February 6, 2002
Get the Roller Skates On, We Are Ready to Roll
I skipped a day, did you even notice, or are you just taking me for granted by now? Well yesterday was just a day to get caught up with writing and it was a relaxing day since the rest of the week was going to be jamming.
Yesterday, Ron had noticed a jeans store that he wanted to browse, so I sent the Minister of Finance with him. They advertise Lee, Wrangler, and Levi jeans. In the small print, there is the word ‘Seconds’, but that is okay depending. When we went in though, their selection was primarily for women and the main choice for men was the famous Hungarian brand ‘Legends’. The sizes were all odd sizes, 29, 33, 35, and so on. That too was fine since we both can fit into a 33-inch, however, all of the lengths were too short. Mr. Farmer Boy has no compunction about wearing what we refer to as ‘high waters’, pants that are two inches too short. I on the other hand A) refuse to be seen with him with ridiculously short pants, B) if they are too short for him new, they are going to shrink when they are washed, and C) if they are short for him, they will be short on me too. You caught me, C) should have been listed first, but I thought I could sneak it by you.
The other big events of yesterday were that I attended my first meeting of a Writer’s Group of all English speakers. We met at one of the coffee shops and were squeezed into a corner. Eight of us showed for the meeting, the most they have had so far. Now that we have an extra-large apartment, I invited them to our new place for the next meeting in two weeks.
Ron had his first Hungarian lesson. I am so proud of him making this gigantic leap into the culture. He came home and showed me his first papers, which I promptly put on the refrigerator with magnets. His first alphabet sheet was so cute. There are forty-four letters in the Hungarian alphabet with four o’s and four u’s. There is a plain dull o, then an o with one accent mark, an o with two accent marks, and the fourth one is fancier with two dots over it. It is the same with the u’s. What we call a consonant blend, they call a letter, such as sz is considered one letter, while s and z by themselves are other letters. I cannot wait to dress him up for his class picture and sign permission slips for class field trips.
This morning, I was to observe a class for yet another school. This is getting wearing, but it is their procedure. When I had shown the address to Ron, we could not find it on any map we had, so Mr. Map had to go purchase a Michelin type book of maps for Budapest and the surrounding area. This place, a company where the classes are held is way out.
I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning and leave the house by 6:30 to get there by 8:00 am to meet the regular teacher. First, I had to take the blue metro eight stops, and then find the number 81 bus. With the map in hand, I surfaced from the underground and was pleasantly surprised to see that the bus was right beside the metro entrance. Once on the bus, I was clueless where to get off. The school had suggested I get off at the last stop of the bus and then walk, but they were uncertain about this. Bus stop names are not always posted or when they are, you need a telescope to see them from the bus. Fortunately, this bus had a changing electronic sign that displayed the stops. Piece of cake!! I watched this sign like I would be taking a test on the contents later. We reached the end of the line, the driver went off for his break, but the sign still showed the stop before the one that I needed. There was still fifty minutes to spare before my rendezvous, so I was not panicked for time.
The driver returned to the bus looking a wee bit more refreshed and we were ready to roll. As the doors closed and he accelerated the vehicle, the sign changed to my stop and as we whisked by, I was able to see the same name on a street sign posted on the side of a building. There was no chance of pleading with him to stop the bus for me to get off. Thinking that the next stop could not be that far away, that would be my escape and I would walk back. Never presume these things in strange cities. The next stop was about ten blocks away. Thinking that I could catch the same bus in the opposite direction, I would just ride it for one stop, proved to be an error in my thought process too. The bus does a circular loop and does not backtrack. There was not enough time to wait for the next bus, joyride for a circular loop, get off at the correct stop, and walk the rest of the way. My only option was to walk the entire way.
When I reached the correct bus stop, I consulted the map. Walk a block in this direction and wham, wrong way. I found a kind woman that pointed the way when I showed her the street on the map. It was six blocks more. Of course, they rarely use numbers on buildings here. When I found the street, I only had one choice and that was to turn left. Turning right would have brought me to a dead end. Walking down an industrial street, with buildings few and far between, I was looking for number 32. You would not think that that would be too far. Guess again, because it was another six blocks down the street. By the time I had found it, I was ready for my blankie and pillow for naptime.
