We had quite a few family members visiting us for Christmas, Helen’s nonagenarian aunt from California and her grand-daughter, along with three of our own children and a boyfriend.
Several of them had visited earlier in the year and they were all excited to be back in Budapest, and one afternoon set off for the Great Markethall to do some Christmas shopping, but when they got back they had a somewhat sorry tale to tell. They had taken the No 2 tram to the market and because of it being packed and them not understanding how to operate their ticket machines, they had not validated their tickets properly, even though they had tried to do so. No-one had offered help to show how these older machines work, so when the ticket inspectors swooped they were in trouble.
They had been ordered off the tram, had had to show passports, were threatened with being taken to the police station, and their parents (i.e. me) had been criticised for not explaining how to validate their tickets. They were then fined 12,000 forints (nearly £40).
This will be a familiar tale to people who know Budapest. Instructions on how to validate tickets on trams and buses are non-existent it seems, especially in languages that tourists know, and the machines themselves sometimes do not work properly or are confusing to operate. Allied with a culture that expects authoritarian behaviour, giving people a uniform makes them become little dictators.
This is something of an issue for Budapest’s international image in my opinion. Following the rules is important, but overall the city’s reputation as a tourist destination would benefit if the BKV explained in each conveyance how the system works (in English as a minimum) and its little dictators were to show rather more customer focus and sensitivity to confused (but not necessarily cheating) foreigners.
A small story, but a bigger one caught my ear this morning, when on the BBC’s Today programme they said they were going over to their man in Budapest. This story was about the Hungarian government’s new media control laws: a government body will have oversight over what television and newspapers want to report. The government minister interviewed suggested that as the ruling party had won such a large majority in the elections that it was their duty to do what was necessary to protect the country against misreporting.
To my ears this sounds pretty much like the sort of justifications that dictatorships can use, and indeed several voices in the European Union have questioned its ethicality.
Democracy is new in this part of the world, and its subtle responsibilities do not sit easily with traditions that respect autocracies, whether they be on the No. 2 trams or in central government.