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Saturday, June 29, 2013


Before we went to Hungary, I happened to watch a Hungarian movie called Kontroll. This movie is about a group of plainclothes employees of the Budapest Metro system. (Incidentally, Budapest was the first city in continental Europe to have a subway system.) Kontroll officers monitor the riders in the subway system. They make sure that people aren't coming into the subways without paying fare, or without paying enough fare. Although the Kontroll officers are now all wearing uniforms, at one time there were employees that rode the subways without uniforms, and would catch people who were trying to ride without paying. In the film, there are times when these undercover employees end up getting in fights with riders, sometimes beating them up, and sometimes getting beaten up. I decided that I was going to make sure that I paid the proper fare so that I didn't get on the wrong side of the Kontroll officers. I didn't think they'd beat me up, but I knew they had the power to ticket and fine people, and maybe take it as far as an arrest.

On the day that we went to my family's village, we needed to take the Metro to the train station. We went to a ticket dispensing station and sort of blindly picked what we thought were the proper tickets for the number of transfers we'd need to make. And then it happened. We went through the subway entrance and were pulled aside by several Kontroll officers. Since I was the only one who knew the seriousness of the situation, I was the only one who was kind of nervous. And honestly, I didn't want to add a visit to jail as one of my travel memories. When the agents looked at our tickets, they told us that we hadn't paid sufficient fare, and that we needed to pay "punishment," or a fine, for our mistake.

When we asked what the amount of the fine was, we were told that it was several thousand Hungarian forints, or 1000 forints less if you were a Hungarian. Marie shrugged and said, "Oh, well," but Liz had to try and get cute about it. She said, "Well, I'm Hungarian, I was born here! So I get to pay 1000 forints less, right?" She was laughing and flirty and thinking she was being really amusing, but I was about ready to blow a gasket. When you have the potential to be thrown in jail in a country that is not your own, you do not try to get funny and play-argue with people! I think I said something to Liz along the lines of, "Liz, just shut up and pay the fine and let's go!" I am sure that to this day, she thinks that I was being rude and ruined everything for her. She was convinced that if she pressed the issue, she would get a discount on her fine. But I, on the other hand, was observing the unimpressed and impatient looks on the Kontroll agents' faces. I am sure that they were thinking that it didn't matter where she was born, she was clearly an amerikai. And they wanted to get the situation over and done with. So did I!

I am glad to say that I did not end up experiencing the hospitality of the Hungarian prison system. My tone made it clear to Liz that she needed to clam up and just pay her punishment. She did so grudgingly, but the Kontroll officers were more pleasant after she quit trying to talk her way out of the situation. To this day, I am not sure if she realizes what a dangerous game she was playing. Anyone can make a mistake and accidentally break another country's laws. But when you are far from home and can't even speak the language, sometimes discretion is the best approach. 

I don't want you to think that the Budapest Kontroll officers are humorless bullies. Each one of the officers we dealt with seemed like a really kind, polite, and decent person. But just like anywhere else, they are probably not amused or impressed when people try to pull a fast one on them. If you have an opportunity to do so, I highly recommend a visit to Budapest. I love it, and I wish I could go back there soon. And I am eager to ride their wonderful metro system again. I'll just be more careful with making sure I pay the correct fare. And that nobody argues with the Kontroll if I don't!