“Silly season, cucumber season”? Not really

The so-called silly season (described in Wikipedia as the period lasting for a few months starting in mid- to late summer typified by the emergence of frivolous news stories in the media) is upon us. In Hungarian the silly season is called cucumber season, most likely because cucumbers are abundant in the second half of the summer when not much is happening in politics.

There are signs in the Hungarian media that we have arrived at the silly season. Half of the reporters are vacationing, important political TV programs are not being aired, and the newspapers are full of silly stories, many focused on food. We read about stolen poisonous cabbages, chickens being slaughtered illegally in not the most hygienic conditions by a retired butcher, and (less sensationally) not quite large enough sandwiches in school cafeterias. These stories result in equally silly reactions, like that of a caller on György Bolgár’s show who blamed all these horrible happenings on the free market. Oh, for those happy days when the state was responsible for everything.

The latest horror story centered around guar gum, a powder ground from the seeds of the guar bean, grown in India and Pakistan. Guar gum is used as a thickener in dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and liquid cheese; it also helps to maintain the homogeneity and texture of ice creams and sherbets. (Thanks, again, Wikipedia.) According to a Swiss source, there was a shipment of guar gum sent to Europe that contained the super-toxic dioxin. The chief veterinarian of Hungary immediately began to frighten everybody to death. And, yes, it was the veterinarian who warned people about the safety of their food, not their pet’s food, and about an ingredient that was not an animal product. He warned that thousands of consumer products have guar gum in them and that dioxin can cause cancer. Every hour one heard more and more horror stories about this tainted product. Naturally, people were afraid to consume milk products. Well, today we found out that, after checking hundreds of products, there is no toxic guar gum.

Fortunately, the silly season is not quite perfect and I think the the media wasn’t prepared for the current level of government activity. It is true that some of the leading politicians are vacationing, including Prime Minister Gyurcsány, but for the three weeks he is away three different cabinet members are chairing the cabinet meetings. They meet not once but twice weekly. Moreover, as I have reported, there has been a spate of news about major projects. First, there was the opening of the new bridge on the Danube. Then came the announcement of projects of national significance that will be financed by European Union funds. Shortly afterwards we found out about the winners of the competition for the new government quarters and about the details of the plans. A few days ago the announcement was made about the development of roads and railroads in the next couple of years. A day later they opened a new section of M7 with a beautiful long viaduct.

Today the cabinet meets again and according to well informed reporters today’s topic is the complete reorganization of the bureaucracy. Foreigners and natives complain bitterly about the difficulties of taking care of the simplest official business. Apparently, parents of a new baby must visit five different offices before the child "officially" exists. According to calculations, an average citizen spends five hours a month on such tasks as registering a car, changing an address, getting a building permit, starting a business, etc. Within two years, the government is planning to change all that. The plans will touch the most often used services: car registration, pension and healthcare issues, official business concerning birth, marriage, and death, administrative affairs concerning building, welfare questions, administration of employment and loss of employment, administration of real estate transactions, and finally necessary administrative steps for a business startup. The hope is that by 2009 the citizen will have to visit only one office to register a newborn. The reorganization will be such that offices will be able "to talk to each other" through a computer network and it will not be the individual’s duty to gather that information from several offices. If a personal appearance is unnecessary, the citizen will be able to conduct his business with the goverment electronically. This ought to lift the sagging spirits of the Hungarian public. Perhaps they will complain less. Perhaps.