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Getting Wasted

Hungarians, like most Eastern Europeans, like their liquor and hold it well. If you think Saturday afternoon is best spent hanging out with your friends, drinking coffee and trying to piece together what happened Friday night, you’re in the right country. Alcohol is central to many Hungarians’ lives. The only city where people go clubbing is Budapest; elsewhere, the pub is the only option.

Hungarian pubs are pretty grimy by western standards”yellow smoke-stained walls, dirty tablecloths, toilets that don’t always work. The people there are usually very drunk, but Hungarians tend to get either happy or morose when they’re intoxicated and bar fights are rare. Most Continentals take it for granted that they don’t risk a broken nose just for going to a bar, but this can be a refreshing change for English and American imbibers. The Hungarian pub is still a largely male preserve”although seeing women as part of a mixed group is common enough, you just won’t see many women sitting at the bar alone.

Drinks are present at pretty much every social occasion lasting longer than 10 minutes. Hungarians you befriend will give you a drink at any excuse, and if you go to a pub, expect one round after another after another after another… drink slowly if you want to remember anything after midnight. It can be hard to refuse and still seem sociable. Just about every Hungarian drinks, and most can’t understand why somebody wouldn’t. If you’re a man who doesn’t drink, brush up on your soccer trivia and fill your wallet with photos of previous girlfriends before you come here, in case your heterosexuality is ever questioned.

The national liquor is palinka, a brandy that’s somewhere between 60% and 70% alcohol and usually served in a shot glass that’s usually about two ounces. Good palinkas are a real treat to drink, and come in different fruit flavors. The cheap, unflavored ones are barely digestible, and if you have more than three you probably won’t be digesting them anyway. It is not uncommon to walk into a bar or restaurant in the morning and see men from all walks of life taking a drink of the stuff to steel themselves for a day of work.

The second liquor most identified with Hungary is Unicum, which tastes and looks like Jaegermeister. If you’ve never had Jaeger, think cough syrup. If you like it, you’ll like Unicum. Hungarians like to have a shot of Unicum before and/or after a meal. Wine is also quite popular, Hungary produces some nice reds. It’s usually served in a soft drink glass at pubs. Red wine from Villány is generally considered the best, although Tokaji wine is just as well-known and not bad either.

The less said about the local beer, the better. It’s better than Milwaukee’s Best, maybe even better than Miller and Budweiser. But what European beer isn’t? Czech beers are commonly available, and are your best bet. Pilsner Urquell (first pilsner ever) and Budwar (Budweiser’s more flavorful ancestor) are the most common.

As for domestics, Dreher is head and shoulders above the rest. Hungarians don’t usually toast when they’re drinking beer. Supposedly this is because in 1848, when 13 generals fighting for Hungarian independence were executed by the Austrians, the Austrian soldiers clinked their beer glasses together as each one was dropped off the gallows.

You can buy beer, wine and liquor at any place where you can buy food”grocery stores, corner stores, gas stations, wherever. Supposedly there’s a drinking age, but as long as you can see over the counter or bar you won’t be carded. Pubs usually close around midnight, although you can usually find a handful that are open a couple hours later. These are more common in Budapest, of course.

There’s an open container law, but unless you’re starting fights or run into a cop whose wife just left him, you can walk down the street gulping palinka right out of the bottle without any problems. Either you or the cop really have to be an asshole to get hassled for drinking in public; just being drunk and a bit loud won’t get you noticed.

Hungary has a huge problem with alcoholism. Most pubs are bustling by 8:30 in the morning. If you don’t want to drink, tell people you’re a recovering alcoholic. They’ll understand.

Drugs and Marijuana in Hungary

Eastern Europe isn’t exactly a Mecca of drug tourism. Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, the only drugs available were schnapps and glue. Marijuana use has grown pretty common amongst the young people, with Dutch imports and home-grown Hungarian herb dominating the market.

It’s usually about 2,000 florints, or $10 American, for a gram. The quality is decent, but you’d pay less for better stuff in Holland or North America. It’s not as socially acceptable as it is further west. Most Hungarians over 30 don’t even know what marijuana smells like, or know anything about it except that’s an evil drug that’ll rot your brain and make you go on killing sprees.

In 1998, Hungary toughened its drug laws”the Stalinist ones were too lax. If you’re caught with some weed, you can expect to be arrested. They can hold you for up to three days without arraigning you, and while you are legally entitled to see a lawyer during this time, the police don’t always allow it. People charged with simple possession of a small amount usually get off with a fine, but still, it’s a lot of hassle for a little smoke.

If you choose to indulge, do as the locals do and roll your weed with tobacco”most Americans don’t like the taste, but home-grown Eastern European weed is usually pretty damp since it isn’t cured well, and you need the tobacco to make it burn straight. Sometimes it’s so damp that it won’t stay lit long enough to get a hit if you try to smoke it pure.

Painkiller abuse (hydrocodone and codeine mostly) is common enough, but unless you make friends with an addict you’re unlikely to find any. You can get some medicines containing codeine over the counter, but you need to be able to explain why you need them to the pharmacist. You might find ecstasy or speed at a club if you’re lucky.

Heroin is common enough amongst younger Gypsies who can afford it, but it hasn’t really crossed over into the Magyar population, and more Gypsies sniff glue and drink box wine anyway. The only people who have coke here are too rich to want to be seen with a backpacker on a budget.

Nathan Brown