Drunken antics win Tom a romantic week in Budapest as he continues to hitchhike to India.
_’Let there be wine, women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda water the day after’_
(From Don Juan by Lord Byron)
As usual, it was a complete bitch attempting to hitch out of Vienna, as traffic-jammed streets seemed to merge into snarling motorways without any graceful interlude. It was hot and Western Europe seemed reluctant to let me go. But I couldn’t return to the mocking laughter of those Austrian females who were both impressed and skeptical as to my voyaging ambitions:
“I hope you don’t get killed!” they had sung as I left their apartment.
I sang songs to myself and tried to prevent any curses for the passing cars from surfacing, as I always feel you then enter on a downward spiral. According to the Zen school of hitchhiking, if you swear at a car after it fails to stop for you, then you’ve also sworn at it before it stops for you – and what driver is going to help someone who’s hurling abuse at him. But sometimes…
“Fucking bourgeois self-centred middle class mundane shits!” I yelled, with a headache coming on from the heat. Almost immediately however, someone pulled over and took me out of town to a lazy, hazy hill where I sat on my bags and stared out across a sweeping silence of wheat fields and cottages.
One hour later, I was in a van with two Germans who were off to see the Hungarian Grand Prix. The border was straight forward and I waited eagerly to see what changes the ex-communist lands would bring. The Germans swapped bundles of schillings for even larger amounts of Hungarian Forint at the Bureau de Change. The single note that I took to the counter seemed rather paltry in comparison – but it all counts, no? As long as I can buy my raw beef stroganoff and pilsner beer at the end of day.
I had an address for a girl I’d never met before who lived a little way outside the capital. I dreamed of some provincial romance with an autumn-haired Balkan beauty; gathering fresh eggs in the morning from the unlikely laying places of the hopelessly errant chickens; long evenings playing with the spriteful children of the sprawling village family, three cats and two dogs in the yard – something smells good in mama’s cook pot and look! Young Jan is whittling away psychotically at the foundations of the house, whilst I and my love lounge around on an old wooden swing in the soft summer twilight. Ah.
Concrete. Big fuck-off lumps of concrete posing as places of human residence, rising from the towns that we passed en route to Budapest. Okay, I’m not the first person to notice that the communists didn’t win any prizes for architecture but they actually seemed proud of these grey monstrosities – symbolic constructions of proletariat sweat, I guess. The high-rises stood like some irreverent moon at the gods and I wondered if they were meant to choke the colour out of the world. They succeeded.
Our visions extend as far as the nearest horizon but for those living in the cities of Eastern Europe, the next concrete high-rise was about as far as their eye could take them. Where could the dreams and inspiration of a William Blake visionary arise in Hungary? Communist philosophy seems to have precious little time for anyone who sees any end other than the glory of the Common Good. Try getting the word metaphysics out of your mouth before a sneering Lenin-like laugh cuts you short. Anyone for a military polka march? It’s sure that they’d have shot the birds who sing in the morning, too, if they could have afforded the bullets.
Budapest was big and bustling and I jumped out of the van to start walking purposefully in no particular direction at all, in the same kind of bleary haze that accompanies most people in the early morning hours. The signs of frontier Western commerce were evident with flashing neon Kentucky Fried Chicken signs and suchlike – but they lacked the almost regal status they command in the shopping centres of the West. Here they seemed almost pitiful token symbols in the obscurity of these grey lanes, like an ambassador who’s been in the sticks for too long. Outside the supermarkets sat darker-skinned women and men, selling apples and peaches from their portable stands, reminding me of Asia.
It was getting towards dark and I wasted half an hour hesitating between stepping onto the stage for an unlikely romance in the nearby village or heading on East. Somehow it was hard to maintain the dreams of rural love in the congestion of Budapest. I let my shyness get the better of me and hustled my way out onto the highway.
