-- James Brown, the hardest working man in show business
Laura and I boarded the night train from Prague to Budapest at 11:30 p.m. We had a first-class cabin in a sleeper car, which sounds a lot better than it is. The Orient Express it wasn't. The outside of the car was sprayed with grafitti and the cabin was a tiny room, which Laura compared to a prison cell, with two bunk beds.
We'd been walking around in a daze most of the night. I guess I'm getting old, but the endless walking was starting to take its toll. We complained of assorted aches and pains and instead of the usual restaurant meal, we grabbed some sandwiches,pastries and Fantas from a Czech supermarket and decided to have a late-night feast in our bunks. At that point, just sitting down felt like a luxury, and we both felt extremely grateful. It was kind of like camp, except that twice during the night -- at 3:30 and 5:00 in the morning -- gruff customs officers woke us to check our passports.
This is all to say that we were more than ready upon arriving in Budapest to partake in the city's signature form of entertainment: the baths. There are more than 200 hot springs underneath the city, the reason for its more than 2 dozen baths. And thus far, it's been my favorite part of the trip...by far.
On our first day in town, we had done probably the most ambitious stroll yet, a fantastic tour of a huge swath of the sprawling city -- up hills, through subways and parks -- with Absolute Walking Tours. But like I said, at the end, we were ready to unwind.
They don't make it easy. Getting into the baths is rather byzantine. You pay for either a bath ticket or a swimming pool ticket, although both allow you to do the same things (swim and bathe), but enter from different locations. Towels require a deposit that you get back after handing your towel to a clerk, who hands you another piece of paper that you give to a cashier. You can also rent a suit using the same process, which is why any Hungarian bath is bound to have the largest assemblage of human beings on the planet who shouldn't be wearing Speedo but are nonetheless (Yours truly packed his suit. The international community does not need to see me in Speedo.) And you can pay for a locker in a gender segregated room or for a shared cabin. And if you want a massage, that's another ticket, given to a different cashier. And...wait for it...if you leave before THREE HOURS is up, you get some of your money back....if you hand the right piece of paper to the cashier. All of this makes one of the more relaxing and fun activities I can think of feel a little bit like a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
But, like I said, it was worth it. We went to the Gellert Baths, part of a 19th century hotel. The Art Noveau columns in the swimming pool and elaborate green,blue, and brown mosaics on the walls above the hotter pools make it all seem very decadent and Roman. Our guide from Absolute Tours compared it to "swimming in a theater." You proceed from the swimming pool, where water pours out from the mouths of stone lions, to a series of progessively hotter pools, until the final one, which is heated to 104 degrees. Laura commented that it was one of the most international settings she's been in, and she's lived all over. You hear bits and pieces of conversations in Hungarian, Italian, French, Spanish, even Hebrew. It is not uncommon to see people reading the newspaper or playing chess in the pool.
After spending a good half hour getting all pruney in the hottest pool, I noticed with a mixture of fear and excitement that there was another room we had yet to enter. Once inside, I noticed a very small pool that looked like a jacuzzi, save for the fact that no one was in it. I soon found out why: The water was frigid, probably 50 degrees. I hesitated for a while, until this white-haired woman, who couldn't have been younger than 70, jumped right in after counting to three in French. Once again, I followed...and the woman turned to me and said, this time in English, "Son of a bitch!"
The sensation of going back and forth from the hottest to the coldest pools did wonders for my aching muscles. Laura favorably described it to being subtly pricked with a bunch of tiny needles all over your body. That sounded a little too harsh for me. But it's hard to describe exactly what it did feel like. It felt like...like diving into a pit of koosh balls. It was a very unfamiliar, but pleasant sensation.
Let me go back to the tour for a second. It was very good. Unlike the other cities I'm visiting, Budapest is simply huge, without a single convenient Old Town consolidating the historical sights. As opposed to Krakow and Prague, which have several hundred thousand people, Budapest is a city of millions. So, if nothing else, the Absolute Standard Walk was essential in terms of getting our bearings in this sprawling place and helping acclimate ourselves to the city's subway and cable-car system (One of the best legacies of the Communist era, in all the cities I've visited thus far, is their cheap tram systems. I think it's a lovely way to travel. I don't think it's a coincidence that my two favorite cities in the U.S. -- San Francisco and New Orleans -- both have cable cars.)
