I hate travelling by metro. this is perhaps because I have been able to do a lot of my “research” for my boor book (‘the boor’, subtitled ‘post-Soviet neurosis in Hungary’) on my few journeys underground, which fact is already very telling of how the system, the vehicles and, most importantly, the passengers contribute to a uniquely grim Hungarian experience.
A few years ago some stations of the red metro line were done up very fancily indeed: one almost feels in europe while waiting for a train at these stations (Moszkva ter, Batthanyi ter, etc) until the train actually appears, from which point things take on an almost burlesque appeal. the carriages that roll into the newly renovated stations have been proudly serving the Hungarian public (one almost feels like adding ‘working on building glorious socialism’) from the seventies and look the part too: shabby, grey, rundown, with paint coming off in huge patches, the inside furnishings (also) resembling the setting of a period movie more than real vehicles still in use today.
Lighting is dim, passenger seats uncomfortable, doors closing with a massive bang, handles dirty and sticky. unbelievable as it may seem, but the recording with the speaker announcing the stations’ names has been changed and now most often than not (still not always though) it’s a pleasant young woman’s voice that tells you relatively audibly what station is next as opposed to the old guy’s that Hungarians would listen to for decades and which recording, perhaps as a result gradually became totally blurred over the years to the extent that you actually had to listen very carefully if you weren’t familiar with a metro line to be able to catch when you needed to get off. Let’s not be very Hungarian about this though: what matters is that it has been changed by now. A small step for a public transport company, a big step for a people.
As the joke goes there are two types of people: those who categorize people into two types and those who don’t. As I clearly belong to the category that believes in categories or at least uses them to simplify thinking about certain questions or problems, I distinguish two kinds of BKV travellers too: those who relish staring and those who struggle to maintain a smattering of their privacy so as to possibly avoid close encounters with sheer madness. I tend to belong to this second group of people but for the sake of doing my little “social experiments” for this book I’ve been coming out of my shell a lot recently. concerning my last sunday afternoon I must add: pretty unfortunately.
Ordinarily I really shouldn’t stare insanity and despair in the face. I’ve seen enough of both in the family that I come from, thank you very much. As a result, I also carry a lot of both in me, which fact makes me want to work hard at not getting dissolved into either by establishing some balance of perception while not going into denial either- a tricky balance alright that I didn’t even bother about trying to strike up while younger. I’m curious by nature and while young we tend to be daring anyways so I used to expose myself to a lot of dangerous/ maddening/tragic aspects of human existence (in Hungary), a.k.a “mental illness”, a collocation whose legitimacy (or lack thereof…) in describing emotional/relational problems we temporarily or even permanently harbor during a human life I elaborate on in detail in the chapter on Alice Miller.
I used to be, and to some extent still am someone who never averted their eyes from the scene of an emotional/psychological accident or even disaster. I look, examine, learn… and usually get harmed meanwhile, because I of course tend to be ‘related’ to the person throwing the tantrum, totally losing themselves and blaming things on me, even when I clearly, objectively can’t be at fault because for example I’m just a child (my childhood) or because I can’t be held responsible for how things, the job market, etc are in a foreign country (my last relationship). I’m involved nevertheless and will be blamed.
If you love the person in question it is even your duty to take ‘reality checks’ to see if there’s anything to their claims. If you find that there is, then you should wake up and change some patterns of yours. when you’re being criticized for being a ‘whore’ at the age of twelve for arriving home five past eight pm indeed or for taking the evening job you’re happy you could find at all in a foreign country and as a result not being able to keep your loved one company (while you’re equally lonely but in a different shift of the day) there’s not much you can set out to change in your personality or behavior, however.
In such instances the error message is clearly in the senders’ mind and all you can do to protect yourself in the long run is just that: run (that is of course unless you’re strong enough to see things from above, symphatize with the person in question and forgive them their occassional tantrums. Very hard to do when A, they later don’t acknowledge how difficult they were and B,… they don’t sypmhatize with you.)
But because so far in life I’ve tended to chose ‘education’ over ‘protection’, I looked (learned, self-harmed…) without any consideration for my wellbeing. I have recently decided, however, to leave my ‘emotional-cutter’ days behind me (that is, until I started writing this book, for the duration of which I must take a break and ‘look/learn/self-harm’ just a bit more…).
I decided it was time to grow up and learn to protect myself psychologically too, which only comes natural for someone who has been taught how to take care of themselves by being taken care of. one seemingly small but surprisingly important revision of a routine was when I started to try and bury myself in a book while on the metro for example, instead of looking at/literally smelling poverty, sloppiness, depression, alcoholism.
I was also trying to pretend I was lost in my readings when I was travelling to visit my dying grandpa in hospital on this lonely, grey, depressed and depressing february sunday afternoon. from the corner of my right eye I could see them approaching my part of the compartment though. Being buried in a book (or a Blikk, the cheapest, lowest quality tabloid here) or not you can’t afford the luxury of not paying attention while in public in Hungary. You can only afford the luxury of pretending that you’re not paying attention.
You don’t want to wake up with your shoes gone for example (never happened to me. You see, because I am alert, like a good scout. Or Pioneer?). I was sitting fake comfortably in the lap of my pretense, but acutely aware of the two gipsy women harassing, haggling, whining closer and closer to me.
The younger one was clutching the aluminum bucket with the ugly plastic roses in it with the one hand and dragging a boy of around four years behind herself. One way or another most passengers had got off by this point, maybe escaping the miserable company, maybe not and I found myself almost entirely alone with them in the compartment. As predictable, the young one, not older than twenty as far as I could tell but light years older and toughened into a predator by life latched onto me and started calling me by the nick ‘pretty young lady’ (I’m twenty eight, which probably makes me eight years her senior).