I had intended to stay and dig Budapest but the horse-trap 19th century cultural capital of my imaginings disappeared in the smog of the late 20th century reality. Big cities are not always such great places for the ragged traveller who has no way to pay for a hotel room – yeah, avenues can open up if you find the right kind of scene where musicians and dope smokers hang around. But in an unknown metropolis, it’s just as likely that you’ll walk into the wrong part of town, where the twilight is not so pleasant. Naive and tired hitchhikers who don’t speak the local lingo can meet with heavy situations if they turn the wrong corner.
With more luck than usual, I managed to find the right place to stand and a car skidded to a halt within minutes, even though it was now dark. My driver was headed to Debrecen, which was near the Romanian border and so I sat tight and made polite conversation. He was a young, self-employed guy with his own business and he drove fast, intent on reaching his hometown where his girlfriend was waiting for him before she could fall asleep. He seemed pretty impressed with my resolve to get to India and I allowed his spoken compliments to my bravery to fill the gaps inside where my courage ought to have been.
Man, I wasn’t even sure if the route was possible; I didn’t know if anyone would feed me and I half-expected to be ambushed and beaten up by a bunch of gypsies, they’d rob me of my clarinet, my good looks and my passport containing all the visas I’d painstakingly obtained – making it impossible for me to make the overland route – Courage? Come on. Foolish? Maybe. Naive? Most definitely. But God is supposed to love drunkards and fools and I counted myself as one of the favoured.
As I was sort of hoping that this nice young guy might give me a bed for the night at his Debrecen home, I accepted his offer to recline my seat so that I could sleep, hoping that my apparent fatigue might evoke his charity. As we came near his town, he switched on the radio to wake me up and he pulled over by a garage – no warm bed was awaiting me but he did give me a handful of coins. At my gratitude said:
“Wait, I have paper also.” Which seemed to sum up the whole money thing – these green and blue survival tickets that won’t keep you warm and certainly don’t taste good. He was more than generous and now, after leaving England with nothing my fortune had swelled to around $80, largely thanks to the kindness of strangers.
I wasn’t going to spend any of that on a place to stay, of course – I mean, what kind of self-respecting freak am I? Money is a thing reserved for the tasty cakes in the windows, the spare parts for my instruments and the drinks at the bar to win the hearts (and the bodies) of dark and sultry gypsy maidens. Sweet tastes and fun times are the things that keep you going on the road. Nothing will lower your spirits more than standing by the highway for hours with an empty belly. Or staggering through some drizzly town where everyone is supping croissants and coffee behind the windows of warm and friendly cafes where you can’t afford anything on the menu. So, true to my principles, I walked into the garage restaurant and ordered three pieces of cherry strudel and a mint tea.
Europe seemed to be going past quickly as after a week, I had come 1500 miles to the heart of the Continent and fate had been so kind in lining my pockets that I felt almost fraudulent in carrying so much money. Alright, I wasn’t loaded by most people’s standards but for a bread and soya margarine hippy I was doing pretty well. I figured that if the hitching got really bad, I’d at least be able to buy some train tickets further East. Then I’d be obliged to continue the journey by hook or by crook – probably ending up facing the hook, if the legends of traditional Islamic justice bore any truth. I imagined myself being caught pilfering apples from a market stand: I’m innocent! I’d cry – or rather: I’m English! Doesn’t that count for something? With hands chopped at the wrist, how would I ever play my clarinet again? (Or indeed thumb a lift?)
Catching myself as I almost fell off my stool in a half-dream, I grabbed the counter for support and drew half-a dozen glares-How much of that had I spoken aloud? Time to leave.
The night was cool and the ground already wet with dew – that moist curse of all outdoor sleepers and the forerunner of creeping tuberculosis and consumption. But there was no way I was going to try to hitch on to Romania that night, as the dark hours are never advisable hours to cross borders, especially in dodgy police states.