But public transportation was just a practical matter. The tour worked because the two guides did not just rattle off a lot of names and dates, but tried to make sense of their city and engage the group on a personal level. In fact, everyone we met in Budapest was exceedingly friendly. For example, when Laura and I arrived at the Hotel Astra just before 9 a.m., after our journey on the night train, the folks at the desk fed us breakfast and allowed us to check in early and shower.
When you look around the faded Communist infrastructure of the city, or learn how poor most of the country is, you wonder how its people can be so mellow and cheerful. It must be the baths.
Anyhow, our tour guides were wonderful. Adam, in particular, a tall lanky Hungarian, was quite fun. He told Laura and I that he was eager to visit the American West, having grown up on German Westerns that were filmed in Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park (and where, incidentally, I'll be traveling this Thursday).
"Where can I see Indians?" he asked.
He also shared with us that a lot of Hungarians had a kind of nostalgia for the Communist days. He said then, at least people had job security. He told us that his parents were having trouble paying for their mortgage and their children's school, things that were taken for granted before. "Everything is about money now," he said. He compared the Communist system to a giant lawnmower that made everyone the same and then said something that just stopped me in my tracks: "If you were OK being like everyone else, Communism wasn't so bad. If you wanted to be in an individual, it was not so good."
"In other words," Laura told me, "You wouldn't have done well."
We saw the changing of the guard at Heroes Square, the great Opera House, and climbed many stairs to the castle grounds and St. Stephen's Cathedral, where we had a wonderful view across the Danube of the old Parliament building, much too big now that Hungary is no longer the seat of a vast empire.
We passed a statue of a dark, hooded figure known only as Anonymous, who left Hungarians the record of their founding by the seven hill tribes, led by Arpod...or was it Lothar?
Touching the pen of Anonymous, known as such because we don't know his name, is supposed to give special luck to writers. That was a no brainer for me and yet another tourist photo opportunity.
That night, we had dinner at Tabini Terasz on the Buda side of the river, and I had the best food thus far in the trip: My taste of Laura's veal paprikash. Afterwards, we dashed off to a Hungarian folk music and dance concert, something Laura was very keen to do. I have to admit I was a bit skeptical, my view of regional folk music looking something like this:
But I was pleasantly surprised. It was the music of Bela Bartok, inspired by Hungarian folk traditions -- or was it the other way around? Anyhow, it was spectacular, a weird mixture of Irish step-dancing, German oom-pah, pah slap-dancing, Bulgarian singing and ballet...but with a cowboy spirit -- very competitive and raucous. Laura and I enthusiastically leaped to our feet during the several curtain calls (Personally, I could get used to four, which seems to be the Eastern European standard.)
Our next day, we trekked to the outskirts of the city to see Statue Park, the idea of an ingenious entrepreneur who decided to save in a single place all those ugly, over-size statues of Lenin, Marx and happy workers and soldiers that littered the city before the the Soviet's quiet retreat 2 decades ago. I couldn't help think of it as a garden of fallen idols, in a way. It was weird to see those once larger-than life statues dwarfed by even larger capitalist billboards for perfume and shampoo. I also couldn't help notice that this was the only place in the city where they didn't charge to use the bathroom. If nothing else, I suppose, the fall of Communism has brought with it a recognition of our inalienable right to pee for free.
Laura posed in the front seat of a Trabant, a Soviet era junk car known for continually breaking down, and we watched a creepy black-and-white film made by the KGB to train Hungarian agents on how to spy on their countrymen, which made us both think of the great German movie that came out last year, "The Lives of Others," about the last days of the Stasi, the infamous East German intelligence agency.
We spent the bulk of the day at the Great Market Hall in Pest, a cavernous three floor building where local merchants sell everything from sausage and paprika (everything in Hungary is made with it,it seems) to hand-made wooden chess sets and embroidered scarves and, yes, even fur pelts. This bazaar, unlike any I've been in, is in keeping with the mellow, friendly spirit of the city. The merchants will explain to you how something works or how it's made, but if you move on, there's no attempt at a hard-sell. They just say thank you and goodbye. I didn't get a pelt, but Laura surprised me by buying me one of the Transylvanian chess sets I coveted.
