I discovered a completely new side to my city last night.
My Aussie friend here, Sally, lives with some French students who have just finished a year of studying at a Budapest university. They threw a party and we decided to join in, given that the only other option was for Sal to go home, feel pissed off at her increasingly uncooperative and difficult housemates for partying and not get any sleep.
Around 10.30pm, we thought we would buy some sparkling wine and catch the tram to her place. Realising that the 24-hour stores downstairs stop selling booze at 10pm, we wondered where we might find a couple of bottles of headache-inducing something-or-other.
We stood outside my building, puzzled, before I went into the 24-hour store (called an “ABC 0-24” here) that we normally buy our bread from, and asked quietly, “where would I buy alcohol at this time of night?”
The young guy behind the counter gave me a sly look, nodded and smiled.
“Here?” I said.
“Igen,” he answered, “yes.”
The alcohol fridges had padlocks on them and a large grid of fencing metal was across the shelves of wine and spirits. Apparently, this was all for show.
The young guy asked what we wanted and we requested two bottles of Hungaria sparkling – Sally’s recommendation.
He was in such a hurry to get us to pay and go discreetly.
“You must use black bag,” he said quickly, opening up a black plastic supermarket bag for the bottles. Normally this shop doesn’t give out bags, but when you ask for one, it’s just a flimsy white plastic thing.
“I’ve got a bag, it’s OK,” Sally said.
He was happy with this.
“Budapest,” he said, making a face. “You know…” and he trailed off, clearly unimpressed with the local laws.
The receipts that are always given out here from a special kind of cash register, showing how much tax was paid, were nowhere to be seen. I realised as we left that he shoved it through a small hole in the counter top and covered it with some kind of advertising mat. Normally everywhere you go, they thrust a receipt at you, and you leave it on the counter if you don’t want it, lest it clog up your wallet along with all the strange foreign currency and other financial flotsam and jetsam.
We walked out, quite chuffed and feeling a sense of comradeship with the young guy. It’s like you needed a password, but that password was simply your cash and brazenness in asking for the booze.
The party was, as far as parties go, nothing special. A whole bunch of French university students sitting around drinking awful cheap red wine, disappearing out the front to smoke regularly and pissing off the neighbours. One girl showed great interest in us as she had spent 6 months of last year living in Australia. She was delightful – if only all of them had been so friendly!
Whilst I was deep in conversation with said lovely French girl, a huge crash from the kitchen was heard. I thought someone had fallen through the windows or smashed the glass tabletop. The whole party migrated to the kitchen, and I pulled the plug on the speakers attached to the laptop to kill the music.
In the kitchen, with about 20 drunk French twentysomethings, I suddenly felt old and responsible. I checked everyone was wearing shoes and told some to get out of the way. Two large windows were smashed and a small panel of glass of the front door was also gone.
Trying to process this and look for blood, I was startled by a man in a bathrobe bursting into the apartment and shouting, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” He had that crazy look in his eyes – the kind of look you don’t want to interrupt with a polite, “excuse me, sir, would you mind getting out of the kitchen?”
Instead, in my usual, stunned, non-confrontational manner, I stood there watching him, and piecing the scene together. I must have looked like a terrified, wide-eyed, slightly overweight giraffe, in my heels, surrounded by broken glass and French man-children.
A flurry of discussion after he stormed out, bathrobe flapping, revealed that he was a very angry neighbour who had come to the apartment and smashed three windows.
Sally called the police after another neighbour, woken by the noise, came across to see if everyone was alright, advised her which number to call. I called B and asked what we should say and what number we ring. Being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language was very real and very intimidating all of a sudden.
Before Sally could get through to the police on the phone, two young officers came up the stairs. Between the two Aussies, an army of French students and two Spaniards, the story was gurgled out frantically in somewhat broken, drunk English to the bemused cops. No one spoke Hungarian, and the police didn’t have much of a grasp of English.
Sal and I tried to slow it down and explain but there were other angry neighbours joining in and shouting from their balconies. One police officer seemed to speak more English than the other, so I zoned in on him.
“It wasn’t a big party,” I said, a glass of sparkling wine still in my hand. (I realise in retrospect I was hardly a responsible looking person at this point.)
The cop nodded and smirked. They seemed to get the story that it was a man from downstairs who smashed the windows. I rang B and asked him to tell them in Hungarian what we knew.
