November 27, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.
The bus itself was a trial. FlixBus is a European bus company that goes from major city to major city, one of the cheapest ways to travel internationally across the continent. Big ugly green buses, say ‘FLIXBUS’ on the side, you can’t miss them. If it’s more than five hours a way, it would probably cost the same to just grab a plane, but for that to work you need to book the tickets in advance. With FlixBus, you walk in and throw a handful of peanuts at them and they’ll take you to Budapest.
That was the working theory, anyway. According to the ticket that I got on this stupid app I downloaded to streamline their awful online purchase process, my ride was the 901, departing for Vienna at 11:40. An hour transfer onto the 902 at the good ol’ desolate Erdberg station and I’m in Budapest. Not bad for $20.
The 901 showed up to the station at 11:45. The bus driver didn’t speak English, but he did speak angrily. I showed him my ticket and he said, “Not Budapest. Table.”
“Table,” he said, pointing.
“Yeah, still not getting it.”
“Table! Table!” he yelled, jerking a finger at the windshield.
“Oh, table! Of course!” I said, then leaned in close enough that he wouldn’t yell at me like I was a fucking child and said, “Still not getting it. I’m going to Vienna.”
“I come from Vienna,” he said.
“Awesome. 901? Like my ticket says?” I show him my ticket again, then point at the giant 901 on his windshield.
He points to a red coach bus in front of his. “They go Vienna.”
“The plain red bus. That’s a FlixBus?”
“Yes,” he said irritably. “FlixBus.”
I board the sketchy unmarked bus. The driver of this one was a kindly old Austrian with a ridiculous walrus mustache.
“We going to Vienna?” I asked, showing my ticket.
“Ja! Ja, Wien! Vienna!” He was merry about it. It was infectious.
Unlike most FlixBuses, this one had no Wi-Fi. Probably because it wasn’t a FlixBus. How did anyone else know? How did the other six passengers just guess at the correct giant red bus in the station full of giant red buses?
At the Erdberg station, rather than kill an hour standing in the filth and shivering, I took a walk to try to find something to eat. Realistically, it would come from a kebab stand. Everything in Vienna costs 4x as much as it does in the real world. I need to try Wiener schnitzel, but I don’t need it $15 bad. It’s just lightly fried meat. I would have been charged a nickel for that in Turkey.
There was no food near Erdberg station. People in that part of the city didn’t eat. I wandered back into what looked like an abandoned shopping complex to discover it was only semi-abandoned. There were bathrooms that you didn’t need to pay 50 cents for, which was a refreshing change of pace (I don’t use bus station bathrooms on principle. Half a dollar to take a piss, get outta here), and a sketchy textile store called Kik that sold discernibly rough-looking clothing for next to nothing. I considered an ugly $4 hoodie but ultimately decided on an ugly $4 beanie to help me weather eastern Europe’s winter and to fill the void in my heart left by the tragic loss of my Wanderhut.
Four hours, beautiful reader.
Four hours is how long I owned the new hat before my stupid ass left it behind on the bus.
Two days. Two hats. Two buses. Perfect score.
The realization of my own staggering incompetence launched me into a depressive spiral. I’d been laboring under the delusion that I was a smart dude, for most of my life. A pillar of my self-concept had fallen like a free-standing 2×4 whacked with a claw hammer and I didn’t know who I was any more.
Look at this! Lumber analogies! I should get a fucking trucker cap and do freelance deckbuilding frm the ’93 pickup I live in by the river.
I had such potential. Once.
In Budapest I learned they used yet another different kind of money, which means adding another layer of useless paper to my wallet. I’m still carrying Turkish lira, Czech koruna, and a fat stack of Euros, not to mention the $10 American taking up space in my backpack. You can rob me if you want, but if you want it to be worth your while you better be ready for the hike.
Hungarian forints, they’re called, and 310 of them makes a Euro. 260 makes a dollar, which is a far starker contrast than 1 Euro = $1.21. Armed with this new knowledge, I started peeking through windows for something to eat.
Most of outer Budapest seems to be if Fallout 3 had been utopian, instead. Every kind of disorganized junk shop you can imagine. Battery shops, camera shops, tire shops, light bulb shops. The whole 3 km walk from the Kelenföld was like tracking a wounded Radio Shack to the Danube.
I spotted a restaurant full of old, fat Hungarian men. The window menu was indecipherable except for the word Heineken, which was 100 forints.
