Preface: I’ve been fortunate to travel to some amazing places in our world, building great memories — and not always on a motorcycle. I’ll be posting some new stories about old travels on hankwentthataway. Enjoy or unfriend, it’s all up to you.
Béla Bartók was a Hungarian composer and pianist. He is considered by some to be one of the most important composers of the 20th century and is often regarded as Hungary’s greatest and probably most well known composer. Just ask any Hungarian.
As I write this, My Buddy Bird, is traveling through Europe. Lucky dog. His last stop is Budapest, the magnificent capital of Hungary. I was there once with Dee in 1989 — and at a pivotal point in Hungarian history. He didn’t ask, but I decided to give Bird some traveling advice in the form of an email. This post is the final draft of that email.
When we were in Budapest, in the fall of 1989, we ate at a famous restaurant called “The Margit Terasz” which is on Margit (Margaret) Island near the city center. The island is in the middle of the Danube River and is a popular tourist destination. All of the big name world statesmen, including presidents Reagan and Carter have dined at the Margit Terasz. I don’t recall the food as being spectacular, but I’m pretty sure we both had the paprika chicken. In fact, the latest Frommer’s Guide says to “avoid this tourist trap.” More on the restaurant experience later.
In 1989, Hungary was still a Soviet satellite country with a Communist/Socialist government installed and controlled by the then-USSR. Soviet soldiers had been stationed in and around the city following the somewhat spontaneous Hungarian Revolution in 1956, which left nearly 4,000 dead, including over 700 Soviet soldiers. There had been a similar dust up in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the so-called “Orange Revolution,” and the Soviets weren’t taking any chances. They wanted to make it clear to NATO that the nuclear dividing line ran along the borders from Poland in the north, to Hungary in the south. When we left the US in early October, there were no known plans by the USSR to give up Hungary to democracy any time soon. Hence, there was a fairly large Soviet military presence in Budapest.
We had planned this Europe trip very carefully. It would be our first “big adventure” together, of which there have now been many. Including parenting. As I’ve said many times before, “When choosing a mate, choose wisely.” Getting around most of Europe was easy. Setting up the Hungary part of the trip wasn’t easy at all. For example, the hotel room had to be paid in full prior to arrival, using US dollars. Credit cards were not accepted anywhere in Hungary. The Hungarian currency was called the “forint” and it was strictly prohibited to remove any amount of forint out of Hungary, or, for that matter, to bring any in, so we couldn’t change money at a currency exchange prior to entering the country. We also had to get visas to enter Hungary before we left the US. It all seemed very formal and bureaucratic. We even used a travel agent to set this up (I mean, really, who does that?) and had to go to the Hungarian consulate/tourist/local spy office in downtown LA to pick up our visas. It was was big deal for us, having only traveled to the UK previously.
We were told by various sources, including our travel agent, that “consumer comfort items” that were common in western countries might be hard to find in Commieville, so we swiped the toilet paper and soap from our crappy little hotel room at the Best Western in Vienna.
By the way, we loved Vienna. Make sure to have chocolate cake with a coffee at an outdoor cafe on the Graben around four in the afternoon. It’s how civilized people live.
We arrived in Budapest by rail from Vienna in the mid-afternoon of October 23. It was cloudy and gray outside the train station and the atmosphere had a kind of shabby, eery, spooky feeling. It was like being in place we didn’t belong. On top of that, there were people in the streets everywhere shouting and marching, which, given the last time they did this in ’56, didn’t seem to bode well for us. Soviet soldiers were everywhere — and armed.
One of the things I’ve never gotten used to in my travels abroad are police and para-military officers casually walking around tourist sites with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Frankly, it’s unsettling.
We made our way to the Hotel Bekke on Lenin Kart (Lenin Street, as in, Comrade Lenin). It turned out the hotel was a Radisson property. Furthermore, our room was quite plush, with a king-sized bed, marble countertops and brass fixtures in the bath and — in the ultimate reminder what travel noobs we were — SkyChannel satellite TV from London was broadcasting the BBC. Oh, and the toilet paper was quite fluffy and plentiful. There was even French milled soap.
So what about the masses out massing in the street, you ask?
So did I. I went to concierge and asked, “What’s going on outside in the streets with all the people protesting?”
She responded with great glee (use your best Hungarian accent), “Is not protest! Is great day in Hungarian history! Today we declare Hungary to be independent republic! We ask Soviets to leave!”
Dee and I looked at each other with wide eyes (me, having told Dee the story of the failed Hungarian Revolution while on the train ride from Vienna), then back at the concierge, who looked like she couldn’t wait to end her shift so she could hit the streets, and we both said simultaneously, “And what did the Soviets say?”
The concierge looked back at us like we had just served her a dead cat. She rolled her eyes and said, “Ach, Soviets do not care. They no longer wish to support our economy and are happy to leave us. Good riddance to them!”
Later that evening, and at the concierge’s recommendation, which I correctly suspected as being a “fleecing,” we went to Magrit Terasz for dinner. Like I said, the food wasn’t memorable, but the rest of the evening certainly was.
