Day: July 21, 2016

Budapest:When you gotta go, you gotta go. 

Maybe this has happened to you. You get on some public transportation. Things are just fine but you begin to wonder, “Did I put on deodorant this morning?” You roll through the morning In your memory…yep, I put on deodorant. “Maybe this isn’t my clean shirt. I thought this was my clean shirt.” You think about it…it is a clean shirt. “Did I step in dog crap before getting on the train?” You check your shoes. They look fine. The train comes to a stop and people get off and then you realize that those smells had nothing to do with you…well, if it is a hot day you have added your stink to the world, but for the most part your stink isn’t the type of stink that is as heavy as a wet bologna sandwich. 
I was thinking about smells in public places as I rode the bus out to the Budapest airport. (Which is a ride I would suggest wearing a jock or jog bra for because the last time the road was paved was in 1896.) After traveling for more than 20 days you begin to get a little rough around the edges. You might not pack as carefully, you leave the hotel without combing your hair, you check what you’re going to wear by smelling each item before putting it on, you don’t mind wearing the same socks four days in a row, and you move from place to place in search of something new for your eyeballs or stomach. This is the part of travel that I really love, when you get to the “I just don’t care any more phase of the trip.” Some people never reach this point because they travel with a suitcase the size of a Mini Cooper. I have three T-shirts, four pairs of underwear, two pairs of pants, a flannel, tennis shoes, flip flops, and three pairs of really worn socks. It’s enough for a 30 day trip. 
So as I was leaving Budapest I was thinking, “What is Budapest like?” There was no real answer for me. I haven’t been everywhere, but Budapest was what I hoped it would be, really different.


One of the evenings, my wife and I had the opportunity to meet up with a young couple living and teaching in Budapest, Ash and Dan. (I’d go into how we know them but then this post would start to sound like something my mother wrote, “Well, you know Ash. She Mitzi’s daughter. She lives in Budapest with Dan. Oh, you met Dan at that BBQ in Great Falls…) Anyway, I was looking forward to getting a little more authentic Hungarian experience and that is exactly what we got. We met up with Ash and Dan, took an old metro train out to an area that had a real Detroit/Cold War feel to it. There were Soviet era apartment blocks that the government had painted with murals of sports figures in action to give the area a more optimistic feel to it, but one coat of paint isn’t going to repair seventy years of boots pressing your head to the concrete. 
We walked through the neighborhood to the restaurant and then went in. We had a table upstairs. The tables and benches were made from big thick cuts of wood and the first four pages of the menu were all pig knee (or ankle) related. There were about 15 pages of Hungarian offerings 99.999999% were meat that was either slow cooked or deep fried. I went with something called Manoshevitlov’s Dream: chicken+cheese+chicken liver+broccoli deep fried with a side of rice. I also had a large beer and my wife and I split a bowl of the traditional bean soup. The waiter took our order wearing the same face he probably wore everyday to work in the salt mines in Siberia. The dinner conversation was really great, Dan and Ash had a couple gifts for us and we were thoughtless idiots who brought nothing to dinner. By the time the food arrived I needed a second beer. To say the portions were huge is an understatement. Donald Trump would have said, “Those portions are huge.” My piece of chicken was bigger than some Thanksgiving turkeys I have seen. 

 

I did my best to finish, but I’m not ashamed to say I didn’t tuck it all away. (I did manage to finish off my second large beer. Priorities.) When Ash called for the bill, the guy asked how we were going to pay. Ash and Dan had some Hungarian food stamp type things that they showed to the waiter. He said he’d go get the bill. He went downstairs and never returned, I mean it, he didn’t come back. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t in a hurry and it was fun to talk with Ash and Dan, but this is how service seems to work in Budapest…like an abandoned car. Eventually, we went downstairs and paid the bill, but our waiter stood in the corner looking at us like he was a KGB assassin. 
Ash and Dan walked us back until we could find our way and then we headed off. This is when I began to realize that I was going to have a problem…I drank two large beers and did not go to the bathroom. I estimated in my head, train ride+ walk to the hotel+ elevator ride…I wasn’t going to make it. I looked around, there weren’t too many people. The traffic on the nearby streets was light, there were a couple places near the overpass walkway that looked hidden enough, so I told my wife to bail me out if something went wrong. (This was her big chance. Getting out of a Hungarian prison has to be pretty challenging.) I walked over to the place I deemed most hidden and then looked around. You know when a place looks pretty hidden, but when you are there you discover that there are lots of people around? Well, there was traffic coming from two different directions, there were a couple people wandering around, and then there was a train coming the other way. In the end, I decided that it was now or never and got to work. Right about then, I could see my train approaching. I felt like I was in one of those silent movies where somebody’s tied to the tracks and the hero has to decide to save himself or save the person on the tracks. I raced through my routine and lowered the gas tank to about 75% and then dashed out of the weeds and made it onto the train. There was an older lady waiting for the same train who I think knew what was going on, but if you’ve lived in Hungary for more than 40 years this little episode wasn’t worth keeping an eye on. 
We made it back to our hotel without getting arrested and checked off another day on the Irresponsible Adult Trip. 

