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Looking both ways

keyAs I put the key in the door to my apartment building last evening, I found myself doing something I’ve never done before in Budapest. I looked up and down the street to make sure there was no one coming. A man was walking in my direction so I stopped, pulled out my phone and pretended to make a call. When he passed, and the coast was clear, I unlocked the door to the building and entered.

No, I’ve not been reading too many crime novels. I’m not suffering from an acute dose of paranoia. I don’t believe that anyone has reason to follow me. But something has changed. Something intangible.

tom mugAn English friend of mine was recently attacked in the hallway of his building. He was followed inside as he opened the front door. The mugger got away with the princely sum of 500 forints, a driver’s licence and a registration card. Not exactly a haul worth bragging about. I was sharing this story with another friend who told me of a young woman who was on her way home one night. As she entered the key code to her building, a chap in a hoodie pushed her inside, shoved her up against the wall, and started to grope her. The kicking and flailing triggered the light sensors and he legged it. Yet another friend told of a girl who was held at knife point outside her flat in the middle of the day and relieved of her wallet.

Now, three swallows don’t make a spring and three incidents, all involving foreigners in the city in the last couple of weeks, don’t amount to a crime spree. But they have gotten me thinking and asking questions. I’ve been doing a survey of sorts – asking friends, foreign and Hungarian alike, whether they feel as safe in Budapest as they did, say, five years ago. And the overwhelming response has been…no. Admittedly, they say, there are cities that are far more dangerous – Prague was mentioned, as was Dublin , and Johannesburg. But while no one can quite put their finger on why, there seems to be a growing sense of disquiet – nothing tangible – just a feeling.

Thank God nothing untoward has happened to me in the last few years. I’ve no complaints about safety or security. Yet I am a lot more conscious of my surroundings these days. I no longer wander around in a Stendhal-type daze marvelling at the beauty of what’s around me. Yes, I still appreciate it, but I’ve learned to multitask – I can marvel and be alert at the same time.

bbcA quick search of the Internet shows that crime is on the rise in Budapest and has been for a number of years. A general search for answers to the question – How safe is Budapest? – yields everything from affirmations that it’s the safest place in the world to stern advice not to venture out of your hotel room. Everyone has a story, an opinion.  But wherever you are, whatever you think, there’s no denying that it pays to be alert.

First published in the Budapest Times 14 February 2014

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