I walked away from the revealing street lamps and strode over an area of redundant wasteland until I found a bush I could sleep behind, out of the view of anyone who might happen to be walking nearby. I laid down my waterproof poncho on the ground as thin insulation and curled up with my passport, cash and clarinet buried at the bottom of my sleeping bag. I settled down to the lullabies of honking trucks 100 yards away but I passed out okay. Sleep is always the time when I feel safest – as I found out to my cost in Prague three months before.
I had been led to a little park by a once-beautiful Russian lady, her features now stretched by her smack habit. She assured me we would have the security of her friend who worked as night watchman for the museum there. I slept on a wooden bench whilst she roamed the park in her heroin introversion.
I dreamt of theft and strange, shifting figures. At one point I awoke and saw two young guys walking past, carrying something heavy. When I fully came to at dawn, I realised what that ‘something’ was. My guitar no longer rested against the bench as meal ticket and friend.
I then had to hitch on with just my wits back to England and went quite hungry along the way. I’d also lost 20,000 words of a novel I’d been writing and some crucial addresses-all of which had all been stashed in the pockets of the guitar-case. Of course, that gave me less to carry and was a good sob-story for my benefactors that day. It also gave me the inspiration to get a new instrument-But no way was I going to lose my jazz blowpipe now.
The minute you start to sleep rough in Europe, you step outside the area of accepted social conventions into a shady zone of chance where nice people don’t go. There is nowhere really set aside for those sleeping out: So when I turn up in an unknown town I have to search around in streets and parks, prospecting the comfort of climbing frames and bushes. How many people do you know who sleep outside each night? Millions of people do, in countries all across the world but most people would rather not know how or why.
Most of society is far too squeamish for that kind of thing and the average person’s survival kit would consist of a collection of visa cards and cheque books. If the crunch ever comes to modern civilisation and all the infrastructures fall apart, then my money is on the hitchhiking types to be foremost among those left standing. These will be the people who know how to make a fire and cook on it; people who won’t wilt at the thought of using water instead of toilet paper. Anyhow, these are the kind of thoughts I end up with to salvage some feelings of pride and self-worth after a cold and lonely bed.
I got through to the morning without being robbed, beaten up or run over by a ten ton truck. I gathered my things and stumbled away into town with the strange injuries in the joints one seems to pick up during the night. Impervious to the funny looks coming my direction from the early morning commuters, I decided to sit down on a grassy corner and make a breakfast of tinned tuna, bread and garlic. Like a panda eating bamboo, it cost me almost as much calories to open the tin with my fake Swiss Army knife than anything I could possibly have gotten from the contents.
For the next three hours the passing cars slowly turned my mucous membranes black with their exhaust smoke. No rides. It was the road to Romania and from what I’d been told, the two countries didn’t get on too well. Apparently, the Hungarians tend to take a rather superior social and cultural eye to the ‘thieving, hitchhiking, gypsy-cousin Romanians’ – and no doubt I looked the part.
But waiting is all part of the deal, nowadays, as the world grows more paranoid and fearful about the unknown. In the old days, hitchhikers could be seen on every main road and it was simply a matter of common good spirit to pick them up and help them along their way. My grandpa used to tell me of the wartime days when young servicemen could be seen by the hundreds by the sides of the roads, trying to get back to their stations after the excesses of their drunken weekend leaves with their family and sweethearts.
He told me that he could always count on drivers to save his neck from the fury of his commanding officer, by going out of their way to get him back on time.
“Don’t worry, son,” they’d say, “We’ll get you back fighting Hitler before dinnertime.”
He’d have had a hard time nowadays, if he had been alive to try it because wearing a uniform or any suspicious outfit is enough to automatically disqualify you as a potential passenger. I learnt this a couple of years ago when it took me and my friend, Tony, two and a half days to hitchhike to Scotland. I was proudly wearing a kilt, sunglasses and a towel wrapped around my neck which wouldn’t fit into my bags. Tony has never quite forgiven me.
