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.