Monday, November 14, 2005


I was talking to a woman today while waiting for the Shuttle bus between the Loyola and downtown campuses. She graciously saved my place in line, while I went to see if the bus was coming. Clearly the bus was coming, but I just couldn't see it yet. On returning, I offered her the shelter of my umbrella. Noticing an accent in her murmering reply, I asked where she was from. Hungary, she said. I know nothing about the place. I don't even know where it is in relation to other places. Trying to hit a not so distant reference, I told her that the umbrella we were standing under, came from Poland. I bought it for 10 Zloty. She must know that products bought in former Soviet Bloc countries were not always of the best quality. She didn't say much, but replied politely. Her English was good, though her accent was strong. She said that perhaps she ought to go home and change her jacket, as she had another class to go to. I asked her if it rained in Hungary. She said she wasn't sure. She said sometimes it rained, but it wasn't as cold there as it was here. I told her that I bought a pair of shorts in Poland, but they fell apart after six months, though it was more like six days. She asked if I went to Warsaw. I told her that I had only been to Crackow, which was quite beautiful, with a Castle in the centre, with very ornate churches. I told her that the church was still very strong in Poland. I thought it must be similar in Hungary. A strong orthodoxy rules Poland and so I imagined it must have been as such in the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary. She didn't say much on that topic, if anything at all. I told her that I was living in Germany when I went to Poland and how far it was to travel there and how much it cost. We were on the bus by this time, standing near the back. She didn't want to sit down. I couldn't sit down as I had to get off between campuses and needed to be nearer the door. I told her how the Polish border guards entered my compartment when we crossed the border, wearing flak jackets and sporting sub-machine guns. She asked if I was scared. I said that I wasn't scared, but it was something of a new experience for me. It was scary when I arrived at a station in the north of Poland at two o'clock in the morning, where no one spoke English, French or German. There were no signs in a language that I understood and my ticket, crafted by the ever-logical Germans, didn't make any damn sense. The ticket office line was long and I'm not sure that waiting there would make a difference anyway. On the platform opposite, sat a gray double-decker passenger train, stationary for the long moments of midnight to morning. Glows of cigarette ends momentarily lit up faces of people sitting in the seats who were talking, laughing, drinking vodka and playing cards. It was hard to tell, because there was no light in the compartments, but I felt that that was what they ought to be doing. I asked her if the border guards were like that in Hungary. She said she didn't quite remember, though they may have been like that when she took the train to Spain. I asked her if there was a revolution in Hungary, like the one in Romania. It was in 1991, she said, that the Soviet army pulled out of Hungary. But the Communists left a long time before that. I asked her how long she had been in Montreal. Ten years. Oh, I said, trying not to sound too startled. Ten years eh? So then, you're a Montrealer. How long did I think she had been here? Uh, I said. Uh, a year or so. I said it with a wince, as if I expected her to clock me on the head for assuming her tourist residence. I said that I hadn't been in Montreal ten years. I was born here, but in the last ten years, I had lived in Ottawa and Germany. I said that Germany was better than Ottawa. I said that anything was better than Ottawa. Ringing the bell, I explained that I must go. Good-bye she said. Good-bye.


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