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I’m no longer Hungary: Thank God

I’m now sitting on a train waiting to leave Budapest and head for Germany. I have never been happier to leave a place. I’m thinking of Buddy Holly and happiness being Lubbock in the rear view mirror. Although the train doesn’t leave for 40 minutes, I already feel somewhat protected from the hazards of Hungary.

Let me describe our brief stay. Just before we arrived in Budapest, two nice guys from the tourist office came through the train and distributed a little brochure warning us to be careful of the aggressive independent taxi drivers and somewhat unscrupulous money changers. Not a problem, I thought. I thought. We are sophisticated travelers. I thought. We know about these things. I thought. We won’t have a problem. I thought.

The instant we stepped off the train, there was a taxi driver waiting on the platform right by the door. He grabbed for my bag, but I was too quick for him. He then went for Lynn’s bag, but she wrapped herself around it so the only way he could get to the bag was to grab Lynn first. One look at her led him to believe that this would be a really bad idea. He then refocused on me. I look much less dangerous than Lynn. I was walking fast, but the taxi guy was matching me step for step. He said, “Your hotel, 15 euros.” Keep in mind that we are in a country in which the euro is not the coin of the realm, and that he didn’t yet know where our hotel actually was. “Is 10 euros too much?” he said. I said, “Talk to my wife. She has all the money.” He took another look at Lynn and decided his prospects would be better elsewhere.

We found the tiny tourist information office and the same 2 guys from the train were there. We got a lot of information and bought our Budapest card, which would allow us to ride all public transportation free. The nice people told us how to catch the bus to our hotel. Although just 2 stops from our hotel, the bus ride was revealing. The first impression of Budapest was that it is a really dirty, decaying city. There was graffiti on the walls and buildings. There was trash in the streets. The buildings were grimed with soot and auto exhaust. The general impression was very negative. Our bus stop was actually a couple of blocks from the hotel, which we spotted across the street behind some trees. We had to schlep our bags through the same heat wave that had been plaguing us since Strasbourg. By the time we found the entrance to the hotel (not only behind trees, but obscured by scaffolding) and climbed up a dozen and a half steps to the reception desk, we were “glowing,” as the southern belles say. This sticky glow, combined with the street sludge that had adhered to us, left us unenthusiastic about sightseeing. The very nice Hungarian desk clerk spoke enough English to get us checked in and sent us on our way to find our room “in the courtyard.”

Out the door beside the reception desk, up 6 more steps and through a heavily-glassed wooden door we did indeed find the courtyard. It was a paved area about 30 by 40 feet in size, with five floors of curvy cast iron balconies above us. Like the foyer with the many steps to the reception area, it looked as if it had once been grand but had fallen on evil days. It reminded Lynn of Dr. Zhivago’s townhouse in Moscow after the Communists took it over. Certainly Communists were in charge of this city for so long, it will take quite a while to rebound to what once must have been lovely.

Our room had all the “mod cons” (as the Brits say), save air conditioning. Lynn set up her 15-euro electric fan she had bought in Vienna to combat the heat, and we lazed away the afternoon enjoying the great in of doors. Sixish, we realized we hadn’t actually gotten around to eating lunch. The hotel had an affiliated restaurant next door which accepted credit cards. This was important as we had not yet changed any money. If any of you is ever tempted to invite Lynn to dine, let me warn you in advance: make sure she’s not hungry when you do so. While I was content to order a main dish and a libation, Lynn’s greedy stomach headed straight for the special “menu” of Hungarian delights. She was most intrigued by the appetizer of “cold goose liver in its own fat” and “all the desserts the chef can dream up.” Whatever came in the middle sounded sufficiently appetizing – at least to her – that she pointed excitedly to an entire page of the multi-page menu, nodding her head and drooling. The waiter had no trouble understanding her nonverbal communication. A couple of hours and several thousand units of plasticized currency later, we fell into bed and slept.

The next day we decided to scout out the rest of the city. The best way to do this was to take the “3 hour tour.” (The previous phrase may be sung to the Gilligan’s Island theme.) We went to the tourist office -- a different one -- to sign up for the tour. The tourist office would not accept credit cards or foreign currency so we would need to exchange some dollars for some forints. A forint is abbreviated “ft.” When we saw signs that indicated that something cost 953 ft, for instance, I would amuse myself by repeatedly asking Lynn, “How many feet did that cost?” Turns out it wasn’t feet, but an arm and a leg.

Meanwhile, back to the money exchange . . . We found the exchange on the next block. The advertised exchange rate was 1 dollar= 216 forints. Not bad, I thought. Lynn gave the money changer $100 and received 16,000 forints. The mathematics didn’t work for me. I ask Lynn to explain the discrepancy between the advertised rate and the amount we got, which by my calculation should have been 21,600 forints. The money changer explained the advertised rate was the “selling rate.” So if we didn’t like the transaction we could sell back our forints and she would give us $74. We had just been ripped off by the Hungarian money changers. It was probably Hungarian money changers in the temple that made Jesus so mad, and rightly so.

Hungarians are also in love with their escalators to the point that they will push you out of the way to get on one. One guy nearly knocked Lynn down as he elbowed his way onto the escalator. I’ll have to admit it was a really impressive looking escalator. The only longer one I’ve ever seen is the one at 1 Dupont Circle in Washington D.C..

On balance I hated Budapest. We left one day earlier then we had planned. I’m counting on a better time in Germany. I’ll let you know.