Transcribed from a notebook
New Year’s in Budapest
On the train leaving from Keleti, 03/01/02 at 8.15pm
We didn’t get to see the statue park (“Giant Monuments from the Communist Dictatorship!”) and in fact we saw the city for only a few hours by daylight – but nevertheless our time in Budapest was well spent.
Uncertain as to whether our friend Richard1 would be there to meet us at Budapest Deli, or even if he was aware of our impending arrival at all (we had received no reply to our increasingly frantic emails), Anne2 and I were somewhat apprehensive as the train slowly made its way from Vienna on December 30th – and our anxiety grew when we learned from the Burger King-sponsored onboard tourism officer that almost every hostel in the city was booked out due to the impending New Year’s Eve celebrations. Richard was taking a gap year, working as English teachers at half the Hungarian minimum wage, and we had no idea where he was living.
Arriving at Deli there was no sign of Richard, so after doing all the necessary things (changing money, basically) we decided to take one last tour of the station before grabbing some food (the options being pizza and kebabs, the universal European staples) and finding a hostel before it was too late. But, as usual, everything was fine and Richard accompanied by his girlfriend Diana3 from York turned up a half hour late in a Polish hat.
So we caught the Metro into town, the Pest side. The Metro dates back, as does basically all the infrastructure, to the Soviet era – the trains are Russian-made and, in short, shithouse. It is impossible to hold a conversation whilst the trains are moving without screaming. People sit in silence, sullen and unresponsive to even Richard’s insane grin, designed to provoke unrest but hilariously unsuccessful.
We arrived at the school where Diana was (and as I write this, still is) teaching – it was here that we would be staying, free to roam the halls at night. The school is supposed to be one of the best in Hungary. It is certainly, by Hungarian standards, very well kept and clean, but since it was the holidays I have no idea as to the teaching standard. Richard described it as “perhaps the Melbourne Grammar of Budapest”.
After a few pleasant hours dropping off our bags and recovering from the journey we jumped on a tram to Kelenfold train station in order to meet another friend of ours, James4, who was coming from Italy after having spent time with his elder sister and her host family in Padua. He was most relieved to be met as he had not heard from Richard either. We caught the tram home, planning meals and the events of the next few days. The trams are more akin to rollercoaster cars than our own trams, and in terms of noise come close to the Metro. As the doors close a bright red light flashes and a buzzer sounds for about thirty seconds in order to inform you of this fact.
After we returned to the flat Diana and Richard retired to bed, used as they were to the teaching schedule but also so we could rise early the next day in order to be tourists. Anne, James and I set off on an exploration of the school, all six storeys of it. It’s a massive building, classroom after classroom but of course no outdoor area as it’s right in the middle of the city. After a few hours of messing around, we discovered the teachers’ Smoking Room, complete with a very generous bad coffee/good hot chocolate machine, left-behind homework and good ginger biscuits. A wonderful find, but we were not in bed until 5.
We managed to drag ourselves out of bed at around 4 – the sun was setting. We went on a quick shopping expedition involving a supermarket and an Arabic store, where couscous material was purchased. After dining on this delight we headed out for the New Year celebration. Our first stop was a party in Buda where we eventually arrived a few minutes short of midnight, after a rather shambolic couple of hours during which a return to the apartment in order to get directions was necessary.
It was as if we had stepped into a time warp. 80s music, 80s clothes, 80s décor, 80s makeup. We spoke to some people, some quite strange people. “Are you here for the Christian conference?” a monobrowed girl asked breathlessly in perfect English. “There are some 80,000 young people here". Everyone was drunk, of course. We tried to get drunk. As the clock struck midnight the Hungarian national anthem was played, a mournful tune which Richard informs us begins with the line “God take pity on the Hungarians” and is generally about how badly the people of Hungary have been treated by foreigners over the centuries. From what Richard tells us, Hungarians generally consider themselves to be rather put upon, believing their country to be in the third-world, that all foreigners are loaded with cash and that in the West they have abolished poverty.
Diana and Richard had been invited to the party by a guy called Frank, who though born in Hungary had lived in Beaumaris for five or six years of his life. He is more stereotypically Australian than any of us, a surfer with shoulder-length blond hair, a broad accent and easy-going manner. When as we were leaving the party we asked him about marijuana and where to get it from, his attitude was the clichéd “no worries”, a welcome contrast to the paranoia displayed by most of those who we had asked that night and at the event we attended afterwards.
