I was late. I hate being late. I hate these lost-in-translation mix-ups; mix-ups that seem to happen more and more often lately. My friend from Pécs thought we’d agreed to meet at my flat at 8.30. I thought we’d agreed to meet at Nyugati. So I was late.
I’ve been a little distracted recently. A little more preoccupied than usual. A question is hovering in the outer reaches of my mind, waiting impatiently for an answer. I am in danger of fixating and have been since my encounter some months ago with a gipsy fortune teller in Tatabanya. God only knows how much of that particular conversation was lost in translation! Other than I’m destined to live in China (don’t think so), have two kids (don’t think so), and marry the heir to the Törley throne (no, she didn’t really say that…), the one thing that sticks in my mind is that she used the F word. She said I needed to be more feminine, that I needed to rediscover my femininity.
Allergic to estrogen
Now as is my wont in times of befuddlement, I headed straight for the dictionary.
Feminine: such as a woman is capable of; Femininity: the trait of behaving in ways considered typical for women.
It wasn’t exactly helpful. I am a woman. I am female. I might be left-of-centre on the scale of typicality, but I register. I might be used to being treated as one of the lads but that doesn’t mean I’m any less refined. I might be allergic to estrogen and break out in a cold sweat at the thoughts of being in a room full of sisters, but surely that isn’t grounds for questioning my membership of the sisterhood?
I’ve asked everyone I’ve met since to define femininity and it would appear that I’m not alone in my confusion. Few could put together a coherent sentence on the subject, let alone offer a lucid explanation. They’d travel so far down the ‘how you look’ route before getting stuck. They’d collide head-on with political correctness, saying little and meaning less. They’d get caught up in an adjectival traffic jam and stall. It would seem that femininity is something so elusive that no one can define it.
Addicted to like
I like my independence. I like having control of my life. I like having no one to answer to but myself. I have survived the male-dominated oleaginous worlds of American oil and Irish banking and have somehow managed to subvert my inner romantic traditionalist in order to make room for the modern, and apparently, unfeminine, woman that I have become. Thoughts of the F word, and what it might represent, were weighing heavy on my mind. So I was late.
I apologised to my friend from Pécs. We puszi puszied. He checked his watch, a little anxiously. He’d made a program (now there’s a word that’s a casualty of translation…). I was more than a little surprised. The men in my world don’t normally show such initiative. I’m usually the one who initiates, consults, and makes arrangements. But he had booked tickets for the Budapest Jazz Club because he’d remembered I liked jazz! He’d even gone to the trouble of reserving a table. He walked on the outside of the footpath. He held the door open for me. He took my coat. He pulled out my chair. He asked me what I’d like to drink. He insisted on paying (he’d invited me; it was his program). He showed just the right amount of interest in what I had to say and contributed his fair share to the conversation. He sought and considered my opinion on matters relating to work, relationships, and the current state of affairs in Hungary. He talked about himself and remembered to ask about me. He was considerate without being solicitous. The silences, although few, were left to run their natural course. At the end of the evening, when I was heading for the tram, he insisted on driving me home. We puszi puszied and arranged to meet next time he was in town. I promised to try to be on time.
Later, as I was brushing my teeth, I looked in the mirror and saw someone I hadn’t seen in a long time: the feminine me. I finally got it. In signing up to twenty-century mores, control and independence had become my mantra; self-sufficiency had become my raison d’être. I saw the danger of confusing liberation with lipstick, of mistaking femininity for frills. The words of Frigyes Karinthy came to mind:
If I am alone in a room, I am a person. If a woman enters, I become a man. And the more of a woman is the woman who enters, the more of a man I become.
Chivalry is alive and well and living in Pécs; and femininity has taken up residence in District VIII.
First published in the Budapest Times 31 January 2011