No longer is a hitchhiker a helpless stranded soul but rather a likely mugger, rapist or crazed crackpot with a mind as random as his method of travel. Of course, some people do stop-often those who have hitched before themselves. But it becomes harder and harder as the Press feed a never ending stream of hysteria to the neurotic public. We’re urged to remain behind the safety of a locked and bolted door, opening it only to selected family members and only then if they can provide at least three valid forms of identification.
In England, a single incident of a nasty murder or abduction has the power to change laws affecting the lives of the rest of the 55 million people living there, such is the frenzy that can be whipped up by the unscrupulous mercenaries of the media. And in America, a bloody film entitled The Hitcher, hugely regressed the tradition ,as anyone who saw the movie was paralysed with the image of the psychotic repaying the kindness of the driver who stopped for him with savage brutality and violence. It’s your worse nightmare, folks.
I dreamed of the days of the 60’s when VW vans full of marijuana smoke were said to pull over like a shot to rescue anyone flagging a ride, a time when hoboing around was an understood and approved thing to do, if a little eccentric. But as times grow harder and money grows scarce, so too does the general spirit become miserly and suspicious and no one dares risk a dream of romance and adventure – We’ve all got bills to pay – why should we pick up some tree-hugging freeloader?
And so we wait and we wait and we wait. In some countries longer than others. The Germans always pick you up and even the Swiss aren’t immune to a polite request to ride in their car. But try hitching across Spain and make sure you carry a few days worth of food with you – I think they see anyone by the side of the road as a no-good gypsy. France is temperamental whereas England can be a breeze if you go from service station to service station. Either way you have to be prepared to wait some days to get across Europe and thus you have to carry your bed with you and expect to receive a fair amount of animosity along the way from your average idiot on the road. They slow down to raise your hopes and then speed off, they shout abuse out of the windows and sometimes even swerve dangerously close to you for the fun of watching you jump out of the way.
Despite this, I must admit that I had it pretty good on the road. I was young enough (20) to seem fairly unthreatening and so thin that many people felt I needed a good meal. On top of this, Israelis are always telling me that my name means ‘innocence’ in Hebrew (though ‘naiveté’ might be closer to the truth) and I have the general lost, dreamy manner of someone who really needs to be helped along his way. What else for this brief self portrait – Oh yeah, I’m damn good-looking too…
On this occasion I’d had enough of waiting and didn’t want to die as a pointless martyr to the virtue of Patience. I began walking back to the train station to see if I could get some transport over the border and into the Dracula country of Transylvania. As I strolled, I made a few half-hearted attempts to thumb the oncoming cars and one of them actually pulled over.
A red-faced, grey-haired man opened the passenger door and asked me something in Hungarian (A very strange tongue that I never made the slightest effort to learn). In response, I whipped out my map page and tried to point out to him the name of a town that I couldn’t pronounce.
“Do you speak English?” he asked me in classic stage manner. I threw back a hip and answered with stature and elegance:
“I am English.”
“Well, come on, then!” he laughed. I climbed in and began chatting easily and quickly with this wild-haired guy who told me he was originally from Poland but had spent the last ten years or so living in Amsterdam.
“Well, how about this then, Tom – an Englishman and a Pole driving an East German car in Hungary.” And of course everything was wonderful, as it always is with the happily-drunk. Though he wasn’t going very far, he invited me for a drink which he bought at the local petrol station. He was friends with the petrol attendant – in fact he seemed to know everyone – and in the general good atmosphere it was decided that I should stay and rest for a day or two, share stories and of course, get very drunk on the excellent Hungarian beer.
Naturally, my new Polish friend, Bishek, had to hide his can between his knees whilst driving and I accompanied him on the rest of his morning’s work, as he delivered spare engine parts to the shops in the area. Our adventures included an episode taking a stray dog to the vet. Bishek frightened the sensibilities of all the respectable cat owners with our ‘illegal’ rogue mongrel. A dog without papers, he had dark grey hair that was as unruly as his character and he bounced alongside Bishek in the happy knowledge that he had an ally. As I died of fatigue in the sun-baked car, a quick glance back at my approaching friends could not tell the difference between the pair.
