Budapest Story (with dogs)

 

Presidential Palace 

 So I took my postcards to the post office near the hotel, which is in the castle district. Very old, quiet, beautiful… NICE. I went to the window and said “Hello. How are you? Do you speak English?”, all in Hungarian. Smiling hopefully. The woman looked at me like I’d just kicked her dog and “Nem. Nem.” shook her head. I think I offended her. But I wanted to send my postcards and I’d forgotten how to ask for stamps in Hungarian because, really, how much Hungarian could I possibly be expected to remember? I’m just a silly American. I tried handing her the cards. It’s obvious what I needed. She grunted. Grunted! I looked under the desk, thinking I had somehow inadvertently kicked her dog. Hungarians are all about dogs, by the way. They’re out walking with their dogs everywhere. A good many aren’t on leashes. They’re part of the populace, just out going about their business. Sometimes I thought the dogs were leading the people. But this woman had left her dog at home. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe it had nothing to do with me at all. It’s possible. She told me “seven thirty” and I, interpreting this as the price, passed her a two thousand forint bill. Smiling. Smiling. (See how I’m smiling? I’m a stupid American, it’s true, but I’m a friendly stupid American. Take pity. I’m smiling.) She pushed some coins at me and a pile of stamps, then got up and walked away.

Crap. What the hell am I supposed to do with all these stamps? There’s twice as many stamps as postcards and they’re all going to different places: US, UK, Ireland, Italy… And how do I get them mailed? There’s no box to put them in and this woman has made it clear she wants no part of my distastefulness.

I turned to the little desk and sorted them, then just started licking and sticking. They’ll either get there or they won’t. All the while something was churning in the back of my mind though: She gave me the wrong change. I turned back and there she was, ignoring me from a distance of three feet. One full step brought me to the counter. “I gave you two thousand” in English and without a smile. She said nothing. The woman with no English reached under her desk blotter and pulled out a thousand forint bill. She knew exactly what she’d done. She didn’t have to recount the change even. She knew she’d shorted me and by how much! I put my money in my purse with my postcards and walked out. Stupid American! Well, I guess I showed her!

Except I hadn’t mailed my cards and later, when I tried to pay at the market, the thousand forint bill turned out to be fake.

Excuse Me…

 

Danube 4 

In Magyar the word for “excuse me” sounds like dontchaknow, but with a Hungarian accent. Although I’m told my Hungarian accent sounds French, which worried me some because my French is atrocious. Still, when in Hungary it’s helpful to know some Hungarian. And so I had all these wonderfully useful phrases saved on the love of my life, my ipod touch. A Hungarian dictionary, Hungarian flashcards (body parts, beverages, computers, you know – the important stuff) (email is Magyar for email, incidentally), a currency conversion app to simultaneously show forints, euros, pounds, and dollars, a koi pond app (for meditation in case I was stressed by feelings of inferiority standing next to gorgeous young Hungarian porn stars), the name and address of the hotel to show the taxi driver at the airport… In short, I was prepared. Armed with an ipod, ready to travel to distant lands and live like a native. And then the ipod broke. One minute I was mouthing along with my Let’s Learn Hungarian podcasts while playing a frenzied game of Ms Pac-Man (also relaxing in times of stress) and the next I was listening to Killing Me Softly. My ipod was busted. Useless. It could only play music. I blame Ryanair, but that’s another story. This is the story of how I survived in Budapest sans ipod. It was not easy.

The (King of Crappy, Ryanair) plane landed at Ferihegy International at dark o’clock (broken ipod – no clock) and, after traveling twenty-four hours in the same clothes and with red, puffy eyes and smudgy mascara (broken ipod), I was forced to stand next to gorgeous “just eighteen” Hungarian porn stars to wait for my luggage with no meditative virtual koi pond (broken – you know). The torture went on and on because my bag was not on that carousel. Only after every other bag had been collected did I look up and see my little black suitcase going round and round on the next baggage carousel over. And then we were alone in the airport. Just me, my little suitcase, and a broken ipod. So I did what I always do when I’m not sure what to do. I found a sober looking person and latched onto them until they helped me. I said the word that sounds like dontchaknow and followed it up with “Do you speak English?”

This tactic landed me three men with little English. I think this is a good place to note that all Hungarians are attractive. It’s a fact. I don’t know who they were or if they worked there or what. They oozed mafia. But they carried my luggage and set me inside a posh taxi with a driver who had even less English. There was jazz on the radio and the city glittered in the dark and I thought: Well this could be worse. Driving eighty miles an hour through Pest it looks swank and European and you feel sexy just being there. But then, half a block beyond you can see the crumbling remains of desperation and it’s hard to tell which is the façade. We crossed the Danube, climbed the cobbled streets of the Castle District of Buda, and Hungary felt more accessible to me. Here was an older history I could read in the architecture and possibly grasp. I was comforted and forgot my ipod.

In the absence of the not quite memorized phrases that were locked away on my (whisper it) ipod, I relied heavily on the dontchaknow word everywhere I went. In retrospect I could have started those halting conversations with the half dozen greetings I knew, but I tend to be apologetic with strangers. I’m sorry. Pardon. Excuse me. It’s a sickness. Hungarians do not suffer from being overly polite though and they gave me looks. They were rude. They didn’t smile. Then late one night I was alone on the Pest side. I’d taken the bus to Deak (inconveniently pronounced Dack) easily enough, but figuring out which bus to take back wasn’t so simple. Scanning the posted bus schedule for the sixth time it was as indecipherable as the first. All that was going through my mind was: eleven o’clock… eleven o’clock… eleven o’clock…. The buses were going to stop at eleven and I’d be stuck with a mighty big river between me and that sumptuous hotel room. The very next bus that stopped, I got on. I hesitated there on the step and addressed the driver with “dontchaknow…” He never looked my way. The bus was moving and I was on it.

With an inward Crap Crap Crap I grabbed the pole in both hands and tried to look casual. I meant to get on this bus. Obviously. Now if I could just figure out where it was going. It had to go back across the river. This was the most reasonable possibility, Deak being the furthermost stop on the Pest side, right? Right? The x-ray vision wasn’t working to see the map in my purse, so I took a quick glance around the bus. Looking for a sober person who might speak English. Instead I spotted transit police. My complete freak-out would have to wait. The transit police notoriously fine tourists for invented violations. And there I stood without a ticket. Looking down, I saw my hands gripped the pole on either side of the ticket validation box. I stifled a laugh.

We did in fact cross that famed river, the Danube, though it looked less romantic from inside the bus of silent panic. We crossed downriver from my cushy hotel room. Far downriver. It got darker and the street names sounded more and more Soviet. I was sure we’d taken a hard right at Warsaw. One panicky jump off, two more buses, the clacking hum of a tram, sixteen dontchaknows, and a ten minute walk in the dark, brought me back to the hotel.

Several days of “dontchaknow” being mostly answered by contemptuous looks and I started to question my memory. Kicking off tired shoes, I wondered. Was dontchaknow actually the obnoxious word for “leave me alone”? The one I’d been told to use only in extreme situations? The one the Pixie loves to say? Or was it the word her small sister had danced gleefully around the house repeating? “Help! Thief!” I fell to the bed giggling and my dreams were filled with the clack and hum of a tram carrying me into the night.

I missed my ipod.