Seemingly from nowhere, a woman with wet hair, wearing a bathrobe, appeared and offered to translate. Now, Sally was onto this woman immediately, but I was a) 7 glasses of wine into my night, and b) completely naïve and too trusting, as usual. The woman translated between us and the police. Neither cop seemed interested in taking notes or reassuring anyone about anything. They simply looked bemused and a little bit bored.
The woman was fluent in English and Hungarian, and assured the police that she lives below the girls’ flat and had not been bothered by the party. Strangely, though, the girls were quite convinced that the window-smashing, bath-robed fiend also lived directly below them. Using my phone to type out a surreptitious message, Sal told me she thought they lived together and the woman could in fact be defending her partner and not translating correctly.
I have to admit at this point, and I refer again to the 7 glasses of wine, that I do tend to talk a lot, and wine does loosen the trap door, so to speak. I had to really shut my gob and stop assuming this woman was just a friendly neighbour who came up to translate. In her bathrobe. With wet hair. At 2am.
It was explained via our perhaps-less-than-trustworthy-translator that the girls needed to contact their landlord, that someone from the police could come to assess the damage tomorrow, and that everyone who does not live in the apartment needed to go home.
In the lounge room, I found every party guest talking like, well, 20 red-wine-drunk French students who just saw windows get smashed in by an angry mini-hulk in a bathrobe. Loudly.
I used my very best teacher voice and asked them all to leave. Quietly.
Disappearing into Sally’s room for a moment to check that no one was in there having a sneaky smoke or rummaging through her stuff, I realized no one was moving.
Back in the lounge room, I cleared my throat and said, “you all need to go NOW.” That was in my year 9 coordinator’s voice. Very effective.
And so, they left. One by one, they picked their way across the glass-covered floor and filed out the front door, solemnly, bidding farewell to the hosts, the cops, the woman in the bathrobe and me. I don’t know why I felt I was allowed to stay, but I chose to.
The police started to take ID information from the girls and the woman stayed there, translating. They wrote down the description (we hoped) and the other neighbours shut their windows and stopped yelling across the landing to one another.
We were concerned that Mrs Bathrobe might have deliberately incorrectly translated the information or description, so I used my phone to translate, “man downstairs. Brown hair, brown eyes. Broke windows”, and handed it to the nicer of the two policemen. He nodded and went to type something else in but did not really know how it worked – I think the word was something like, “assess the damage” or “cost of damage”.
At this point, I left.
By the time I got home, at about 3am, Sally was on the phone to us, asking B to translate for her again. She had demanded to speak to someone who spoke English, and the police called a colleague who also thought the entire situation was a joke. Increasingly stressed and frustrated, Sal needed to know if they would give her any documentation to show the landlord. No one could give her an answer. B managed to ascertain that they would be able to provide documentation for the landlord and it had all been recorded. They asked him if the man broke the windows with a fist or an implement. The general consensus was with a fist.
Apparently after I left, the police asked one of Sally’s housemates to come downstairs and they were speaking with Mrs Bathrobe through her window. At this point, Sal was quite firm in saying that the housemates should not be talking to her at all. No sign of Mr Bathrobe. No sense of proactive policing going on. No door knocking or taking of names of anyone other than those who live in the apartment.
Whilst no one was hurt, and broken windows are simply broken windows, the sense that we were either deliberately or accidentally misunderstood was all around us. The fear of the police not taking down anything that was being said, or even taking it seriously, swam around the small congregation on the landing but was dulled by the wine.
Language barriers are huge. I know people have encountered enormously frustrating difficulties when dealing with authorities and no one has a common language. I can’t even imagine how hard it is when you have a brush with the law in a more serious way and you don’t know if you’re being taken seriously, or what the implications might be for you in a foreign country.
The sense of amusement that was so apparent on the faces of these cops, who, in all seriousness, looked like I could have taught them year 10 English in recent years, did not ease the stress of the situation.
In Australia, my dealings with the police have always been professional, friendly, reassuring and, above all, my concerns have been taken seriously. I have never considered the police to be the enemy, but last night it didn’t feel as though they were on our side.
I’ve heard so much about corruption in this country and have never come close to anything that I thought was particularly dodgy, but last night there were two instances of a certain slipperiness, a kind of intangible, NQR-feeling.
Luckily, it was only broken glass. No one was hurt, the apartment can still be locked up, the girls are safe and from there, it’s a matter of seeing how it all comes out in the wash.
And at least now I know where to buy alcohol after 10pm.