CBA was the name of our closest grocery. What does CBA stand for? I never did find out. So much to learn and so little time. Though in fact our time in Budapest was not short: we lived there about a year and a half. Long enough to connect to a different reality; long enough to be disconnected from home. To live in two worlds, old and new. For us, the old world was Canada, the new world Hungary. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We endured the usual settling-in process after an afternoon at Ikea to make homey our furnished apartment overlooking the Danube. Then there were the myriad little things, such as bus tickets, postage stamps and grocery shopping, which took on new meaning, as hurdles to be jumped. Accomplishing such seemingly small things were a must, and sometimes these tasks loomed large.

Just suck it up. I’d say the words bravely one day, apprehensively the next, then fearfully, until they were growled a month later. Then, like the five stages of grief, the suck-it-up mantra was uttered with resignation. Having passed through the continuum of bravery>apprehension>fear>anger>resignation> sometimes, some rare golden times, the tunnel might open into light.

I was at the CBA grocery in Budapest one morning. I was prepared for a large shopping order, so had brought along my own shopping cart. Now I needed to stash my cart somewhere and then obtain a coin-operated shopping buggy. Here’s where the trouble started. First, I couldn't figure out which coin the buggy took, and so bought a buggy off a little old lady, who spoke a bit of English, offering her a choice from the coin selection in my hand.

Yes, for every problem there’s a solution. Building upon this success, I figured this lady would have more luck than I would with the rather intimidating security guard – large, uniformed and glowering in his small kiosk. I asked this woman to explain that I wished to temporarily park my shopping cart near the guard’s cubicle. The guard grumbled something but my Hungarian wasn’t up to it. Too bad, because what he said might have helped me afterwards.

After shopping, there was more than a bit of a stir when, having paid for my groceries, instead of exiting the store, I turned aside to retrieve my shopping cart standing in the guard’s cubicle near the entrance. Well! He stopped me, shaking his head to show I’d done wrong. Apparently, I ought to have exited the store, then come back in via the entrance to retrieve my cart. At least this rather bizarre procedure was what I’d understood the guard to be indicating. I understood then, from his spluttering, this process was the only way he could tell if I had really paid. He then led me by the elbow, like a felon, steering me to his kiosk.

It was now clear: he required seeing my receipt as proof of purchase. At the implication, that I might have been attempting to shoplift several bags of groceries, and with effrontery, doing so in plain view, of course I felt offended. How else to feel when falsely suspected? I felt a wave of righteous indignation and was on the point of calling for the manager when I remembered where I was and where I wasn’t. I was not at home in Canada but rather in a grocery in Budapest, where Customer Service was distinctly not the same as in Canada.

But the guard was adamant and clear – he needed to be presented with my receipt. Which was, where? And so, I pawed clumsily through bags of bananas and cabbages, rummaging randomly through piles of foods, carrots and apples slipping through my grip, rolling onto the floor and between his boots. I removed my coat and dug deeper into the bags, now pulling out embarrassing items like toilet paper and some female unmentionables. Finally, at the eleventh hour, so to speak, I discovered the treasured, though damp and bedraggled, receipt. I admit to having had a small urge, which I restrained, from throwing the receipt into the man’s face, recognising this fellow was just doing his job, and what a boring job this must be.

Instead, I relieved my frustration by waving this proof of my honesty in his face and rambled on about how Hungary was a very different country from my own – and how could a stranger be expected to understand all of its customs, rules and regulations? Surprisingly, the growly guard changed tack, asking where I was from. When he learned that I was a Canadian, he smiled, remarking upon the high number of Hungarians who had fled to Canada after 1956 and had started a new life there. I nodded, basking in the warm reflected glory of my country’s humanitarian generosity.

With the ice now broken, we of course got to talking. Before long the guard said he had just recently returned home to Budapest after completing six missions. “Missions?” Yes, he explained, he had been with a Hungarian police contingent, itself part of a UN peace-keeping force. Years ago, he was in Bosnia, in Sarajevo. What a small world and what a big coincidence: I described my husband’s work also with the UN, with the High Commission for Refugees, his first contract coincidentally had been in Sarajevo, and we were now settled in Budapest to continue this work, for a year and half.

I realised that I was gushing a bit. The mean nasty security guard had dropped his mean nasty mask and had become a person, who suddenly could not have been kind enough. We continued our conversation about Budapest’s many marvelous sites, the interesting places he said I must visit while here in his hometown: its museums, the Castle, the baths, the archeological sites, the cultural highlights; moments to treasure when I was back home.

He insisted upon bagging my groceries, scooping up carrots and apples, loading them into my shopping cart, making sure the tomatoes and eggs were on top and the cart was balanced, then helping me on with my coat. We shook hands formally and waved goodbye informally, and I called out “Viszlat!” in happy anticipation of my next visit to the CBA grocery, where I could chat again with the helpful, charming security guard.

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