Patience and Pessimism

“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad


Two short sleeved shirts. That’s what I ordered. Obviously I had not learned my lesson. I was once again trying to ply my way through the Hungarian postal system. I was tracking the progress of two summer shirts I had purchased from an outfit in the U.S.

If you are searching for a world-class bureaucracy, the Hungarian Postal System is a worthy model. Sure, some of it is my inability to speak Hungarian. I’m guilty of that. But, ask a Hungarian. You’ll get a wry smile and a handful of personal sagas reeking of frustration and inevitable hopelessness.

The U.S. Postal System circa 1925

The tracking system indicated my shirts had arrived here in Budapest weeks ago. I imagined the package was somewhere in the bowels of a dusty, grey, poorly lit warehouse. I conjured up that last scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the box containing the sacred ancient covenant is being rolled down a corridor in the biggest warehouse in the world, never to be found again–or at least for a thousand years.

The closing scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Ark being rolled off into the bowels of the world’s largest, most impenetrable warehouse, likely never to be seen again


After a month, I sought help. A Hungarian friend gave me a link to a contact in the postal system. About a week later came an anonymous request to complete a form. I did, and after assistance with the translation, I sent it back. Another week goes by. I again ask about my package. I receive a request for yet another form. OK, here you go. Another week passes. Can you sense my frustration? I send another email in both Hungarian and English, “Can you please tell me when will I get my shirts?”

Suddenly, I hear a voice from inside the fortress. It’s signed, “Lucia.” “The consignment arrives to the local post office today! Please be patient!”

I loved this. Please be patient.

I turned my chair in the school office where I work and spoke with my colleague, Judit. She has become my sounding board for sharing my experiences here in Hungary. She is clever, thoughtful, kind, and oh so patient. She bears witness to my year of living here in Budapest, asking me questions and challenging my assumptions. When does patience become pessimism?, she asks rhetorically. Hungarians, I think, have learned to be patient in the face of many things.

I decide to hunt down my package–no longer willing to wait–after all, the weather is getting warm here in Budapest, and I’d sure like those two short sleeve shirts. After a day of teaching, I bike over to my neighborhood post office. There, I am told, my package is at another post office about half a mile away. I bike over. I am in line and ask a young woman if I am in the right place.  No, she says, packages are upstairs. I carry my bike with me up the steps. I take a ticket waiting for my number to appear in red numerals on the screen. Finally, I stand before the woman who is the face of the Hungarian postal system. She tells me I am in the wrong part of the building. Go out to the street, turn left, turn left again at the corner, and in 50 meters or so I’ll find the entrance where I can pick up my package. Ah yes, I tell myself, patience.

I have my shirts. There was an exorbitant customs fee to pay. And tacked on, for good measure, something called a “holding fee.” It appears that I was charged an additional fee by the Hungarian postal system because they held my package for 4-weeks.

Patience, we have been told time and time again, is a virtue. But when does that virtue become like a stone, slowly worn down over time? And when should we become more like water, going where we want?





3 thoughts on “Patience and Pessimism

  1. This adventure feels only too familiar – the French post office being one of those bureaucracies which can drive you round the bend. I almost could not travel to China because their “fast delivery” service could not find my address, and was incapable to phone me. The client rep then lied to me by telling me that my phone number was not on the manifest. Next time around, I will use UPS! Steve, good luck with your travels. Véronique


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