During my 17 months living in Budapest, I have come to recognize and at times tire of the traditional Hungarian stare. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “Hey, how are you?” rhetorical question-cum-greeting often voiced in the United States. However, say what you will about people from the United States and what some call our superficial greetings—I’ll take a rhetorical question with a smile any day over a Hungarian stare that averages somewhere between a vacant and glaring look.
During a recent lunch with my Italian friend Sharon, we both lamented the stare. We each had spent the holidays in the United States and were back in Budapest still fueled with the cheery U.S. greetings of unknown passersby. We shared our examples, including one day in the Northern Virginia area that involved particularly infectious greetings that left me buoyed even days later.
I know the stare isn’t personal. Whether it’s focused on me or straight ahead, it’s not about me. It’s cultural. And, yet, I find I can’t stop my own cultural tendencies. When passing someone, I look at them and smile—usually a restrained, no-teeth-showing, sides of the mouth upwards acknowledgement. In Hungary, if a passerby looks at me at all, it’s the stare.
Most tourists are different. They’re looking at the sights, finding their way, or gazing at a map. You see their purpose, their focus. If our eyes happen to connect, a smile is usually not far behind.
But if the person is a native or from the region, it’s the stare. It took traveling outside of Hungary for me to understand how taxing this was to me. You wouldn’t think it would be that way, but those stares can wear a person down after a while. At times, it can make you feel invisible to the world around you or deflate you.
There are even times after I smile and receive a glare in response when I pass by and roll my eyes. I realize I’m going against a local cultural tendency and it’s all what someone is used to, but, darn it, once in a while, I want the acknowledgement and smile!
And then, last week, it happened.
I was walking home down a side street and saw an elderly lady approaching. Her slightly hunched frame thrust her wrinkly, sunken scowl out in front. As we neared each other, I looked directly at her and smiled.
I felt like I was watching a movie in slow motion. Her eyes flickered in my direction and did a double take. Then, I saw the movement. Her face was transformed as the sides of her mouth miraculously turned upwards. She actually smiled back at me!
I practically floated home.