The company is one that distributes newspapers and they are paying for five of their employees to learn English in this group. The teacher was animated, professional, and interesting, but all of the class time I sat off in a corner where she had asked me to sit. I was so far away, I had to lip read to figure out what they were saying. My mind wandered to something that the director of the school had said. This class was one of the closer ones to the center of the city. Many are out in the country. If this was considered close, I had better pack a tent and sleeping bag for the others. The plan was that I would return next Wednesday and teach this class as a demo of my skills. I can be Mr. Personality for an hour and a half, but I wonder if they have a cot for my nap, before I have to make the journey home again. This could be a problem traveling for twenty hours a week to teach ten hours and the travel time to the class is not compensated. Now I know why most of their teachers have cars.
When I returned home ready to perform my Rip Van Winkle routine, the attorney called to see if we had set up our bank account yet. Our account numbers had been assigned, one for dollars and one for forints. Ron had picked them up while I was touring Hungary. The attorney said we should do that as soon as possible. Slumping on the sofa wanting thirty minutes in an unconscious state, this preyed on my thoughts. I jumped up and we went to the American Express office.
The thought of carrying around $1,100.00 in cash on the streets sends chills down my spine. When we arrived at American Express, my first question was their ability to transfer a cash advance directly into our account. They could not do that. I explained that I wanted $1,100.00 in American dollars. The response was that it would cost a $673.00 fee for the ‘foreign currency’. Change my mind why don’t you. Well then, we will take it in forints and I hand over the cards. The woman makes a call and says, “Our policy is a limit of $10,000.00 every seven days. Well, Visa or Mastercard will make up the difference. Show me the money! Another call to somewhere and she looks at me and says, “I am sorry. I was wrong and it is only $1,000.00 every seven days. Whoa, there, I have two Platinum cards, both with enough line of credit to buy a house on them and all I can get is $1,000.00? No, I refuse to accept that. I was redirected to the Customer Service woman who could call the States for approval for more.
Moving to the other line, we went through our story again. The woman very professionally made the call. One card, a Platinum Optima had a zero balance and I was able to get $8,500.00 on it, even though I could run out and charge $40,000.00 before reaching my credit limit. The other would afford me $2,500.00 and again the spending limit was much higher. American Express does have good security measures. I had to answer a six page questionnaire over the phone with some representative from the States to verify I was who I was. The phone was back and forth between the customer service rep and myself more often than a tennis ball at the Wimbledon. After forty minutes, she gave me papers to take to the first woman.
She did more of the paperwork, checked my passport, my cards, my fingerprints, my footprints, and measured the circumference of my pupils. Then she started counting the money and I became more nervous. Because of the denominations of bills, 10,000 are the largest they issue. The stack of bills was enough to choke an elephant and have enough left over to joke the proverbial horse. These were stashed in my backpack, the locks were in place, and the backpack went immediately and securely on my back. We almost ran to the bank.
As soon as we walked in, the new accounts person recognized us immediately. We told her we had our initial deposit and she filled out a deposit slip. On the deposit slips, you have to fill out a reason for making the deposit. Why do they care why you want to give them your money to use? Well, let’s see, I am a compulsive spender, I trust you a little more than I do my mattress, you look like you need it more than I do, it is making my hands dirty. Why the hell do I need a reason to make a deposit? Perhaps you should question why I want to make a withdrawal, but why a deposit? After adding 50,000 forints to the Amex monies, we had our three million forints for our account, the required amount for a foreign business. We had to get a letter from the bank stating that we each deposited 50% of the total since the business is a 50-50 venture and we were off.
Ron called the attorney and told him we had the letter. He said our business had been approved and with the letter, it would go to the court for finalization. The money is frozen until the court checks to make sure it is really there and after that we will get our tax number, a seal of being an official business, and then we can start making withdrawals. That should be completed by Monday or Tuesday at the latest.
Walking home, I felt that the weight of Fort Knox had been lifted from my shoulders. I had just enough time to have a cup of tea before heading off to my first class that I would be teaching twice a week for sixteen weeks. They are four architects who are supposed to be upper intermediate level.
My other issue with the bank is our past statements. If you recall, shortly after moving to Budapest, I neatly and quickly without malice or forethought erased ten years of check register records from my disk. Once Ron revived my lifeless body and I tried every “Undo the last stupid thing you did” button, program, and prayer, it was still UNDONE. There was no retrieving it. After a fit of tears from the pressure of the stress and cultural changes, I remembered that before leaving California I had made a back up CD-Rom and was able to retrieve all of it up to August 2001. Now that we are all on the same page, I will continue with my story. Using the online banking, I was able to download September, October, and November statements since the paper ones are going to Daphnee’s home in New Jersey. At the time, November was the current statement. I had missed the August statement by one day. It was no longer online. Since this was crucial to reconciling the account, I had to have it. When I e-mailed Customer Service (an oxymoron if there ever was one), they replied that they could not e-mail statements due to privacy laws. I had to fax them a signed consent to order another statement to be sent to the address listed on my account, Daphnee’s. For this customer service, there would be a charge of course. Sure, beat me while I am down and pour salt into the wound that I did a moronic thing to begin with. I ordered the statement.
