On September 2nd at 7 a.m. I boarded a bus and traveled southeast for three hours, from one Danube capital of 1.7 million to another. Goodbye Wien (Vienna). Hello Budapest.
Hungarians have a very different name for their country than we do. Their language and history is quite different than that of most their neighbors. But they are no less human in their hospitality. In fact, as in my case, they can be more so.
It had all begun 900 miles beforehand. I had been in London for three days and was crouched in a squat position on the sidewalk, awaiting a shuttle bus to Luton Airport. Three Hungarians approached, stood beside me waiting, and we eventually exchanged a few friendly words. Two of them were college sweethearts, on their way home from visiting one's older sister, who'd become a Londoner. I was flying to southern Poland to trace some roots and make my way down to Istanbul by land. We were chitchatting the whole ride to the airport and I was invited to call them when I got to Budapest.
Fast forward a week. On the bus ride from Austria to Hungary I made friends with yet another Magyar. Andras was coming home after not having seen his family for two years, since he had gone to study and work in France. He happened to be headed to the same part of town as I. He had 3.5 enormous suitcases under the bus and no idea how he'd handle them alone. Meanwhile, I had no idea how to utilize the local mass transit and for the first time I could not rely on just maps and asking people because for the first time I was in a place where my trilingual connection to three distinct cosmopolitan language families rendered itself useless. You can guess the symbiosis that came next. He went the extra mile though, and took it upon himself to call the young Hungarian couple I'd met in London to arrange for us all to meet at a mutually convenient landmark. I got a kick out of standing there, utterly dumbfounded, while they shot back and forth in ultra-rapid Ugric. I call that a savings account withdrawal of the karmic kind.
Tibor and Brigi met up with Andras and I on their college campus. They took me around to see their city by foot, trolley, and car. Buda first, then Pest. The three of us chipped in to help a stranded Croat get home, but we also smelled something fishy. In the evening we had an authentic local meal and walked it off through a shopping mall. One particular store used a blown-up photograph of a classic NY street scene with a yellow cab and a patty wagon to attract people (among the pictures below).
My new friends saw me off at 11 pm. I caught a southbound, overnight train to Beograd, the Serbian capital, also on the Danube, and also 1.7 million strong. I had to share the odorous little unit with a slew of obnoxiously drunk Slovak college kids on their way to an Albanian vacation. Serbia was not originally on my plan, but I had met two brothers from the town of Pancevo who had couch-surfed with the same host as I, at the same time, in Barcelona the previous month. They had urged me to make the slight detour on my path from Hungary to Romania. It was a hard offer to resist. Why not add a country? It just so happens to be the least expensive one, in the least expensive quadrant of Europe. More on that later.