Budapest: This is my space, this is yours. 

There is a great deal I can say and write about Budapest, but let me begin with two little anecdotes from my days in the Paris of the East. (I’ll be adding a few more Budapest entries in the next few days.)
On my second day in Budapest, I had some extra food from a meal I couldn’t finish–if you like your meat with a side of meat then Budapest is your kind of restaurant town–so, since I am pretty much exactly like Mother Theresa, I decided to drop off my extra food with the homeless people who were sleeping in the metro station. When I came by with my goodies the homeless folks were all napping, so I left my little goodies by them in a bag so they would wake up and see the food and think, “Who is the great person who left this for me? He must be a tall angel wearing an Eddie Bauer rain jacket.” After I left the food, I got that warm feeling I get when I do something nice for someone else every ten years or so. 
When I returned about two hours later, after walking to the top of the Fisherman’s Bastion in the rain which is still number one on the stupid things I have done on this trip, the metro station was crawling with police. My warm feeling was drenched. At first I didn’t think much of it, because Budapest is thick with police. You cannot get on a train without being checked for a ticket, on the train there is about a 20% chance someone will want to see your ticket, and there is about a 50% chance someone will check your ticket when you get off the metro train. In other words, Budapest is serious about making sure you have paid for your ride. (While in Munich I never had a person check a ticket ever…and I bought tickets every time like a sucker.) 
As I walked by the gaggle of police and up the stairs, a strange thought crossed my mind, “I wonder if they are looking for me?” I did leave an unattended bag in a public place. I did it in a slightly suspicious way; I walked by, around, and then moved in for the drop. The bag was still on the ground, right next to a really big, scary looking police officer. The good news was that I made my way up the stairs and didn’t have to run like Jason Bourne through the streets of Budapest. (For the record, I think I could make it about 40 feet before twisting an ankle on the cobblestone streets in Budapest.)

The second anecdote happened about 10 feet from my first story. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes buying a ticket to the airport, so I went into the “Help Center” in the metro station. I don’t like using these places normally because I like to think I am a pro and I don’t need help, but I really didn’t want to wrestled to the ground by Rudolfo because I didn’t have the right bus pass. I went in, pushed the little button that gave me a ticket so I wouldn’t have some Italian cutting in line in front of me, and was surprised to see that they were currently serving 171…I had the number 4. There were only two other people in the Help Center, so I stuck it out and before I knew it my number was called. It went 171–3–4…like one of the math problems on the SAT that asks what the next number is. I approached the helper lady and asked how to get to the airport. She took out a little map, “You go here. Then get on this bus. Then go to the airport.”

 I asked, “Isn’t there a train that runs directly to the airport?” 

“No.”

“I thought I read there was one.”

“There is but it is with a different company.” Here is where I was tempted to say something sarcastic, but I don’t there is sarcasm in Hungary. 

“Okay, can I buy the tickets from you or do I have to use the machine in the station.”

“You can do either.”

“Okay, I’ll buy them from you so I don’t mess up.” 

She didn’t respond but started to click on buttons on her computer, which I assumed was to get my tickets together, but I wasn’t too sure and I had been in Budapest long enough to know that I wasn’t going to find out until she wanted me to. 

“1250 Florians.” (This is an estimate, I don’t remember. I think that was the cost, don’t use this blog as a guide to do anything in the real world or you will be in trouble.)

I handed over a 10,000 Florian note and she looked at it like I had handed her a dog turd, “Do you have 250 Florians?”

I did! I reached in my pocket, got my change out and reached across the countertop to put the 250 on her workspace…big mistake. 

“Do not do that! This is my space,” she indicated the space where I put the money, “This is your space. You put the money on your space, not mine.” She was not joking around, but I had a really hard time not laughing. The only person who talks to me that way is my wife. She handed me my change–in my space, and then gave me my tickets with the shortest possible explanation, “You use this for this, this is for this…good bye.” 

I wasn’t about to ask for more information, I think I had already over-drew my information account and didn’t want to get any more lectures about anything. 
I hope these two anecdotes can help illustrate how Budapest is different than other cities on the tourist circuit. Budapest has an interesting past with a great deal of oppression and so they are used to an abundance of police. (The police are friendly. The first person I met in Budapest was a police officer guarding the British Embassy. He gave me a great dinner recommendation and then shook my hand after I thanked him. “Welcome to Budapest. I hope you have a good visit.” That wouldn’t happen in Vienna.) But…the cloud of Soviet oppression hangs over just about everything in Budapest. The older people look about 30 years older than they are. NOBODY working in service jobs has any idea what, “The customer is always right,” means. During my three days in Budapest, I had some of the most awkward interactions with people who were there to help me…or not. 

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