One thing that’s very different about being abroad compared to being in the U.S. is that everyone speaks English. This fluency is not restricted to heads of state or academics but to average people on the street — cabbies, bartenders, even the crazy lady on the subway in Berlin was bilingual. She came up to me and said, “Entschuldigen sie mich, haben sie irgendwelche Änderungen… wait, you’re from states? Forgive me, could you possibly spare some change? I am not at all well.”
People are generally fine with speaking English to you, as it avoids having to hear you mangle their language like a college football player speaking to the press. I try to at least learn the words for “hello,” “thank you,” and “please,” along with any phrases I might frequently use such as “more wine?” and “sure, I’ll have another glass.” The effort is usually appreciated. I did have a cab driver in Prague who claimed to not understand how my friend Brendan, who has lived there for a year, pronounced the name of his own street, but after the meter had run for another minute, it suddenly registered.
Often, when you take an English-speaking tour in another country, the guides are British or U.S. ex-pats. In Lisbon, the guides were Portugese and the two I had spoke impeccable English. They had the idioms and jokes down and everything. I started to question my own English: “Was that the right word? I know it doesn’t sound as good without an accent.” One of the guides mentioned to me that English is taught in primary school and they get 12 years of it. They also watch subtitled U.S. programs to reinforce it. Unfortunately, seeing “Run, Lola, Run” aided neither my fitness nor my German proficiency.
If I didn’t feel stupid enough, at one point I complimented the guide on her knowledge of local history. She thanked me but politely brushed it off as just being a result of growing up in the area. Can you imagine the sorry-ass walking tour some kid from Jersey would give based just on living there? “Yeah, down the street, that’s where someone saw Snooki, and Springsteen played at that bar once… I guess. He’s from here, right? Or is that Dylan? Whichever old guy writes songs about poor people.”
You start to get a complex after a while if you only speak English. That means you’re just one language away from not speaking one at all. It seems reasonable that you should have a “safety language,” which I guess for everyone else is English. I’ve seen Spanish tourists communicate with a German tourist using English and, amazingly, a waitress in Budapest speak Hungarian to one table, German to another, and English to mine. This is a waitress who, based on her age, grew up under communism.
In the states, there’s a lot of English-only pushes from politicians who apparently want the U.S. to be among the least-skilled nations. That’s really the opposite of what we should be doing. I try to imagine what my life would have been like if I had learned another language in my youth. When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember this cool senior sitting in study hall singing Soul II Soul. If I had been able to say, “However do you want me? However do you need me” in Portugese (roughly, “no entanto você quer que eu, no entanto você precisa de mim”), everything might have been different.
Berlin and Munich have history, Amsterdam has my short-term memory, but Budapest has old world charm. I have longed to visit Hungary since my childhood fascination with Countess Elizabeth Bathory. The Countess is considered the first vampire because at some point, she struck one of her servants so hard she drew blood. Apparently, the guy she had who normally handled her bitch-slapping was on holiday. When she looked at her blood-stained hand, she noticed that it seemed younger than it had before. Rather than examining her life and determining that she was crazy, she began killing young women and bathing in their blood to preserve her youth. There were laws about this sort of thing, even when you’re doing it to poor people. She was believed to have murdered more than 600 women but was only convicted of about 80, which was still a dozen or so above the legal limit for royalty, so she was bricked up in a set of rooms until her death four years later. Attendance at her funeral was only slightly better than the “Lestat” musical.
I did not drink any blood while in Budapest, despite my hotel being on Barnabas street. The hotel had a great view of the Danube river, which divides the Buda and Pest districts. Well, it did if you left your room altogether and walked two blocks to the river. The hotel was the type of place that charged you for everything. The rooms had Internet access but the cost was similar to what Stephen I, King of Hungary, might have paid to have noblewomen come to his rooms and perform pornographic acts while delivering a right-wing screed that wasn’t backed up in fact.
I took a river cruise one night, where I had the “pleasure” (those are irony quotation marks) of meeting the most obnoxious woman in the world, so yes, she was from New Jersey. Her eyebrows appeared to have been trimmed at the Vulcan Salon and Spa in Teaneck. She was visiting Budapest for the weekend but currently working in Prague. She spent a good deal of time complaining about how Czechs were not friendly to her, which I viewed as an example of both their good taste and evidence that even Prague does not have enough beer to make her desirable. It greatly bothered her that they wouldn’t make sandwiches the way she wanted (it’s a Czech restaurant not Subway) or remember to put the sauces on the side per her request (again, it’s a Czech dish, not what Woody Allen called “boiled chicken” run “through the deflavorizing machine.”).
I should clarify that I had nothing to do with her suddenly and accidentally falling into the Danube and drowning. I actually wasn’t even on that river cruise. It was another cruise entirely. I only heard about this woman from a drifter, who is probably the one responsible.
Hungarian women themselves are far more appealing than T’Pring from Jersey (I’m even including the Countess), though tour guide Rick Steves makes a point of warning visitors about the “konzumlany” — gorgeous “cosmopolitan” girls who drag you to an expensive club where you buy them a small fortune in drinks and they go home with the bartender. Men who spent any part of their 20s in Manhattan will recognize this as “Saturday night,” and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Breakfast in Budapest consists of beer and cigarettes. Lunch is goulash, which is a tasty stew of meat and potatoes, seasoned with paprika. The broth is thinner and more like soup than in other countries, particularly Prague, where you could eat it with a knife and fork.
I only had a couple days to spend in Budapest, but I had to try the thermal baths. The city has 123 natural springs and two dozen thermal baths (“furdo”). There are gender-segregated nude baths; however, two weeks in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic with their schnitzels and strudels had taken its toll and I was in no condition to be seen without my swimsuit.
The pools have a range of temperatures: 30 degrees Celsius (bath water), 36 degrees (hot tub), and 42 degrees (lava). I am a lava man and spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon relishing what some religious people spend their Sunday mornings hoping to avoid.
I did see a Canadian woman mess around and dive into the lava section — not even the toe-in-the-water test but a full-on cannonball. Her screams were heard in Toronto. No worries: I added some paprika to the stew and enjoyed some Canadian goulash.
Posted by Stephen Robinson on September 29, 2011 in Social Commentary
Tags: Budapest, Hungary, T'Pring