When the party wore thin we moved on, removing from the domicile three bottles of wine, a flask of Unicum (a traditional, horrible Hungarian spirit) and assorted snacks. We were heading in the direction of the labyrinth of the old castle, on a hill in Buda side, where a drum and bass event was being held. On the way to catching a bus to get there, we came across a hotel which looked rather posh. Being by this time one and all intoxicated to some degree both with the alcohol and the sprit of the season, we decided to abuse the hospitality of this place by sitting around and behaving like louts. This aim we accomplished to the extreme, with Richard attempting in a low-key fashion to pilfer a bottle of beer. This failed, but James was not discouraged and the episode concluded with his attempt to thieve a bottle of vodka, which turned out to belong to the waiters. They chased him out shouting “hello! hello!”, which apparently means goodbye as well in Hungarian, and we decided it would be safest to follow. In the meantime we had managed to create a very pretty Christmas tree from a pot plant, cigarette butts and lolly wrappers from the free lollies at the info desk.
Thoroughly pissed by now we continued ambling down the road, where we encountered two young men drinking from a bottle. Espying Anne and Diana, they declared that they just wanted “to have some fun”, and would we be kind enough to lend them “our” women they could achieve this goal. “It’s New Year’s Eve, let’s have some fun!”, they whined. They were drunk too.
We shook them off easily and continued on our way. Perceiving music coming from a house, we decided that we could definitely do with a bit more partying and therefore we began banging on the door and screaming “We want to party!” in a terrible attempt at Hungarian. Imagine our embarrassment when after a quarter hour or so we realised that the music was in fact coming from across the street. Not having learned our lesson at all we crossed the road and peered into the front window where two youths could be observed dancing. Resuming our cry of “We want to party!” we were treated to several glances and the odd stare, but there was no substantial response (or at least none decipherable to a bunch of recklessly drunk teenagers), so we went round the side and proceeded to bang on the door which this time was opened immediately. WE had in fact entered a complex of units, and almost simultaneously the door opposite was also opened. We were confronted with a lage group of annoyed, drunken revellers who angrily gestured towards us and responded unsympathetically to Richard’s tentative queries, searching through our plastic bag of liquor and goodies, confiscating the Unicum as if, being foreigners, we were not entitled to “enjoy” this uniquely Hungarian drink. This was not a problem with any of us except Richard, who actually likes the stuff. We were then unconditionally told to leave, though one drunkard, about thirty years of age, followed us out and called for “the women, the women” to stay – for this naughtiness his mother clipped him around the ear, I kid you not. There seems to be a lack of women in Hungary or something.
Disappointed and to drunk to be aware of our rudeness, we left. Still hanging out for a joint at least, we asked Richard the necessary words to ask for hashish and we tried asking everyone both on our way to the tram stop and on the tram on the way to the labyrinth. By this time not one of us wasn’t completely off their face, and I needed to ask every two minutes how to request pot. It must have been irritating for all, but I was in no state to notice.
Once inside the labyrinth, weed smokers were easy to spot – we must have seen at leat 20-30 groups of rollers, and each one of these was asked if they would be som kind as to sell us a joint. Each group claimed it was their last, a claim verifiable in only one instance – and those people gave us a drag each. I don’t consider Australians to be a particularly generous bunch, but I am certain that if a group of tourists were to ask an Australian to sell them some weed they would be only too happy to make the visitors welcome, especially considering that it was the New Year. Perhaps it is a hangover from the Stalinist days of purges and rationing, but these people acted as if they were not sure of having any pot ever again. Some even accused us of being police, and seemed to actually believe that this was a strong possibility – later we were told that cops do in fact pretend to be tourists for just this dort of thing.
The music at the labyrinth wasn’t all terrible, but it was just too loud. Despite this, we enjoyed ourselves immensely, as the venue was perfect for that kind of event. It would be fascinating to explore again, with claustrophobic, winding passageways opening up into large rooms and strange carvings and statues on the walls, which are damp. Were it not for the heat of hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies, it would have been freezing.
At eight, we decided we’d had enough so with the sun rising we caught the bus home, to bed.
