Interestingly, the words for sin and crime in Hungarian are the same; but while the Church has managed over the centuries to confine itself to a mere seven sins and ten commandments, the Hungarian state is attempting to rack up as many laws as possible while it enjoys an unrivalled opportunity to do so. Or at least, so it would seem.
Having recently commented on the absurdity – to me, at least – of making smoking at public transport stops fineable by up to 50,000 forints, I have just been made aware that actually lighting up on the transport itself, is punishable only to the tune of 6,000 forints. Thus, to smoke in an unventilated bar, restaurant or café is entirely legal; to smoke on a tram or bus will cost six thousand, while doing so out in the fresh air will cost more than eight times as much!
I say, ‘will cost’, but in practice the press reports that only one such fine has been officially levied for smoking within the stipulated seven by three metre area of a bus stop. A veritable army of police would be required to patrol the city to even attempt to enforce such a ruling. And for what possible result – to improve the overall air quality of the capital? Or is it to fill the coffers of the government? If so, it is totally superfluous: there already exists a battery of other fineable offences which – were the police sufficiently motivated to uphold them – could achieve that particular goal.
For example, the simple wearing of seat belts in cars, and more importantly, the use of hand-held mobile phones while driving. Though outlawed, anyone standing long enough on a street corner to wait for the lights to change can hardly remain unaware of the high percentage of drivers using their phones. This includes bus drivers, weaving their way through rush-hour traffic, packed with passengers; taxi drivers dodging pedestrians and jumping the lights.
As a friend of mine who lives on the colourful Almássy tér laughingly told me, “If they want to make money, they should just spend a day on my square – every law in existence is broken here on a daily basis and no-one does anything about it. They could make a fortune.”
The attitude in times past was not dissimilar from a certain point of view – many things were nem szabad (not allowed) – in fact, it was one of the first expressions I learnt, hearing it on the lips of everyone from mothers scolding their children, to over-zealous museum curators who would utter these words as soon as you got within sneezing distance of an exhibit; and bookshop keepers, when you attempted to creep over to the shelves and touch a volume. Fines, though, there were none.
If you failed to pay your telephone bill on time the solution was simple – it was disconnected, and it would take months before you would be able to arrange its reconnection. When I ran across the (much less busy) road at Margit hid and was stopped by two policemen, they simply demanded my ID card and, reading I was a teacher, tutted at me like a cross aunty. In fact, the only effective method of curtailing the population’s indifference to the rules and regulations of the time was the tacitly accepted habit of the police to extract their own fines from motorists in order to supplement their incomes.
Their alacrity then for standing long hours, flagging down motorists come rain, come shine, was indisputable. A dodgy rear light, a failure to observe a Stop sign obscured by a tree, or simply exciting the interest of a bored officer, would almost inevitably result in a ‘fine’ – the amount of which was determined by careful negotiation. Today’s ineffectual attempts (where written receipts must be issued) to enforce regulations would seem to indicate that this older method was, all in all, more efficient.
The most recent addition to the list of unenforceable laws is the one making it illegal for people to go through dustbins – in the eighth district only! – fine: 50,000 forints.
Blog by BudapestThenandNow