On our last day in the city, we returned to the Gellert Hotel for a final chance to take the waters. This time, I was determined to get the full experience and add a massage to the bill. When we discussed it earlier, Laura was less than enthusiastic about this option. "I'm afraid some giant Eastern European lady is gonna start pounding me," she said. "Eez good for you!" she said with a Slavic accent, a comment I asked her to repeat several times on the trip because it made me giggle so much. So Laura skipped this part, but encouraged me to go ahead.
When I reached the massage area, I was no longer sure this was going to be so good. In addition to a long wait, the first masseuse to emerge was this bald, beefy Hungarian man who wore two large gloves that looked like welding mitts. But it turned out to be fairly gentle -- stop your giggling at home -- and added to the overall relaxation experience.
Our afternoon couldn't have been more different. We went from the baths to the House of Terror. The House of Terror is an amazing museum -- probably the best I've ever experienced -- devoted to the country's "double occupation."
This building was used as a Gestapo headquarters by the Nazi-affiliated Arrow-Cross party during World War II. After the war, and with a low threshold for irony, the country's Communist ˝liberators˝ used it as an intelligence-gathering and interrogation center. Our guide at Absolute Tours chillingly said of the building: "Many people disappeared here."
Outside, votive candles burned beneath the pictures of those who entered the building and never came out. Because of it's location and use, the museum had a powerful "you are there" quality to it. Like the Holocaust Museum in DC, it also was highly interactive, but unlike that museum, was conceptual in addition to being historical. For example, in order to evoke the lean days of the 1950's, when lard on bread was often dinner, bricks meant to look like blocks of lard formed a labryinth of winding corridors in one room. In another room, which once housed the building's voluminous intelligence files, facsimiles of real reports lined the floors, walls and chairs. Proceeding to the lower depths of the building, there were exhibits that needed no embellishment: the torture rooms, with low-hanging wires and electrodes. One cell contained a noose. Another had an open faucet against the wall, which interrogators used to simulate drowning. It was hard not to be overcome with a sense of shame that our own country has adopted methods once used by such brutal regimes.
The exhibit made a persuasive case that the Nazis and the Soviets were flip sides of the same coin. To underscore that point, a video simulated an Arrow Cross agent after the war quickly changing his clothes and adopting the uniform of a Russian solider. It was extremely powerful.
Sadly, that was Laura's last experience on the trip. Because she has less vacation time than me, we'd always planned to say goodbye in Budapest. Still, it was hard. She made the trip much more fun and exciting, and I'll miss her. Eez not so good.
That night, I boarded yet another night train, this time for Krakow, where I shared a spacious second-class compartment with a Hungarian my age named Rudolph. He's an accountant and a marathon runner who was on his way to Poland to take a job with Shell Oil. He offered me some home-made pastry and peppered me with English vocabulary words from the book he was reading, Hardy's "Jude the Obscure." This was one of those events that convinces me that if God does exist, he has a wicked sense of humor. "Jude the Obscure" was one of those books I could never get through in school, and had to rely on Cliffs' Notes to pass muster. So I was of little help to the poor man.
"What is mischty?" he asked.
"Do you know what is blackpot?" he asked.
"Um, can't help you there. Sorry."
He then switched to accounting terms, and I actually felt on surer footing here.
"What is pilfer?"
"Pilfer is when I take money from your pocket."
"What is embezzlement?"
"Well, let's say your my employer. You give me some money, but I spend some of it for myself. That's embezzlement."
"You seem to know a lot about this," he said, and then started to crack up. I guess I'd walked right in to that one, playing straight man to a Hungarian accountant.
After arriving in Krakow, I made my way across a large square to the Pesonjat Trecius, a lovely hotel above a non-descript store front. On the way -- I swear I'm not making this up -- three different people asked me for directions in Polish. I was feeling a little tired after the 11 hour train trip, complete with 6 passport checks (we only passed through 3 countries, so I don't know where the heck the other three people came from), and though there is at least a remote geneological connection to Poland, I was beginning to wonder whether something had happened during my sleep. First, a Hungarian stumps me on English vocabulary words. Then, people start asking me for directions in Polish. How did I become the answer man all of the sudden?
Still, it made me wonder if it wasn't a good time to buy Lotto tickets.
Go ahead: Ask me a question, any question.
The answers are:
The Council of Trent
The Hoot-Smalley Tariff