The Hungarian post office is stuck in a time warp. Little old women dole out stamps and scraps of paper resembling lottery tickets, They collect money for utility bills and to initiate wire transfers. Checks do not exist in Hungary. Money flows between people electronically or as cold hard cash. They sell chips and Snickers bars, I have no idea why. My friend, Szabi loves the post office. “Julie, it hasn’t changed since I was a boy.”
I, on the other hand, am less enamored. Once a month or so, one of us – generally Pat – must venture in to mail something , perhaps a birthday card or postcard to family and friends. Occasionally I go, intimidated by the number of lines – each teller stands beneath a sign listing their unique and indecipherable services. I can’t read the options, so I pick a queue with customers holding letters and hope for the best.
On my last trip, I decided I would buy a book of stamps. After all, there is no reason to come inside. Letters can be dropped in the box outside.
When my turn came, the attendant posted and stamped my letter. She nodded towards the cost on the cash register, realizing I didn’t speak Hungarian. “Wait a minute, please.” I pointed to the stamp, and held up five fingers. When I recounted this story to an American friend, she said, “Sure, you wanted to buy five stamps.” (Bingo, seriously, was that so hard to interpret?)
Yet, when I did this at the post office, the attendant stared back confused. The more perplexed she became, the more determined I was. Finally, a woman behind me asked if I needed help. I explained I wanted to buy five stamps to take home. She translated for the attendant. They talked back and forth, and then both raised their hands in a gesture of “I don’t understand either.”
I left the post office with one extra stamp. Not all translation services are perfect.
Some months later, in my English conversation club, the Hungarian post office came up. I retold my story. A young man gazed back every bit as confused as my bilingual guardian angel and the obstinate attendant. “Julie, why? Why do you want to accept ownership of a stamp when the post office is happy to own them for you.”
“Because I don’t want to wait in line the next time I need to mail a card home.”
“But, you do realize the post office will hold the stamps for you. You don’t have to take ownership.”
I nearly snapped, “Because time is money!”, yet I bit my tongue and considered his perspective. After all, time really isn’t money. I can’t go to my bank on a Friday afternoon and inform the teller I’d like to deposit three and a half unused hours into my savings account.
Equating time with money works for those people who have plenty of money and can spend freely to recoup time. We make trade offs to recapture time nearly every day when we:
- Cruise thru a fast food window to buy lunch and eat it while driving
- Stuff our shopping carts with quick cooking oats, minute rice, and toaster waffles
- Fly into Jiffy lube for an oil change while we impatiently pace and drink crummy coffee
- Speed down the road ranting at slower drivers
- Walk when the sign clearly indicates “Don’t walk.”
How often have I bubbled with frustration at slow restaurant service or an elderly person in front of me that digs endlessly for the exact change? I want to yell, “Please, just pay the bill.”
Implicitly, we prioritize our health, our safety, and especially our sanity for time.
I could justify this if I used all my pent up free time inventing a vaccine for West Nile virus or draping a small nation’s beds with malaria netting. But more often than not, I sit on the couch Saturday afternoon and whine, “Pat, I’m bored. What do you want to do?”
When I look back on my life, so much of it is a sprint paced blur. The scenes fly by so quickly, I can’t grab them and store them in my memory. I felt so busy. Yet I’m not sure what I actually ever accomplished.
Pat and I stood on the corner near our apartment. It’s a one way street with a traffic light and cross walk stripes painted on the pavement. I did what I always do; stopped, looked one way, and started to cross.
Pat said, “Julie, stop, the crossing sign is red.”
Me: “That’s great, Pat. But the coast is clear. Let’s hit it.”
Pat: “Please, just wait. That little boy with his mother is watching us.”
I picture the poor little kid lying in the middle of the road, cradled in his mother’s arms, a distraught driver helplessly looking on. As they wait for help, the little boy looks up and says, “But the American lady always crosses when the light is red.” (He says it in Hungarian, but when the crowd gasps and looks at me, I need no interpreter.)
Gesh, leave it to Pat to throw child endangerment into my innocuous little habit of jay walking.
I assured my conversation club friend that I understood his viewpoint, “You’re right. I never thought of it that way. Why spend money before I have to?”
I realize that time isn’t money for the great majority of the world. They are too very different currencies, and the quantity of time almost always surpasses the availability of money.
Today, I forced my self to stand at the red light at Nyugati with all the other non-jay walking Hungarians. I felt like a race horse in the gates at Belmont. For once, I admired Eiffel’s striking architecture; what a beautiful train station. When the light turned green, I moved more like Old Paint than Seattle Slew. Yet somehow, I still had more than enough time to catch my train.