Hungary has made, in some ways, for a welcome change from the rest of Europe that we have seen so far. Some aspects of life here are horrible, but change is welcome - James said, and it is to some extent true, that with the exception of Amsterdam, Budapest is the only European city we have seen which does not in any way resemble every other European city we have seen. It looks like it’s been in a war – Richard even pointed out bullet holes in the apartment building opposite the school at which we stayed – it’s dirty and unkept and the impact of Stalinism is easy to spot – hideous modern buildings and an appallingly rude and uncompromising public service. Technologically, Hungary is well behind the West – for example, at the main train station, there is no computer system installed and all bookings are done on paper. No wonder they’re so desperate to join the European Union. Capitalism has had a further detrimental impact, with rising unemployment and unsightly advertising covering every available surface. Hungary has the highest suicide rate in the world and the lowest birth rate in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. The fact that it was winter and that we saw the city mostly by night would have influenced our view greatly, but Budapest came off as bleak. The people are generally unhelpful to foreigners and unfriendly, and though they are for the most part not as badly off as they like to make out, most are poor. To judge by the stuff they sell by the road and at train stations the food is shithouse, and even McDonald’s compares favourably, which perhaps explains why there are 44 in Budapest alone, a city of 1.2 million. Going to McDonald’s is apparently something of a status symbol amongst the young of the city.
Public officials are unfriendly and in the case of border control and customs, downright scary. I am ashamed to say that I still hold in my mind a stereotype of Germans/Austrians that dates back centuries but was strengthened by WWII – that they are brusque and unyielding, suspicious and unfriendly. But on the train the contrast between the genial, almost jovial Austrians in their soft grey overcoats and their barking, unsmiling Hungarian counterparts dressed in fatigues was remarkable.
But there are differences between Budapest and what else of Europe we have seen which are, to my mind, more positive. For example, upon entering a shop in Amsterdam one is greeted in English and almost shamefully it is perfectly natural to address strangers in English. Even in Austria and France, most shopkeeps will generally speak enough English to get by, and it’s unusual when they don’t understand. In Budapest, whereas most young people are fluent and have good accents (I even thought a couple were from a strange part of England), those aged over 40 or so speak not a word, or if they do are unwilling. Shopkeeps when addressed in English will reply in Hungarian, and if you don’t understand, too bad. The only word the inspectors who fined us 1600 Forints for being sans ticket was “fucking” – to which they replied “no fucking!”.
There are parts of Budapest, individual building especially, which are frankly beautiful, and I am sorry we spent so little time there during daylight hours. The public transport is relatively frequent and reliable despite the fact that it ends so early, and there are lots of huge pre-Soviet statues around the place.
And despite the fact that the Hungarians don’t like them much (they don’t like the Roma either – in fact, anyone who is not of Hungarian blood is disliked), there is quite a substantial Chinese population in Budapest, and that always makes things more interesting. On our final day in Hungary we had to rise at 7am in order to accompany James to the airport so he could fly to Rome, all trains to Italy being booked out due to a mass exodus of Christians following the aforementioned youth conference. Therefore, we finally got to see the city during the day instead of just catching the last hour of sunlight, so Richard took us to his favourite part of the city, the Chinese market. It’s an incredible place, the stalls being constructed almost entirely of shipping crates, and though most were shut up for the day we managed to find a delicious meal served by friendly people – friendliness and good food are two things you really learn to appreciate in Hungary.
Our other adventures which I have skipped over during this four-day whirlwind tour included dining at an American restaurant called Fat Moe’s, where the music got louder and louder to the point where conversation was impossible, and where we were allowed a sole glass of tapwater each, as well fleeing a bar called Bonnie and Clyde’s (American things are very popular). We tried to go to a traditional Turkish bathhouse but discovered it was full. I also smoked a lot of Pall Malls, seemingly the national cigarette of Hungary.
I can appreciate why Richard and Diana are being driven to insanity after four months in Hungary, and it certainly is a depressing place in many ways. At the same time, however, it is fascinating and I would have liked to see more, especially the Statue park. I will return. More time, more money – that is what is needed.
And now back to Aix, to my cousin’s and partying down, yeah yeah. It’s a twenty hour journey to Paris, with a change at Munich – we left at 8.10 and we’ll be arriving at 4pm or so. Then to reserve two places on the TGV to Marseille, and from Marseille jump on the train to Aix. This is almost as long as the plane journey to get here!
1. False 2. Same 3. Again 4. Yes
If you actually read this far, you astound me. More likely you scrolled down in frustration. As stated above, I wrote this on the train from Budapest to Paris, and at the time I was not sure if it was going to be a diary, or something I could put up on the web, or an email. It was certainly not planned that it would be a node. Parts of it are very badly written by my standards. Possibly all of it is bad by yours. I hope it was not a waste of time.