Thursday, 1 July 2010

The day the lights went out

I got back home from work last night to find that the electricity in my apartment was off. At first I thought it might be a power cut and then I noticed that other apartments had electricity and the meter and main fuses outside my apartment had been switched off and sealed, so it looked like it was just my place.

Confused, I went to the post box in the main hall way and looked for the one for my apartment. I had never used it before and didn't even know where it was, as all my post is delivered to my office address. I certainly didn't have a key to open it but managed to slide my sticky little fingers into it just enough to catch hold of some of the papers inside.

One of them was a blue form from ELMU, the electricity company, that looked rather suspicious, and another was a bill for six months unpaid electricity. Even though I could not understand any of the Hungarian documentation, the meaning was clear.

There followed a slightly fractious text message interchange with my apartment manager where each of us made a few weak attempts to blame the other while not causing offence. We managed that remarkably well, ending up each agreeing to a share of the blame and apologising profusely and agreeing a plan of action.

So first thing this morning I made my way to the ELMU office to sort things out. Of course, as soon as I entered the office it all became very confusing. Dozens of people were standing aimlessly around an empty desk, and as all the signs were, of course, in Hungarian, I understood nothing so adopted my lost foreigner manner, which always seems to work well here. And it did again. A charming young woman came up to me and asked me if she could help, and when I explained my predicament she pointed me towards the empty desk and said I should wait there.

After a few minutes someone appeared. They spoke no English, so disappeared into the next room to find someone who did. He looked cursorily at my pile of paperwork and said, encouragingly, "That looks fine", punched some buttons on the screen and handed me ticket number 364. I waited about 10 minutes for my number to come up and then walked through into the next office to the appropriate desk. Again, the English speaker was summoned, and he explained what should be done. She looked at my pile of paper, typed lots of numbers into her computer, discussed some finer points with her colleague and then told me to go back outside to wait until my number came up again.

Another five minutes went by and 364 came up on the screen for a second time. This time I went to see the cashier who took my large pile of forints, smiled at my probably over-enthusiastically Hungarian "thank yous" and told me to go back to the first desk I had been to.

She now checked her system to make sure that I had paid my bill and produced a sheaf of paper, all covered in densely printed Hungarian, of which I had to sign every sheet. Hoping that I had not just agreed to finance the country's national debt, I again thanked her profusely as she explained that the electricity would be reconnected later in the day.

So I merged from my bureaucratic experience with success, and having enjoyed the smiles and half-understood explanations of four or five people.

And at 7.30 this evening, two men in overalls came round and reconnected me to the modern world.

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