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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

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