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Grateful 16

Image from rozsanderson.com

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

 

 

Saps and saplings

I have amused myself to the point of inanity in recent months trying to work out a pattern to BKV’s seemingly random staffing of controllers at my local metro station. Just when I felt I was on the brink of some major discovery, after nearly five months of mental note-taking and complex calculations, they’ve disappeared. And they left without even saying goodbye. For two days now, I’ve had to brave the escalators into the wider world without their customary cheery jó reggelts and köszönöms. I feel like my right arm has been cut off… the one that’s itching to wear one of those armbands.

I’ve heard tell of those who’ve passed through the jegyellenőr gauntlet with the same ticket twenty times or more; or those who’ve travelled for weeks on an expired pass. So I have to wonder what exactly is it that my friends with the armbands think they’re controlling. I’m not the first to wonder why the BKV doesn’t just install ticket machines at metro stations. Or have front-entry buses? And I certainly won’t be the last sap to ask why not? So why not?  

Sledges, skis or saplings?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the BKV. I really am. It’s one of the best public transport systems I’ve encountered in my travels. Its detractors should trying living in cities where buses travel in bunches, if they travel at all, or where timetables express hope rather than intent. Perhaps we’re both on the same cycle but I’ve rarely, if ever, had to wait more than five minutes for a bus, tram or metro to come get me. There are clocks to tell me exactly how long I can expect to be kept waiting. The journey planning tool on the website has demystified Budapest for me making even the remotest parts accessible. And the English-language instructions about what I can carry with me are simple and to the point: one sledge, one pair of skis, one wrapped sapling tree or a pram.

Back in the early days when, although a seasoned traveler, I was a BKV novice, I thought that as long as I stayed underground my ticket was valid. I changed lines and didn’t validate a second ticket. I was nabbed at Nyugati, my book of tickets confiscated, and demands made on me for my passport and 5000 ft. I had neither. I asked to go to an ATM to get the money and by the time I got back, the lady with the armband (the one I’m itching to wear) had vanished. I reckoned I owed the universe about 3000 ft (the fine minus the cost of a book of tickets), a debt I duly discharged using the next homeless man I met as my broker. It wasn’t an experience I particularly wanted to repeat. So, after calculating that I’d cover the cost of my pass by Day 17 (I can be a little dim at times), I decided to cross over to the other side of the tracks and go the Havi Budapest-bérlet route. I also corrected that unwitting mistake I made when first recounting this story: my ticket wasn’t inspected…I was controlled!

Off tramway

My pass is like a front-row ticket to a series of vignettes played out in front of me at least once a day. As the controllers board and take a minute to get in costume, the actors take their cues. The martyred monthlies sigh in exasperation as they root through their bags and pockets, annoyed that their respectability is being called into question. Those on the precipice of pensiondom frown slightly, adding those all important extra wrinkles in their attempt to look just a little beyond the magic age of 65. Those who have already passed this mark smile a peculiarly self-congratulatory smile that admonishes ‘you, too, can travel for free when you’ve clocked up as many miles as I have’. The pubescent plugged-ins barely miss a beat as they languidly show their passes. And then there are the dodgers; highly skilled performers of a different kind.

The starers simply stare, be it out the window or into space or at their shoes, hoping the controller won’t be too persistent. The diversionists get on their mobiles and launch into a very important business call from which they cannot possibly be disturbed. The magicians disappear out of one carriage and reappear in another. The expressionists look amazed at the fact that their passes have expired. The innocents smile and simper…and make like tourists. It’s a Mecca for the method actor.

But because I’m concentrating on not behaving in a way which is scandalous or antisocial, and because I don’t get to wear an armband, I’m relegated to sitting quietly with my wrapped sapling tree and enjoying the performance.

This article first published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2009