Ah yes, it was all good laughs and jokes until that is, we reached home where his girlfriend was waiting in absorbed melancholy. Bishek whispered to me that she had only discovered a few days before that she was pregnant.
Our raucous cackles fell flat as chapattis on the silent atmosphere of the apartment and I immediately got the feeling that my timing as wandering guest was not so good. But Zsoka, as she was called, did her best to mask the fact that she had been crying for much of the morning and began to prepare a lunch that I dared not refuse – though it was the first meat I had eaten in three years. Now on holiday for the weekend, Bishek tried to gloss over the awkwardness by sloshing more and more ‘brown water’ and soon began to dominate the conversation with anecdotes from his time in Nepal – which were interesting from what sense I could make of them.
He had been walking near his flat in Amsterdam, when he ran across a German girl he knew, called Lotti. She was involved in the Tibetan resistance movement and was someone, Bishek told us, who had ‘gods with her’. “Hey Bishek,” she had called, “Do you want to come to Tibet to make a documentary program about the injustices there?” Three days later they were all on a plane to Nepal, due to sneak into Tibet without visas or permission. Bishek was scouting ahead to make arrangements in the next villages, joyfully throwing back the local booze whilst everyone else was crippled with altitude sickness.
“You bastard.” Lotti had growled at him.
The expedition failed but the drama wasn’t about to stop for my friend, because back in Kathmandu he’d seen a young Tibetan guy being beaten and kicked on the ground by a bunch of Nepalese police.
“Stop! Stop! I’m a doctor!” he had cried, the soldiers parting to let this wild grey-haired lunatic through.
“This man must go to hospital right now!” he shouted with authoritative madness and then bundled the youth into a taxi and escaped, leaving behind a very confused gaggle of officers who had the growing feeling that the joke may have been on them. After that, Bishek told us, he couldn’t pay for anything in the town again as he was plied with food and drink wherever he went, the many Tibetan friends and relatives of the boy insisting on repaying him for his brave deed. I gratefully accepted the invitation to sleep and was given a cool double bed in a large and shady room – maybe now they’d have the opportunity to talk. Though Bishek seemed to have sabotaged the chance for dialogue with his speedy inebriation. I felt for Zsoka, as sometimes a flurry of drunken laughter and smiles just won’t do.
I woke again in the late afternoon. Bishek was out so I took the opportunity to get talking to Zsoka. She turned out to be a delightful and intelligent woman, who struggled daily with the alcoholic passions of her boyfriend.
She was midway through describing the beautiful towns and countryside of Hungary when Bishek burst in wild and incoherent as a Dean Moriarty, declaring that I had to come with him at once. He was so plastered and excited that it took a while for me to realise that there was a taxi waiting for us in the street. I felt bad for the embarrassment and hurt that this was visibly causing Zsoka but I was a guest in the hands of my host and so I allowed myself to be pulled away, though I acted like a moral drag on Bishek for the rest of the evening.
We went down to the Jazz Cafe and a cool bunch of people was gathered in this bohemian hangout spot where artists and musicians sat at long tables beneath poster portraits of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, hanging from the walls that glowed purple and orange in the light of the mounted side lamps. Bishek would not let me pay for any drinks and seemed almost offended at the suggestion. However he was generally uplifted by our meeting.
“Ah, Tom. With you, I am travelling once again, you know? In my mind.” he confided in between spells of introducing himself (and me) to every pretty girl in the club. Several times I had to prevent him from making ostentatious showman announcements that the whole cafe must stop to hear me playing the harmonica. Hard work, actually.
