Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Budapest (Pt. VIII)

Note to readers: This is the eighth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part VII here. For an alternate recounting of my Budapest experience, see Budapest memories.

The train from Prague to Budapest passed through Slovakia.  At the Slovakian border the train stopped so border guards could come on board and check papers. I was sitting all alone in a riding compartment, strumming my guitar when they came to check me. Two young men, smart in their uniforms, holstered pistols at their sides. They checked my passport then sat on the seat across from me. One of them, who spoke a little English, nodded curtly. "Yes," he said, indicating my guitar.

So I played a tune for them: long-haired near-vagrant American, nervously strumming Jethro Tull tunes for Slovakian border guards while the train rolled through Bratislava. Here was the material for some aspiring Milan Kundera, some brilliant, tormented Slavic novelist. Alas, there were but the three of us to bear witness. The guards got off the train when we made the border with Hungary.

Author, Heidi, Corina, Ron, commencing walking tour of Budapest
I was supposed to meet Rikki that day; she was attending the Central European University. Rikki (brilliant, ambitious), the one-time fiancée of kind-hearted Will back home. I had met Rikki at the wedding of Andre and Vicky, where she sang folk songs as we sat around the campfire at Horning's Hideout.

But communications were tenuous from the Eurail network, and so, when I arrived in Budapest in the late night, I was on my own for the evening. I followed Australians Heidi, Corina, and Ron, whom I’d met on the train, to a local hostel and got a bed in one of the dorm rooms.

Hero's Square
Next day, first day of October, I signed up for a walking tour of Budapest.

Started in Heroes’ Square where there are statues of the seven Magyar founders of Hungary, the Magyars; those nomadic horsemen from the Urals who came west to escape the wars raging between the Bulgars and the Pechenegs. Some of the Magyars veered north and settled in what is now Finland. Some went into the Carpathians and founded Hungary in the vacuum left by the ebbing tide of the Roman Empire.

Roman detritus in downtown Budapest
Romans had been here in Budapest. Romans left remnants of their mighty empire scattered all across the mass of Europe, from Portugal to Britain to Hungary. Besides the ruins, the knowledge, the technology.  Whatever else may be said of Rome’s cruel legacy, she imparted civilization with certain endowments.  In the world today, it must be said that the empire endures. Oh, yes. It endures.

King Coloman stands in Hero's Square
A long line of kings immortalized in Heroes’ Square, including King Coloman, who by the measure of the day, might be called a feminist. Quoth he: De strigis vero quae non sunt, nulla amplius quaestio fiat (As for the matter of witches, there is no such thing, therefore no further investigations or trials are to be held). No more nonsense about witches. No more women burned or tortured. Good for you, King Coloman.

All these kings came before the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburgs, with their low-slung jaws and their hemophilia, the result of too few limbs on the genealogical tree, founded the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of a common desire to fend off invading Ottomans.  In the end they too gave way to the destruction of war in the early 20th century. Germans and Russians rolled through at various times, nearly leveling Budapest in the process. Today, it is all different.
Csaba and author
Our guide was Csaba (CHA-bah) (knowledgeable, friendly), a veritable giant, probably 6' 10" tall.. He spoke perfect English. And like nearly every Hungarian I met, he was humble and self-effacing. Our tour group followed him all through Budapest, across the (decidedly not blue) Danube, up into Buda Castle. I learned much from him.


Later that day I met Rikki in Heroes’ Square. Such a thrill to see someone from home in my far flung travels. Rikki! I spotted her as she emerged from the Metro platform. We ran to each other, laughing.

Rikki (right) and friends at Central European University
She took me to her dorm room at the university. She'd arranged to have a cot for me to sleep on, and a breakfast in the cafeteria. Four US dollars per night. Wonderful to see you, my dear. She introduced me to students from all over Europe, but mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia. These were very impressive individuals. They spoke English better than many Americans. They delved into the abstract, into philosophy, religion, and politics with ease. Intellectuals, students. If these people are the future, things might turn out all right.

Seeing Budapest
The next two days, with Rikki's room as my base camp, I explored Budapest in more detail. Many sights to see.
"The Hunt" in Buda Castle
As I meandered through the streets, I saw Marissa and Anne Marie, two American sisters whom I had met back in Prague. Marissa (angry, suspicious) and Anne Marie (passive, hostile). Not travel companions that I would choose necessarily, but in the absence of alternatives, persons with whom to share the experience.

And so, we three became a bickering, contentious clique.  Walking around Budapest, the two sisters sneered a lot, and made unfavorable comparisons between Budapest and back home in America.

World War I memorial in Buda Castle
In search of a late night drink we happened upon what we thought was a strip-tease bar, La Dolce Vita, somewhere in the shadowy part of town. Greeted at the door by a massive Ukrainian, who demanded a cover fee in order for us to enter. We had been long wandering the streets looking for a drink, so we agreed.

We entered a dark, dirty place, with young women dressed in lingerie, slouching around a stage, smoking cigarettes. No music, no activity. We were the only patrons.

We sat, waiting for something to happen. But the music never started. Eventually, two of the scantily clad young women came to our table. "May we sit?" they asked. Anne Marie, Marissa and I . . . all a little confused. "Uh, sure," said I.

They wanted to sit by me. About this time dawn broke: this was no simple strip-tease bar. We had inadvertently strayed into a house of ill repute! The unspoken realization passed between us, coupled with the question: "How do we get out of here?"

Awkward, pointless conversation passed back and forth. Our "companions" dangled out suggestive comments, hints at fun to be had, all directed at me, the sole male of our company.

Eventually, a skinny, sharp-featured Russian came out from behind the bar. He preferred the direct approach. "Are you going to buy these ladies a drink?" he demanded.

"Uh . . . I don't know . . .." I stammered.

"The wine is $250 per bottle," he said.

"Uh, how about beer?" I asked.

"The ladies only drink wine."

"We can just go," suggested Marissa.

"There is no problem if you have no money," said the Russian. He nodded in the direction of the massive Ukrainian. "Yuri can go with you to the cash machine."

"Dade, let's just go," implored Marissa.

A tense moment passed. Then, the Russian relented. He stepped back a half step. "Go then," he said. We cut out of there faster than a possum at a redneck barbecue.

Scene in Budapest
"That's enough for tonight, eh?" I said as we hastened away, glancing back over our shoulders. "Let's go to the baths tomorrow."

There are public baths in Budapest, mineral hot springs, smelling of sulfur. The Hungarians go there to relax and partake of the medicinal benefits said to be gained through sitting in those stinky waters.

And there went Marissa, Anne Marie, and I. Rented a swimsuit for the experience and was mortified when they handed me skimpy Speedo briefs. But all the Hungarians were in bikinis and Speedos, regardless of body type. No photos of that event survive . . .. You're welcome.

More Budapest
Next morning, it was off to Vienna. Another leg of the journey complete. I bade a wistful farewell to kind and lovely Rikki as I set out for the train station, there to meet Marissa (angry, suspicious) and Anne Marie (passive, hostile), who would accompany me into Austria.

"You're putting a wonderful face on your country," said Rikki as we parted. Thanks for that, Rikki.

I thought about her remark as I rode the Metro to the train station. Somewhere along the way, perhaps it was as Scotty (a drinker, he) and I rode the ferry from Malmö to Sassnitz, certain titillating questions had been popping up in my mind: what have I learned on this trip? How am I being changed by it? What will life be like when I go home? Indeed, who am I?

No answers. Just questions. No destination, just the journey. The next stage is Vienna.

To be continued...

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