Yesterday we spent the day in Budapest. It was great. The morning consisted of a subway ride to the nearest market. These two things (the metro and the marketplace) are a must for me anytime I visit a new city. The metro and market are the beating heart of a city – they keep it running. It is here where you get a feel for what everyday life is like. Budapest’s metro was interesting, to say the least. The first subway we got in must have been 80 years old. The car was nothing more than a steel box. No decorations, no fancy seating, no advertisements, no map of where we were going. When the subway came to a stop the brakes let out a loud shriek that made Katy and my head spin but left the other passengers unfazed. The metro we got on that afternoon was the “new line” and was clean, modern and made NYC’s subway system feel like the dark ages – a very interesting contrast. The market was also great – for $2 I got a pound of delicious chocolate wafers and ginger vanilla cookies that Katy and I made quick work of. The peaches were some of the best I’ve ever had.
The afternoon was a deviation from our normal trip. We visited the Szechenyi thermal baths in the city park. Situated in a very decorative old building, the thermal baths are quite the sight to behold. The best part of the day was the trips between the 16C cold pools and the 80C saunas (which were so hot that just breathing caused your nose and mouth to burn). Quite a rush.
Fast forward to this morning – we attempted to fix a rear wheel/hub problem we have had for the past couple days, but we arrived at the bike shop at 12:30 only to find that they close at 1pm and so we’d have to wait until they open again on Monday at 10am. We decided to push on, hoping to get the problem looked at in a couple days at the next large town in the south of Hungary.
Departing Budapest felt like entering no man’s land. We have 1,000 km to cover before reaching Kotor, Montenegro and my sister Jessica and her son Charlie and so will venture through southern Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia en route. We know nothing of these countries (other than that we’ve been advised by our WS host against wild camping in Serbia because “there are land mines which are a bit of an annoyance”). Yeah, I’d think so.
Sixty or so kilometers south of Budapest we passed a noisy gathering in a park beyond a rather dirty pond. I quickly turned the bike off the road towards the festivities. A large celebration of any sort is one I don’t like to pass up – the best way to learn about people is surely when you have a lot of them really close together and there is food involved. The large crowd was seated on a long row of outdoor picnic tables and at the end of each table was a large black pot (and by large I mean a child could fit in one) hanging from a triangle of three sticks above a large pile of coals. As I peered into the first pot large bubbles boiled up out of a dark red broth with the occasional potato, carrot or piece of meat coming to the surface. Goulash, I thought. Nothing else but paprika would turn the broth so red (this is one of the tidbits of Hungarian cuisine I have picked up in the last couple days) and paprika is a necessary ingredient in goulash. The next pot contained the same. How can I get some of this? was the next logical thought to follow.
(Here I am going to go on a bit of a tangent. Whenever I travel I want to get as close to a “real” experience as possible. I don’t like the idea of being a “tourist”. When I lived in Jamaica I saw loads of tourists show up on cruise ships, get corralled through fake markets where Jamaicans said things like “no problem man” and “Jamaican me crazy” in fake accents to goofy looking white tourists who happily shelled out a bunch of cash for lame trinkets. They promptly got back on the cruise ship and sailed off to the next facade of a destination happy that they had been to Jamaica. False. They never ate chicken foot soup on a dirt floor in the hills, they never heard proper Jamaican patois, they never sat in an overcrowded bus from Porty to “Town” listening to Elephant Man and they never saw the great spirit and friendship of the Jamaican people. So, when I travel I do my best to try and get past all the layers to really find out what a country is like. Going to Budapest is great, but anyone can go to Budapest. Cycling from Budapest to Belgrade gets Katy and I a little bit closer to reality. Stopping at a local outdoor party where families are cooking traditional food – one step closer (even better when it is apparent we are the only English speakers present). But now I want to sit down at that table, eat that food and (somehow) talk to these people. I don’t want to see Hungary, I want to be a part of it (at least for a moment.))
