I was in Dublin when I started this entry. It was a wonderful long weekend. Dóra had some work to do there, and we decided to make a trip of it. I’ve never been, but I plan to visit again. Great city. It’s somehow simultaneously cosmopolitan and quaint.
We arrived on Friday night. Our cabdriver offered up some of the best English-language cursing I’ve heard in a while. With his command of the idiom, he helped me to understand that “…the country [Ireland] will driving you absolutely fucking nuts.” He did get more colorful than that, but I can’t reproduce the accent here, so there’s little point in sharing.
It is worth noting, however, that while driving us to the hotel, our cabby read stories out of the newspaper to back up his assertions about the crazy-making nature of Ireland: gang war in Limerick, rising cost of living, botched city planning, Romanian pick pockets, healthcare horror stories, and government corruption were just some of the stories we got to hear about.
What struck me while listening to the cabby’s rant was the man’s tenor: disbelief and frustration mingled with a smile.
If I were to sit through a similar set of complaints in Budapest, the tone would be exceedingly somber: knitted brows, pensive frowns, and a lot of exasperated sighing. But when I take a step back, something becomes clear: When I compare 1) the complaints I heard in Dublin to 2) the complaints I hear in Hungary to 3) the complaints I have about the US, I notice that they are all very similar. That isn’t any kind of revelation, I know, but this visit to Dublin shed a new light on things.
As our cabby went on and on about the absurdity of modern living, his tone stressed the absurdity. The lilt of his voice suggested that the problems Ireland faces are ridiculous, almost silly. He had a laugh caught in his throat as he described each new outrage, and over the course of the weekend, I noted that this tone was a common one in Ireland. I don’t want to fall back on the stereotype of the merry-old-Irishman, because our cabby wasn’t merry. He was upset. It’s just that his way of seeing problems differs from the way both Americans and Hungarians see problems. Seeing that difference helped me better understand how my countrymen and I see the world, and how the world sees us.
When my American friends and I start talking about politics or social ills, our approach to the discussion… it doesn’t really feel like we’re complaining. The way we talk, it often sounds like we’re on some kind of policy committee, like we’re planning to solve the healthcare crisis before we finish the next bottle of wine. Surprisingly enough, we haven’t managed that yet. Actually, my friends and I haven’t solved even one domestic issue over a bottle of wine. Yet, despite our abysmal record, our approach to such topics has yet to change. We discuss an issue as though we’re searching for some solution. With our very American optimism, a complaint becomes a challenge, or a puzzle.
Here in Hungary, on the other hand, a complaint is treated as a simple statement of fact. For instance, the current crop of Hungarian politicians is grossly inept, unable to make even the most basic kind of legislative progress. That is true.
If you want details, how about this?
(If you already know, or you don’t care, skip to the next paragraph)
The opposition party spent the last few years refusing to participate in parliamentary meetings. I like to call it the “Oh-yeah?-Well-then,-I’m-gonna-take-my-ball-and-go-home” policy. In the meantime, the ruling party made sweeping policy changes, but forgot to tell the public why such changes were necessary. Recently most of those changes were condemned in a referendum and the Prime Minister’s approval rating has sunk into the teens. And now the moderate party that had lent its support to the ruling socialist party has dissolved the coalition, leaving the entire political system in a state of uncertainty.
Ask a Hungarian, and they will tell you exactly how awful the political situation is, and they’ll do it with what can only be described as a sick kind of pleasure. The people here approach nearly every problem in this manner. To an outsider, it seems as though the Hungarians thrive in only the shittiest of conditions, and as a result they have mastered the art of complaining for the sake of complaining. If you ask a Hungarian what can be done, the answer will be some form of complaint about the hopelessness of the whole situation.
One more step back from these observations, and I start to see how the Irish and the Hungarian perspective are more similar to each other than they are to the American. Perhaps history helps to explain that. Both countries have seen their fair share of hardships and strife. So in the face of problems one nation accepts those hardships with laughter while the other simply accepts those hardships. It makes sense. After all, the problems we tend to complain about have been around for quite a while. What’s the likelihood of this generation sorting it all out?
Even though I know the answer to that question is not going to jive with my American optimism, I don’t think my conversations on politics or social ills are going to change very much. In fact this whole issue presents itself to me as a challenge of inter-cultural exchange. I wonder if any of my American readers can help me overcome these cultural barriers.
And there I go again.
It’s no wonder both the Hungarians and the Irish think Americans are a bit starry-eyed. “Oh, look at the cute little American thinking he can resolve long-standing issues stemming from the complexity of national identity and cultural heritage; I just want to eat him right up. Coochie, Coochie, Coo!”And now some puppy pictures that Andras took: