Notable by its presence
I was in Riga, Latvia, last week and it was quite the experience. I know now a lot more about the place than I did the previous week, which wouldn’t be hard considering then I didn’t even know where it was on the map. Many things struck me about the city yet one stood out for its presence – the abiding sense of helpfulness that contrasted starkly with recent experiences in Budapest.
Lost in the Academy of Science, looking for the loo, we asked a random stranger where it was. It soon became apparent that her English was as good as our Latvian (i.e. non-existent) but instead of brushing us off with semaphoric directions, she took the time to walk us through the maze of corridors, down stairs, until we reach the ubiquitous WC sign. How nice of her.
In each of the restaurants we visited, the service was friendly without being in your face, courteous without being oleaginous, and so pleasant that inefficiencies, if they existed at all, were smothered with graciousness. One even solicited feedback and complaints on its menu in a transparent effort to improve its service. What a novel concept.
Navigating the city mainly on foot, we did have occasion to use public transport. Again, patiently explaining our options in a blend of Latvian, Russian, and doodles, everyone with whom we interacted was pleasant, friendly, and helpful (okay, there was one lady at the flea market who was having a bad day, but one out of how many?). It was enough to make me want to go back.
Notable by its absence
If I was in any doubt though about returning, a second thing struck me by its absence – the smell of stale urine in the streets, a smell that is all too pervasive in Budapest, particularly during the summer.
This has to be due to the huge number of free public toilets dotted throughout the city of Riga. Many of them are solid structures, not portacabins. For the most part, they’re clean, well-stocked, and secure. So those who feel a sudden urge to return the beer they rented that evening have plenty of opportunity to do so, housed, well out of public view, and at no cost.
There are parts of Budapest through which I will not walk without taking a deep breath and holding it before I enter. The diagonal archway corners at the junction of Üllői út and Ferenc Korut are two cases in point. The smell is staggering. Another is the Aradi and Jókai utca area. A killer. And while there might well be some correlation between the obvious number of homeless in Budapest, compared to the distinct lack of same in Riga, it’s not down to this alone. [Anyway, there is an argument to be made that if the city cannot provide housing for its citizens, and if some reside in the great outdoors, then it becomes their all.]
But I’ve seen many a well-dressed man stop mid stride to huddle into a corner or nestle up to a drainpipe and relieve himself without thought of dignity or decency. And it’s not just men. Perched at a table in Captain Cook’s one night, I looked out the window down onto the street to see a stylishly dressed young woman shaking the dew from the lily, thinking she was safe from prying eyes by hiding behind a parked car. When she saw that she’d been spotted mid-act from on high, she at least had the grace to blush.
Many years ago, in Bangalore, walking down Mahatma Gandhi Street with an Indian colleague, I commented on the line of men spending their proverbial pennies along a fence. He calmly explained to me that as they didn’t look at each other, or at anyone else, and as no self-respecting citizen looked at them either, they were in effect peeing in privacy. It was only foreigners like me who made an issue of it. That gave me pause for thought – invisible walls. While the sight of such public acts might be vanquished by simply not seeing, it’s a totally different matter to filter the ammonia from your nostrils.
While I will always be a foreigner in Budapest, I’ve lost my visitor status. I have an address card. I live here. And I take exception to the wanton disregard with which the streets of my city are doused in the dregs of water, with organic solutes including urea, creatinine, uric acid, and trace amounts of enzymes, carbohydrates, hormones, fatty acids, pigments, and mucins, and inorganic ions such as sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), chloride (Cl–), magnesium (Mg2+), calcium (Ca2+), ammonium (NH4+), sulfates (SO42-), and phosphates (e.g., PO43-).
Enough, I say. Where are the controllers? Where are the ticket books? Where are the on-the-spot fines? Judging by my sense of smell, there’s a fortune to be made out there for the city’s coffers.
First published in the Budapest Times 3 May 2013