Budapest

If the hype of hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing back­pack­ers is to be believed (and, let’s face it, it always is) then Europe’s hottest des­ti­na­tion is Croa­t­ia,  “the Mediter­ranean as it used to be.” So it was with great joy that my train from Ljubl­jana to Budapest made an unavoid­able detour through sun­ny Zagreb, allow­ing me to claim a Croa­t­ian stamp in my pass­port, and thus be able to play stamp snap with the back­pack­ing elite. Less tri­umphant­ly, it also meant that when my train final­ly arrived in Budapest, I was all alone after dark in a scary drug-eyed cor­ner of a city whose pop­u­la­tion (crim­i­nal ele­ment includ­ed) spoke a lan­guage quite unre­lat­ed to Eng­lish. Indeed, where one might infer the mean­ing of a drug addict’s bur­bling in, say, Italy or Ger­many, in Hun­gary, one must sim­ply stiff­en up the sinews, dry one’s eyes of tears, and hope that the taxi dri­ver knows where he is going.

It is no under­state­ment to remark that – to the untrained ear – Mag­yar is a mer­ci­less lan­guage, unre­lat­ed as it is to our Indo-Euro­pean fam­i­ly of lan­guages, and proud­ly defend­ed by a pop­u­la­tion with lit­tle (or no) patience for con­fused trav­ellers hurl­ing Eng­lish at them like arrows against the dig­ni­ty of their wild and pecu­liar tongue. With­out a word of Hun­gar­i­an to my name, I was forced to sub­sist for days upon noth­ing but ges­tic­u­la­tion and nat­ur­al charm.

With a slight­ly rust­ed feel, in per­son­al­i­ty, as in archi­tec­ture, Budapest is like Vienna’s punk twin, some­where between her sub­lime Hab­s­burg majesty, and a Gotham City sin­is­ter. But don’t both­er telling that to the young peo­ple of Budapest, most of whom had cho­sen an aes­thet­ic straight out of MTV. Not mat­ter one’s taste, there is an awful lot to see in this slight­ly mad city, from the glo­ri­ous palace at Buda – accessed by a funic­u­lar rail­way – to the tit­il­lat­ing­ly creepy plea­sure of plac­ing a coin in Pest’s St. Stephen’s Cathe­dral, to see that saint­ed king’s with­ered hand light up in its reli­quary like an inter­ac­tive fea­ture on a Ghost Train. (So life­like was it, all lit up, that I thought it might stran­gle me for my sins).

On my last night in Budapest – still recov­er­ing from the night­mar­ish Com­mu­nist stat­u­ary pre­served in Budapest’s “House of Ter­ror” – I called Mandy, a girl I met in Ljubl­jana, to meet for din­ner. Irre­press­ibly Cal­i­forn­ian, she had been study­ing in Hun­gary for a year, and was even able to sus­tain a sophis­ti­cat­ed con­ver­sa­tion with the local wait-staff (which, on reflec­tion, was scarce­ly worth the effort). She had brought along her sis­ter and best friend and, after some hearty Hun­gar­i­an fare, informed me we were going danc­ing. Now, if there is one thing that ter­ri­fies me more than ter­ror­ism and bum­ble­bees, it’s danc­ing, with its tyran­ny of slide, slide, slap and shake. But, under the insur­mount­able weight of peer pres­sure, I sub­mit­ted to her Cal­i­forn­ian will in the knowl­edge I would hate myself in the morn­ing …

Now, as we all know, the Euro­peans fan­cy them­selves as being pret­ty debauched, yet East­ern Euro­peans, I had begun to observe, made even the French look like eunuchs on an ici­cle col­lect­ing expe­di­tion … So it was with but­tocks tight­ly clenched I entered the open air dance par­ty tak­ing place on the banks of the Danube at an hour past mid­night, my hand gripped tight­ly by the dev­il who had brought me there.

If your life, like mine, has been one of utter mis­for­tune, then you may have seen The Matrix Reloaded, and might recall there­in a tit-flail­ing­ly awful dance sequence that cli­maxed with a naked Keanu Reeves jux­ta­posed against a mil­lion bounc­ing extras dressed in body length bondage socks. Out of work NIDA grad­u­ates, all of them. Well, I didn’t actu­al­ly see Keanu that night in Budapest, but he was sure­ly there. If you have ever had the chance to microwave your head – or eat a nest of spi­ders – then you will already know what Hun­gar­i­an dance music sounds like, and (for future ref­er­ence I note that) it would take a mil­len­nia of sex edu­ca­tion to unrav­el some of the bio­log­i­cal mis­con­cep­tions held by the folk there par­ty­ing.

Lamb that I am, I thought I would be home by three o’clock, but as I board­ed the bus, hav­ing been bumped and grind­ed into obliv­ion, the sun was already ris­ing on what would be my last day in Hun­gary… As I sidled irri­ta­bly up to my hos­tel, I would have bought myself a con­so­la­to­ry kebab, but I had long since lost the will to ges­tic­u­late.

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