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The Furnace Blew Up

posted at 11:01 am
on Mar. 8, 2000

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Drunken Notes About Budapest, Hungary

I was sitting here, ready to write my journal, waiting for inspiration to strike, when it did.

More accurately, it struck our programmer Maria on the head when the large heater beside her blew up.

Now when I say “blew up” I mean it used to be in one piece and now it’s in about a thousand, accompanied by a large rumbling banging noise and the falling of a lot of pieces that used to go vertically up and now go horizontally out over a large area some might call a blast zone.  And when I say “large heater” I mean a brick and mortar and wire contraption about a ton in weight and 5 feet high by 3 feet square (1.8 m x .9 m x .9 m for our woefully ultra advanced journal readers) that uses gas to heat bricks and bricks to heat the room.

And when I say “beside her” I mean that she was about two feet from it, sitting in a darkened room, focusing on programming in that way that programmers do where you sometimes say “you’d have to set off a bomb to get her attention” and in fact that seemed to do it because once the bang stopped echoing and her upper brain (the part that doesn’t say things like “Hold very still and maybe it won’t see you”) took control, she burst into the other room where I was sitting with Dora talking about Pressflex and how Dora’s job here is definitely interesting, and she, Maria, was yelling something that sounded an awful lot like “It blew up, I think it blew up, I was just sitting there and it blew up beside me, it just blew up,” except of course I don’t speak a word of Hungarian, but I’m sure i have the gist of it.

Later, my boss told me Maria might have been saying something that translates quaintly into “God is a whore!” which is a popular epithet for this sort of situation.  Not that heaters blowing up is an everyday occurrence, but I speak so little Hungarian that it’s nice to know the phrase for _something_.

Anyway, I think it’s best to go out with a bang, and therefore I think I won’t have that much more to say about Hungary before I leave.

I’m going to do two things, though.  I’m going to tell you about my trip to customs today, as a bit of closure for those of you who heard about my first two day trips to the odd little government office located conveniently near nothing (bus routes, airport, metro stations) except a church where you can ask for divine intervention while waiting for your number to be called.

Second, I’m going to present to you the notes of things I always meant to write in my journal but never did.  If something on the list sounds interesting, you can prod me for it by e-mail or in person (gasp! Did he say in person! Who does _that_ any more?).  And if no one prods me, I can move on to more recent journal things and let the past lay quietly down and go to sleep, like it wants to.

So, I went to customs today to do a simple thing.  I wanted to let them keep my money.  The reason I needed to make this complicated mission is because I’m selling my Macintosh, (Susie’s really, don’t tell her!) to Pressflex.  They need it more than I do, and I still have my PowerBook.

I went to this customs office (there are others, but they won’t tell me where, saying it wouldn’t do me any good to know) expecting to simply sign a few papers and make it official that the deposit I left with them to ensure that I wouldn’t try to leave anything in Hungary, well, that I _was_ going to leave things and my deposit would be forfeit, and that I was basically OK with that.

Instead, I ended up both paying money and getting money back,two things I didn’t expect to have to do.

I walked into the customs office feeling very “Grade 4 visit to the orthodontist” with a note from the Pressflex office manager explaining that “Travis would like to please leave his computer in your country, would you please excuse him” and the matronly customs officer smiled at me just like the school nurse used to, seeming to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you, and very few people suffer complications from a simple inoculation, now bend over.”

She made a few attempts at conversation and then passed me off to an English speaking officer.  He said “Come wiz me.”  I followed him to a vast room, with empty desks and a large wall that was covered in an enormous bookshelf.  The bookshelf was mostly full (the holes followed no pattern) of reams of paper with cardboard covers, numbers scrawled on in black felt pen.  The numbers were not visible unless you pulled the ream of paper down from the shelf.  Each ream was bound with parcel twine.  My parcel was labeled 199909something and I was in the middle of the stack.

I felt like I was visiting a monastery, a university’s special collection, or someone’s stash of old love letters.  _Lots_ of love letters.  It was truly amazing.

Anyway, he looked at my papers, and the note, and took me to another desk, where he said “You pay now four tousand four hundred forint.  You wait, bring paper me.”  I handed over 4400 forints (about $18) and a woman took 45 minutes to type up on the computer a list of what I’d scrawled in the stack of papers last year.  I signed some things. Then I took that enhanced stack of paper over to the window I’d approached when I first came in.

The “head nurse” looked at it, and then asked the English speaking officer to over again.  He came over, they talked for a few minutes, then he says “She say sit down.”

I sat down, finished an atrocious paperback book (a Philip Jose Farmer mystery, that had a plot as convoluted as my visit to customs) and had a quick nap.  I didn’t sleep long because I wanted them to treat me like a professional.  Then I was called over to another desk.  I signed some (different?) papers, and the officer said “Where we send money?” I blurted out, “Um, what money?”  He said I had 31,000 forints ($140) coming to me.  I thought, for just a second, about asking why, but quickly beat that little voice in my head with a mental broomstick and gave the address of my supervisor’s house, which is what I had listed in earlier customs documents.

The office said “Boss, [not my boss, his boss] look papers. Then you go. Sit down, yes?”  So I sat down again.  In about 2 minutes, a voice boomed over the intercom (they had an intercom? First time I’d heard it all morning) “Travizmit”  That was me.  I picked up the stack of papers that had bloomed from 30 to 50 during my visit, and hopped on the bus to return to the office.  Investment: 3 hours.  Net profit: 27,000 forints.  Not bad, not bad at all.

I’ll send out my journal list later, this is getting too long, but I’ll add this instead:

The following Canadian humorist, Stephen Leacock, showed up on a mailing list I like, and I thought it rang true tonight:
    “Many of my friends are under the impression that I write these humorous nothings in idle moments, when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labors of the economist.  My own experience is exactly the other way.  The writing of solid, instructive stuff, fortified by facts and figures, is easy enough.  There is no trouble in writing a scientific treatise on the folklore of Central China, or a statistical inquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island.  But to write something out of one’s own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between.  Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.”

(Most of his books are out of print now, to my chagrin)


“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?




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