The Budapest trams have a timetable. I know this because I spent hours studying it, but now realise its more of a polite gesture than an indication of when the trams might arrive. The ticket machines are similarly free-spirited. We dont want your money! they say as they spit your Forints back at you. At least I was providing amusement for the local Budapesters gathered at the station (all sixty and over; it was a weekday). They waited patiently, presumably having had no trouble extracting a ticket from the strange Soviet-era torture device. Silly foreigners they said to each other through a combination of wry smiles and knowing headshakes. Hungarians are famous for not gesticulating too much, but what gestures they do make are effective and to the point, and in this case very accurate.
The only solution to this dispute was a kind of saturation bombing campaign. I gathered every available coin in my right hand, holding my left under the chute to catch the rejected currency. I took a deep breath, and off I went. Kerching, rattle, kerching, rattle, kerching, rattle, then a transfer of returned coins from left hand to right, and the assault could begin again. Kerching, rattle, kerching, rattle, and so on, until finally kerching, clunk: I was in. I was a little disappointed that my hard fought prize looked like a church raffle ticket, but it was my permit to travel and I loved it. I loved it enough to kiss it but the wry smiles of my fellow travellers deterred me from drawing any more attention.
I was grateful to see the tram shuffle up to the station, but sagely waited for the locals to get on first in order to observe any ticket stamping, seating arrangement or driver greeting rituals that must be obeyed. Nothing just get in and sit down. The packed tram made its way over the green-blue Danube River, leaving Buda behind and heading for Pest.
The plan was to get off at the last stop, which was more or less the geographical centre of Pest. I assumed this was everyone elses plan, but for some reason everybody and when I say everybody, thats every single human being except myself and the driver got off in the middle of nowhere. I looked out the slightly grimy window to see what could possibly merit this mass exodus. Nothing. But the reason for the exodus wasnt outside the tram.
Turning back from the window I was confronted by a stocky middle aged woman dressed in what appeared to be a 1950s police uniform with a bar towel draped over one arm and a giant medieval calculator in the other. The malicious look in her eye identified her as a ticket inspector. The look in a ticket inspectors eye is universal; it transcends international boundaries of ethnicity, geography and ideology because, doing the devils work, they all have the same boss.
Towering above me in my seat she looked me in the eye and said ye eejit. This was weird. Was she Irish? Turns out not, she was demanding my yegyet (pronounced yeejit). So, with what I thought was a winning smile, I proudly produced my hard won yeejit. She looked at it and shook her head. I knew from recent experience (see above) that this wasnt a good sign.
Nem she said and pointed first to the ticket-stamping machine, then to the ticket in my hand and then to me. The woman was a studied master of the international gesture. With this simple act of tri-directional pointing she had communicated that I had failed to validate my ticket at the stamping machine and that this was bad news for me. I attempted to explain that I was unaware of the need to validate tickets, and that since no-one else had done it there was no way of me knowing, and that I sincerely apologised for my faux pas and would certainly endeavour to follow correct procedure in future instances.
Unfortunately I knew only four words of Hungarian. These were Igen (yes), Nem (no), veges-sr (bottled-beer) and Ksznm (thank you). While attempting to construct my defence with these limited resources, everything became clear. The reason for the elderly Budapesters wry smiles was the same reason for their mass exodus. No one ever buys a tram ticket, let alone validates it, and the wily old dogs know to head for the exits when the woman in the 50s police uniform makes an appearance.
My epiphany testing her patience, the inspector made the internationally recognised gesture for get off the tram youre in big trouble. I got off, wondering how this was going to go. The instinct to run was strong. I could definitely outrun this woman, especially if she planned to bring the medieval calculator with her.
Fine is 800 Forints or I call police, she informed me. She spoke English! Brilliant, maybe I could talk my way out of this after all. I put on my best smile.
Look, Im sorry. I didnt realise that tickets had to be validated, no one else had validated so I had no way of knowing. Im really sorry. Ill do it from now on I promise.
Fine is 800 Forints or I call police. It seemed her English vocabulary was highly specialised. Further protestations were met with an increasingly familiar Fine is 800 Forints or I call police.
Bottled-beer? I offered by way of a joke.
Fine is 800 Forints or I call police a mantra that didnt end until I finally accepted my fate, left with no option but to pay up.
Theres a lesson to be learned here. The phrase When in Rome, do as the Romans do is generally good advice. However, it doesnt work if the Romans are a bunch of elderly Hungarian fare dodging lawbreakers. And of course the proverbial Romans presumably speak fluent Italian, so if you only master enough Hungarian to say thank you for the bottled beer you just ordered then youre left at the mercy of unforgiving ticket inspectors.