That’s like 35 cents European. Couldn’t be more than 50 cents in real money. I’m a grown man so I’m obviously not about to drink a Heineken, but I’d just picked up the economic lay of the land.
I went into a restaurant and a moonlighting supermodel said something to me in rapid-fire Hungarian. I try to make a point of learning ten or fifteen words in every country I visit so I’m not that meme about the cultured frat boy, but it had been impossible to steal Wi-Fi since I got off the bus, so I opted for a half-wattage winning smile and a dopey “Hi!”
“English menu,” she said. It didn’t sound like a question.
“Oh god please.”
It was a ruin pub, which is a beautiful Hungarian concept that red tape would forbid in America. It works like this: Budapest is overburdened with abandoned buildings as a result of ambitious Nazi and Soviet infrastructure plans. The proprietor-to-be will rent out one of these worthless buildings, give it a quick clean, and call over a bunch of local artists and designers to distract from the crumbling walls and safety code violations. This renders it a rom kocsm, literally “pub-in-a-ruin”, the preferred social hotspots in Budapest. This one looked more well-established, and the menu was pricey by comparison to the 30-cent beer I saw on the way. Still, each of the “Main Dishes” were like 5 Euros. I hadn’t eaten that day, and expected them to be small. I ordered two.
The waitress seemed baffled by my decision.
“Two? Are you… sure?”
“At the same time?”
“Sure. Naw, actually, let’s do the dumplings first.”
She doubted my powers. Honey, I’m an American. Overeating is our national pastime. We have a holiday devoted specifically to it, and I wasn’t there. I’m making up for lost time.
Still, I came to understand her hesitation. They were not small.
The Sztrapacska was supposed to be “Hungarian dumplinks” with ewe’s cheese and bacon. I thought it meant dumplings. Apparently, dumplinks is some sort of code word for mac and cheese. It was phenomenal, which was appropriate, because delicious is finom in Hungarian. After housing that, the waitress returned, cautiously.
“You want the other?”
“Let’s do it,” I said. I’d rationed my stout out, I had another half liter to go. I could do this. I’d been training for this moment my entire life.
“Hungarian cured sausage”, they said.
I was awed by the tenacity of this people. They just have a mountain of sauerkraut and pickled peppers for dinner? You just set four sausages afloat in a sea of spicy mustard? And BREAD? How can that bread even enter this equation?
I dug deep and cleaned the… well, it wasn’t a plate. It was more of a wooden circle. Which I cleaned.
The dinner for two and half-liter of craft beer came to like $12. I decided I was going to enjoy my time in Budapest.
I took the scenic route to my hostel in an effort to walk off some of the trillions of calories of pigfat I’d just put down.
Scenic it was. Budapest is a beautiful city, except for all the damn cops. Everywhere I went, more cops were sitting outside their squad cars, holding assault rifles and wearing those adorable Russian hats you see in cartoons.
I tried to cross the bridge nearest my hostel and they stopped me. Everyone was speaking Hungarian, but with the gestures it was pretty obvious that nobody was allowed on the bridge. A girl on a bicycle was much more dismayed than me, which seemed silly. You’ve got a bicycle.
I started walking toward another bridge, recalculated the distances, then about-faced and headed toward a third bridge that might have been slightly closer, as the crow flies. As I was about to pass the off-limits bridge, I saw the armed guards part to let a bicyclist through.
I pointed at myself, then at the bridge, raised my eyebrows inquisitively. The guard nodded and waved me through.
I asked the girl at the hostel desk what the hell was up with all the cops. She looked baffled for a moment.
“The police,” I said. “They stopped me on the bridge.”
The bafflement turned to alarm. “Why?”
“I was hoping you’d know. They wouldn’t let me cross.”
She processed this for a moment, then her eyes lit up.
“Oh, I know!” she said. “I know, I know! One… one second.”
She was obviously ordering the words in her head. I do it in Spanish pretty much every time I need to say a sentence with more than six words.
“He is the Chinese president, is visiting Budapest,” she said. “So they are doing everything to keep him safe. They are shutting down bridges and roads because if he is on them, no one else can be on them.”
“Okay, good. I was thinking, ‘it can’t be like this every night’. It’s a Monday.”
“Noooo. Budapest is very safe.”
I thanked her and checked in, then headed up to my room to phonetically learn some phrases and maybe watch a documentary, get a little background on the place. She gave me a pamphlet as I walked away..
Truly, something for everyone.