But for all of the guilty role that he wrote for himself at home, Bishek was a bold and generous guy, possessed of more spirit and zest for life than ten people wagging their fingers put together. I like to dig people for their qualities and relax about their failings; I end up sympathizing with Jerry Garcia, when he sang:
‘_I’ll set out running but I’ll take my time A friend of the devil is a friend of mine_’
It was getting late and I was trying to cajole and blackmail Bishek into leaving-a near impossible task-when I found my efforts impeded by the compulsion to talk to a pretty and petite woman who had been with us at the table and who now stood in front of me by the exit.
“I will be here tomorrow, too.” she told me and that seemed to be a fairly clear hint. Her name was Marianne and she was visiting Debrecen for the weekend, due to return to Budapest on the Monday. Through my drunken stupor, I tried to gather the implications of this. I promised to meet her the next evening.
I pulled Bishek into a taxi and we came back to a dark apartment. I quickly excused myself to lay down for bed. For the next hour I heard shouts and tears that would have served for an anti-alcohol advertisement, as the ‘demon of liquor’ spread its strife in age-old style.
The next morning, whilst Bishek slept soundly, I attended a classical music concert with Zsoka. We were overwhelmed with the intricate beauty of the flute performances of two young girls. The first was the less proficient and more nervous but somehow more charming for the anxious modesty with which she played. Zsoka took me for lunch and we ate real Hungarian salads and soups, strange and salty-a clear sign that the ‘cook was in love’, according to my hostess.
In her, I saw some of the less celebrated aspects of the heart: in the patience she exerted in her domestic struggle and I learnt something about inner strength. She spoke softly and it was touching how automatically she had accepted me as witness to their drama, I, a passing wayfarer that her husband had brought home with a ‘look what I found’ merriness.
“He has changed, Tom – when I first met him five years ago, he was much worse. But now I’m thinking that maybe it is not enough change after all this time.” When we returned, she and the hung-over Bishek, just out of bed, went on a bicycle ride to the country and left me alone in the flat.
I spent all day sitting around, playing clarinet, reading the odd English book that was lying around and thinking about my evening rendezvous with Marianne. The day grew older and older until I watched the sun sink, its dying rays feeding the flowers and window boxes that adorned the exterior of the tower blocks – their one saving grace.
Bishek and Zsoka did not return until dark, after 9pm. It seemed as though things were more settled between them but it had obviously been a heavy day. It seemed an inappropriate time to suggest going out to the jazz club.
Early the next day, Bishek woke me to join him making deliveries on his Monday morning shift. He would put me on the bus for Romania at 10am and I’d resigned myself to forgetting about my dark haired beauty from Budapest. But then as we stopped for petrol at the local service station, we met our friend, Janski, who worked there. He told me that Marianne had waited sadly for me all night and was now pissed off. He gave me her phone number and bade me call her.
Bishek at once grasped that I had stood her up in sympathy to the events of the previous day and went out of his way to arrange a meeting with Marianne for me, though he counseled caution:
“Ah, Tom, maybe you should get to Romania if you want to reach India, after all, Budapest is West from here.”
“But Bishek, those brown eyes…”
“Ha, ha – Beware the eyes of Hungarian women, I can tell you. But I don’t know how to advise you here.”
After a morning and an afternoon of several false starts, missed phone calls and train deadlines that existed in our misinformed imagination, Bishek finally got to speak to Marianne herself on the phone. At 3:30pm, we pulled up at the rendezvous by a famous statue. She was already waiting and gave us a nervous wave as we drifted past to find a parking spot. She was far more shapely than my drunken recollections and whilst Bishek discreetly hung back to attend a non-existent engine problem, it took just two minutes conversation to settle that I was going with her to Budapest on the 4:30 train. She ran to collect her bags from her mother’s apartment upstairs and didn’t quite understand the immediate reluctance of Bishek or I to come with her. She disappeared to grab her luggage and my comrade and I agreed with schoolboy humour:
“Always avoid the mother.” we laughed.
Bishek made me promise to let him know what happened in the ‘next part of the story’, as we’d been referring to the day as a strange comic drama in which we were the dizzy protagonists. We parted with a wink, a laugh and an unspoken bond of mischief between us.