Over a week later, the statement arrived at Daphnee’s and since Daphnee is who she is, it arrived to me via Federal Express. Daphnee does not do anything without style. With the statement in hand, I went to the computer to recreate the balance of the check register and to start reconciling month after month of statements. After finishing with the August statement, I moved onto the next month, but was stopped in my tracks. The August statement was dated August 24, 2001 to September 20, 2001; however, the next statement in succession was dated September 24, 2001. The missing dates would not have concerned me normally, except during that time the ending balance of the first statement was higher by $6,500.00 than the beginning balance of the second statement. I do not know about any of you, but I am a bit fussy about a difference of $6,500.00 and would like to know where it has gone.
I started calling Bank of America back in December when I first discovered this. I had to repeat the story a minimum of four times on the first call since the customer service representative could not understand the issue. This was a native English speaker that I was speaking with, so I cannot even give them the benefit of that handicap. She finally said she would have to research it and get back to me. A month later, I still had not heard a word, but I suspect that my name and her notes are in a landfill somewhere.
It seems that problems with banks are my curse. Somewhere toward the middle of January, I started this process once again. I was transferred from one person to the next since they could not help me with this problem, it was another person’s area, another department’s responsibility, another bank’s fault, another Federal regulation, another bank charge in the fine print, and it went on and on. After speaking to every employee at the San Francisco headquarters of Bank of America, I finally reached this very pleasant woman who understood my language and dialect immediately, provided some empathy and understanding then vowed to get to the root of this issue and provide an answer within days. She promised that she would go against the rules and Express Mail the missing portion of the statement to me here in Hungary, since I explained that I did not want Daphnee to absorb another Fed Ex charge. She would handle everything, not to worry. Did I get her name, her employee badge number, her mother’s maiden name, her last four digits of her Social Security number, her place of birth, her eye color, height, and weight? No, I thanked her and hung up the phone with blind trust. The same kind of trust that you have when you have just been on a blind date and the other person says, “I will call you next week.” It ain’t going to happen!!
I never heard from her again, did not get anything in the mail, did not get a phone call, but I have this distinct feeling that my name is circulating in the waste management circles since it is appearing so often in the landfills.
Being tenacious, I called Bank of America yet again. When I heard the same sad tale from a customer service representative that there was nothing she could do to help me, I went directly to my, “I want a supervisor, NOW!” routine. A youngish sounding man came on the line and offered to be of service. I explained the dilemma, the broken promises, and the inept helpless employees that have answered their phone lines and my disgust and frustration. There was something in his tone of voice or perhaps it was his speech pattern that gave me the sense of security that this was the one. This was my knight in shining fiscal clothing that was going to rescue me from this financial tower of captivity. Before we went much farther into the conversation, I asked him for his name, identification number, which office he worked in, and what was on his social calendar for the next two weeks in case I had to stalk him. He swore to me that he would order the statement and since it was against bank policy to e-mail me the information, he would get it to me somehow. As I hung up the phone, I wondered if this was yet another ‘blind date’. I hate banks!
There was no chance of a nap now. Even if I had the time, I was too worked up mentally to sleep. I had to start teaching tonight. My class consists of four architects and the class is at their office. All four of them have studied English in the past, but none of them have studied or practiced for a minimum of four years. The school placed them at the upper-intermediate level. A school hour is only forty-five minutes. It is similar to our therapeutic hour, which is fifty minutes. After an hour and a half or two school hours, I mentally placed them in a much lower level, but this was my challenge. We only had to cover ten chapters of their book in sixteen weeks, so I had time to supplement and get them up to speed. I can do this if it bruises their brains, but I will prove myself and prove to them that they are capable. Fortunately, they have the motivation to do the work. At the end of class, each of us had to dry off the sweat that we had worked up from working so hard, but it was like an aerobics class; after it was over, you were exhausted but you felt good for having done it.
When I got home, the same school that assigned me to the class called and asked if I would like to start a one to one tomorrow night. I am just a guy that cannot say no, so I was scheduled for Thursday night at 5:30 pm. I would have to go to the school tomorrow to pick up the books. Tomorrow was going to be another day of running, with lots to get done.