only trains and stations that seem to haemorrhage people on a regular basis.

nkk2Another much underrated joy of travelling with BKK is that my limited  Hungarian, for the most part, prevents me from understanding the conversations happening between my fellow travellers (if indeed anyone deigns
to talk at all). On the more popular tourist routes I might have to suffer through
someone else’s observations on life, but for the most part it’s all rather banal.

Not so in London.

On one train I sat opposite four young ladies of university age who were returning from a weekend in Oxford. One was better looking than the next. Each was carefully made up, nails manicured, hair coiffed. Despite their lady-like appearances which would suggest that certain subjects not be discussed in a public forum, I was treated to a thirty-minute discourse on the benefits of licking a man (yes, licking) versus snogging (kissing) him. Apparently, a lick involves less commitment, and as there are only so many men one can snog on a given night without getting a reputation for oneself, it’s best to lick. I had lots of questions I could have asked but didn’t want to show just how behind the times I am.

On another train, two friends were analysing a third friend’s relationship in her absence. She’d been with her boyfriend for all of six months and was very much in love. So much in love, in fact, that they could fully understand why she hadn’t broken up with him after he’d told her he’d had sex with three other women… on the one night. Well, really, six months is far too soon to expect exclusivity.

On yet another train, two young lads were discussing their weekend and the
party they’d been to. One had started  off drinking double gins and tonic, which at £9 a go were quite expensive, so he’d only had 12. When the second had tried to order a round of 36 shots (at £6 each), the bartender had refused so he’d had to order six lots of six instead. Neither of them remembered getting home. I’d have loved to know what they did for a living.

tubeOn the Tube, two recent graduates were comparing college notes. One had studied accounting, the other politics and philosophy. Both had gotten a 2.1
(about 62%) without having attended one lecture in their first year. First-year
university is, by all accounts, a waste of academic time. As they went on to discuss their career plans, the future philosophic politician wished he could go
back and tell his 15-year-old self not to get his ears and nose pierced. The blessings of hindsight.

Each time I checked to see how other passengers were reacting. And each
time they were all, without exception, plugged into a different world. Suddenly
the whole iPod phenomenon started to make sense.

These overheard snippets of conversation are hardly indicative of the declining
morals of the greater London public. In and  of themselves, they’re unlikely to be a barometer of the waning standards of general conversation. And when taken in the grand scheme of things, they did little more than prompt me to offer a silent prayer of thanks that in Budapest I’m spared such inanities. Yes, similar conversations might well take place but I have the advantage of not speaking the language.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 July 2014

The most bombed place on Earth

In 1942, Malta was the most bombed place on Earth. This small island strategically placed between Italy and North Africa, was a British military base that everyone wanted. The Italians used high level bombs, most of them falling into the sea. But when the Germans took over, it was a different story.

Unfortunately the German Luftwaffe took over the bombing raids from the Italians. We then knew what bombing was all about. We got bombed day and night, sometimes as many as 7 days on the trot. We had good air raid shelters under the rocks and the bombs couldn’t penetrate into them.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I had an image of what an air raid shelter would look like: a rather large basement. What I didn’t expect was 500 metres of tunnels with little rooms carved into the walls. All dug by hand.  Over 4000 people crammed into this space, each with about 1 square metre to themselves. Families of six or more could pay for the right to carve out a room of their own in the walls. There was even a maternity wing. I can’t begin to imagine what life might have been like back then – to hear the sirens and know that you were facing another day underground, packed in like sardines, breathing in the smells of so many.

To put it into perspective – Malta is smaller in size than Greater London. In two months in 1942 (March and April) the tonnage of bombs dropped on the island (6700 tons) was TWICE that dropped on London in the whole of the worst year of the blitz. London’s longest continual raid lasted 57 days; Malta’s lasted 154. There was only one bomb-free 24-hour period between 1 January 1942 and 24 July. The mind boggles.

Walking through the air-raid shelter at Mellieha is quite a sobering experience. There were no sirens, no huddled masses, no smells of the great unwashed. And still it was disturbing. Once again I found myself wondering how I would have coped – the challenges I face in my life in 2012 seem trivial in comparison.