True, I don’t have almost teenage children of my own waiting for me home returning from my prowls, so socially that makes me just that: young, and went inarticulately on and on about how the ‘baby’ was hungry, etc. She could sense my weakness. She sat down next to me and started talking into my face behind the book and poking at my coat. Now this is when a ‘normal’ Hungarian would have stood up, gone to the other end of the compartment or even got off. My guards were off for this day though, what with my grandpa being in hospital and all, so after a while I looked up and said all right, if you stop touching me, I’ll see what I can do about you.
And then I actually took out my purse. If you’re a Hungarian reader, you will have cringed at this part of the story. All the Hungarians that I told this story to literally told me off for being so stupid that I give money to gypsies at all but especially that I take out my purse from my bag for them? What was I thinking?
Well, I wasn’t thinking so much as feeling, really. Guess this is the same excuse pregnant teenagers might be giving their angry parents too, but I do think that some decisions in life are, should be based on emotions rather than common sense. Otherwise you’re a zombie, a sociopath. True, it’s much harder to get hurt if you live like one but if you don’t allow yourself human connections, what’s the point of living at all? You might win all the battles and lose the war without even realizing it. A very Budapest-related catch 22.
So there I am, digging into my bag for my purse. I find it and as I open it to take out a new 200 HUF coin from it, the young one’s eyes light up, madness and greed explode in them and start burning like a bunch of thin, dry branches thrown onto a campfire on a balmy midsummer evening. She becomes so excited (NOT grateful) that she starts spluttering and accidentally even spits on the arm of my black linen jacket.
I really should get off right now if not sooner. But I’m weak and by this point almost hypnotized by her constant, very intensive… well, nonsense. She starts telling me that she’ll tell me my fortune if I want (or even if I don’t, really) and takes my palm to announce that there’re two men in my life, one blond, one brown. Actually, there’s one only, the dying grandfather I am still vaguely hoping to get to alive while he is still alive, but I don’t dare say this to her, or that the hair he still has is neither blond or brown, but grey.
At this point she reaches over and tears a hair out from behind my left ear and demands that I give her the note of the biggest denomination from my purse that she can wrap the torn-out hair into and tell the rest of my fortune. When I look at her with a touch of disbelief, she rushes on to assure me that she doesn’t need the stupid note, what am I thinking, this is all for my benefit.
She sinks her long, strong, dirty, yellow nails into the linen of my coat and from behind her thin brown moustache and through her very crooked yellow teeth explains that she MUST FINISH what she has started, otherwise the curse stays on me. (Note: a general rule of thumb in life: always watch out when someone says something they’re doing or want you to do is for your benefit. Also see Alice Miller’s book with the very similar title described later on in my book).
I am more and more aware of the absurdity of the situation, of my limp inability to get rid of these ravenous gypsies who instead of saying thank you and god bless are totally hell-bent on taking all I have on me, which isn’t that much at the end of a bleak teaching month anyways. Totally my fault though, and I know it. With dogs, children or when training a new lover, one must be consistent. Same with beggars and in other everyday psychological battles.
It’s just that I hate consistency. Not sure if this is because I grew up with a set of very inconsistent adults around me and inconsistency is what comes ‘natural’ to me or if this is part of my overwhelming rebellion against all things predictable (i.e. usually authority). I also believe in justified exceptions because I have seen just how capricious life can be, from which randomness not even your little routines and security blankets can protect you if you’re meant to go through a certain life experience.
As I’m standing at the half-lit metro station with the gypsies still stuck onto me (they got off with me!), still participating their hypnotic games, albeit by this time three thousand forints shorter and about to lose maybe even more and start crying soon, I apply the usual psychic technique that comes in handy when a situation emotionally overcomes my current abilities: I dissociate. Don’t think less of me for not being able to guard my boundaries better in the first part of the story leading up to this scene.
I have come a long way in learning to protect myself in general but even I can’t be totally strong all the time. Of course ‘I could have known better’, yes. But as I say about my previous (failed) serious relationship when people ask me why I couldn’t predict the disastrous outcome, why I couldn’t foresee ‘the obvious’ – because it wasn’t obvious. There was the potential that things would turn out differently, despite all odds and differences. There was the potential that things would work out in him, in me, between us. I still believe that in life it’s a shame to not even try.
I wanted to believe (even: chose to believe) that gypsy women could be trusted, despite prejudices. I love to consider myself as a female Don Quixote of the oppressed, a savior, or at least sympathizer, of the unjustly labeled (I have other, even more grandiose delusions too…). I am fond of ‘all-things-flamenco’ as well, so gypsy culture didn’t use to be very far from me. I am taking a distance for a while now though, for sure. I have just got further toughened up for Hungarian everyday reality by these two people, which is a huge loss for the decent minority among this minority.
I’m not questioning why they’re unemployed; I’m not asking why they choose to have more children they can feed. All I’m asking is: what’s wrong with the two hundred forints I was willing to give? Why cheat, betray, chew off the arm when ‘a little finger has been generously held out for you’, as we say in Hungarian, (probably originally about gypsies/Hungarians too, coming to think of it…)?
Gypsy women are talented, instinctive psychologists, masters of striking up just the right balance between flattery and comradeship with you and are fantastic actors too, as is anybody who is enough of a sociopath to be able to lie straight into someone else’s face and not bat an eye herself. I didn’t use to be a sociopath, but I’m living in Budapest and psychological ills are contagious, just like H1N1.
If we fall over ourselves to get vaccinated against the flu, we might as well notice and try to do something about bouncing all types of ‘boorishnesses’ off one another. I didn’t get the flu shot but sure as hell am not stopping for a gypsy woman for a while now, for example. I have just been pushed yet another inch closer to becoming a sociopath.