The restaurant featured a gypsy band moving from table to table like Eastern European Mariachis, except they played violins, a string bass and an accordion. A swarthy-looking bunch, for sure, all with dark hair, eyes and pencil-thin mustaches. Right out of central casting. The most notable musician was the bass player, who had a crooked smile and a goiter on his neck the size of an adult python.
We placed our order with the waiter, who could speak English just fine until you tried to order whatever wasn’t the “special” that night. While waiting for our dinner, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the bandleader now had our table in his sights, which, to him, I assumed, meant a Western “mark.” The entire six-piece ensemble started to shuffle over to our table, dragging instruments with determined smiles. I was starting to get uncomfortable knowing that I’d have to have another “conversation” with a selective English speaker. I’m pretty good with languages and made a sincere effort to pick up some basic Hungarian on the train from a Budapest local (who explained to me that it’s pronounced Buda-pesht, not pest), but Hungarian is a hard language. It sounds like a combination of the language of the Steppe from southern Russia and Finnish, with a distinct lack of organized vowels. We English speakers need vowels in order to operate. My two Hungarian friends are going to dispute this.
The other thing gnawing at me was that I didn’t really understand the currency exchange in Hungary. At this point in our journey, we had been to England, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Austria — and this was way before the Euro became the common currency.
It turned out the band leader spoke pretty good English. He asked me if I had a favorite tune that the boys could “play for the lady.” I stared back at him for a full 10 seconds, hemming and hawing, until I remembered the name of the only Hungarian composer I knew. I pretty much shouted out,“Bela Bartok! Anything by Bela Bartok would be great!” The band leader seemed impressed that I didn’t request “O Solo Mio” or the more obvious, “The Lady is a Tramp.”
They started whacking away at their instruments, bows flying in every direction. I had no idea if they were playing Bela Bartok or Bela Lugosi. What I DID know was that I had to tip them when it was over. In my head I was desperately trying to remember the exchange rate of the forint to the dollar. Or the dollar to the forint. Shit, I just didn’t know. It seemed that you got a lot of forint for a dollar. I mistakenly kept reverting my calculations to the Austrian schilling as the currency guide, which, I think, was worth 17 US cents in 1989. I was starting to sweat as I placed my hand on the wad of bills in my pocket that I had exchanged about a half an hour prior to coming to the restaurant. The band finished the piece with a flourish and everyone in the restaurant was clapping wildly, like it was the greatest tune ever written by a Hungarian, which it may have been, and just the sound of it caused grown men to shed real tears.
The restaurant fell silent as people returned to their meals, probably trying to figure out what they had ordered. I pulled my hand out from under the table, stood up, thanked the band and pressed some bills into the bandleader’s hand. He gave me a knowing wink, like, “Oh man, you are gonna score tonight! That Béla Bartók tune really softens the ladies up. You, sir, are welcome.”
Then he looked at the bills in his hand and I watched as his eyes grew wide. He shook my hand furiously saying, “Koszonom! Koszonom! Koszonom!” That’s “thank you” in Hungarian, which is one of the two words I’ve retained. The other sounds like “Yo, eshteet,” which loosely translates into ‘Sup? He grabbed the band, they dumped their instruments and booked for the bar at the end of the restaurant. They ordered up drinks — lots of drinks — and smiled and waved at me over and over again for the rest of the evening.
After a couple of minutes of looking into each other’s eyes, Dee leaned over and gently said, “So… just exactly how much did you tip those guys?”
I made a look of disdain, like someone was asking me how much money I made, my political affiliation or religious leanings. Dee pressed me on the amount, as only she knows how to do, and it became obvious that dismissing the question was out of the question. So I replied…
“It’s like this. You and I are in Budapest(pesht), the gateway to the east. Across the Danube is the beginning of Asia. Neither of us has ever been this far east and I have waited my entire life to travel to this place, and, in the best of all worlds, I get to be here with you. A gypsy band just played a beautiful Béla Bartók composition for you by candlelight. This is probably the most romantic evening we have ever experienced together and you can go to your grave knowing that your husband has just tipped the band either six, sixty or six hundred dollars*** because I haven’t got a !@#$%^& clue!”
Originally called the Millennium Monument when construction began in 1896, Heroes Square is the centerpiece of Budapest. It was the flashpoint of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, where thousands lost their lives in the fighting. I’d insert some funny line here, but I don’t have one.
Over my left shoulder is Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge, an architectural and engineering masterpiece built in 1849. The bridge spans the Danube River and connects the old city of Buda with the new(er) city of Pest.
The Citadel, like many other buildings in Budapest, still has bullet and bomb damage from the Second World War. Many homes in the city still have bomb craters in the front yard.
This is my girl on the train from Vienna to Budapest. You just gotta love someone willing to travel with you to a country undergoing a revolution that you didn’t know about. Now I always check the State Department website before heading overseas.
*** It was $6. Six bucks bought a lot of booze in Budapest in 1989.