So, how to get invited to dinner? It can be a difficult area to navigate. It’s awkward to walk up to someone you don’t know and in a language they may not speak say, Hey there, I’m from the United States, can I have a bowl of that stew?” This approach may in fact be best but I’ve never been bold enough to execute it. My strategy is always the same: show enormous amounts of curiosity and linger just a little longer than what might be comfortable. I spent a good three or four minutes at the first pot and hoping to make eye contact with anyone sitting at the accompanying table. But no dice, so I moved on. Katy was already down the aisle, but I persisted. At the next pot I did the same. Within seconds someone pointed to the large gentleman at the end of the table and said in decent English “he’s the chef.” Mission accomplished. Once you have an easy in it’s as if you are already sitting at the table. It’s a sure bet that if I approach with curiosity and fascination about local culture and cuisine then people will respond favorably (I mean honestly, who doesn’t like talking about themselves?). What are you cooking? I ask. The answer was a word I had never heard, but it wasn’t goulash. Ohh, so is that the same thing as goulash? Within seconds Katy and I were sitting down at the table (the chef had given us his seat) and we were having a bowl of stew (I still can’t remember or pronounce the name) being taught about all the different types of stew with their different ingredients and cooking methods. Then came the homemade pickles, the raisin wine, the sauerkraut filled spicy peppers and fried fish. Within seconds we became part of the family. It was all so delicious. The Hungarians very quickly changed from being curious “who the new faces were” to cracking jokes and treating us like friends. By the time we left an hour later it felt like we were saying goodbye to people we had known for a week. They firmly shook our hands and wished us well as we unfortunately told them we must be getting on the road.
It wasn’t more than 10 kilometers down the road when we stopped next to a small restaurant/bar to check the map for directions. Hey there, where are you from? a friendly looking 50 year old man asked. Upon hearing our response he stated rather matter of factly (and as though we didn’t really have a choice) come with me, let’s have a drink. After insisting we didn’t need a beer, we both sat down with a Coca-Cola Light. After a short conversation it was again as if we were part of the family. As Katy talked to Victoria and I chatted with Ernesto we thought, hmm, maybe this is just how Hungarians are. Ernesto had a load of questions for us, including why we were doing this, how far we go each day, what we like about traveling etc. (I also think he was somewhat proud to use his English that he had learned during one of his many fishing trips to Miami). Then the food started. First he offered us his dinner (which he hadn’t started yet). It was goose liver and mashed potatoes, which he insisted we try. Katy said no thanks, but I am a sucker for free food (especially food I’ve never tried before). It was great. Then I played some ping pong while Katy continued chatting with Victoria. About half an hour later we were sitting down again debating whether we should get on the road to reach our hotel that was 30km down the road. But then Ernesto insisted we could stay at his house. It soon became dark and so we took him up on his offer. However, as we chatted he decided he wanted us to experience “all of Hungary” (he kept using this phrase) and so he called the local restaurant and had some goulash, a type of fried fish and a traditional dessert (crepes with chocolate and some sort of nuts) delivered just for us. This was after the multiple Coca-Cola Lights. (I guess it is interesting to note that Ernesto has been in the gambling business for the past 26 years and it seems as though he makes a fair amount of money because ordering us multiple dinners and buying drinks for the rest of the table didn’t faze him). Back at his house we got in the hot tub before finally retiring upstairs to bed.
And so, it’s been an interesting day. One that I didn’t expect from the outset. I guess we will have to add Hungarian Hospitality to our list of things we like about Europe.
Expenses Day 1: 1200HUF HotDog, 820HUF Bakery, 1000HUF Patch, 2100HUF Subway, 365HUF Fruit, 790HUF Drinks, 600HUF Cookies, 8200HUF Thermal Bath, 1230HUF Burger, 6950HUF Blue Rose DInner
Expenses Day 2: 1420HUF Fruit and Cookies, 2300HUF HotDog, 1130HUF Aldi, 600HUF Drinks, 38€ for non canceled hotel