Snapshots of Budapest

June 1 – 5 2006

I certainly needed those two alarm clocks to get me out of bed at 4am but thereafter it was a pretty smooth ride.

Finding APH was easy, despite leaving behind the address, and their coach service deposited me at the North Terminal with plenty of time. Plenty of time to spend money! What is it about airports that makes me spend so much money?

The nice guy at Dixons put the camera together so I didn’t have to engage my brain in that direction. Just as well, as there was plenty else to tax it later on.

En route: It was a first, flying with Malev (Hungarian National Airline) and they seemed to be located in the Siberian outpost of Gatwick Airport. Made everyone laugh when I said ‘Bloody hell, I thought I was going to walk all the way to Hungary’. And the plane was the smallest commercial one I’ve ever been on.

Sat next to a garden designer/author called Rosemary Alexander, owner? of the Chelsea Psychic Garden. She was on her way to give a speech at a garden conference. Partly gripping her attention was a tall, bald French guy on the other side of me. He had brought his own huge tupperware container of some mixed fruit and veg concoction and polished it off in about ten minutes. [Because I brought forward my return home, Rosemary and the French guy were also on the flight. Her conference was not as she expected and the French guy was a footballer who broke his foot and narrowly avoided being in a bigger catastrophe when someone had to grab the wheel of their coach as it was about to crash.]

Unfortunately, tedious journeys repeated themselves a few times on this trip; the taxi to Gyor took well over two and a half hours and my bottom was completely numb. To make matters worse, the early start caught up with me and I fell asleep with my mouth open, leaning onto the driver! He, like most Hungarians I met could not understand any English at all and I could barely remember ‘thank you’. Kersmer-something… The other snooze-inducing element was the landscape. Green, spacious and dotted with plenty of trees, but somehow truly boring.

‘Pensions’ or guest houses are quite popular in Hungary now, and the Teatrum in Gyor was clean, friendly, well-maintained, with a good breakfast, and all for £20 per night. And they let me send an email to the family at no charge. My room had two single beds but laid out head to toe, making the room long and thin. Number 3, overlooked the theatre (hence Teatrum) but was surprisingly quiet.

Lying in bed the first night, I thought I heard the distant rumble of a train.. till I realised it was the oddly solid mattress. Every time I moved, it made this strange noise. B thought it might have been made from horsehair.

Loos, poos & other unmentionables: Gillian McKeith would have a field day with faecal matter in foreign places. What is it about non-native travel, even to countries with similar diets, when human waste smells and looks so alien? Did that really come out of me? It does not help that so many mainland European pans are flat and placed high, so what went in comes out rather close to self, sitting there like some gigantic malignant toad. Yeurk. Such grossesses always make me peeved with the Big E. It just does not seem very divine.

It barely stopped raining the entire time I was there. Apart from gloomifying everything, I was wearing black boots and ended up with black toenails. Very pretty. However, I could hardly stay inside the whole time. Thankfully, the first afternoon was sunny and I felt perky enough to wander around the town. Actually, it has a cathedral (with a Weeping Madonna) which technically makes it a city. Didn’t get that impression at all though. Despite being famous for its 16/17th century streets, my first impression was of clothes shops and cobbled stones. There were racks of clothes standing sentry outside many shops, and virtually all circa 50s style. No temptation to buy although I did end up getting a red striped (non-fashion) jumper for £12.

Unlike Krakow, there were no swivelling heads and unsmiling looks, thank God. The Magyars are rather friendly and accepting. Consumerism is edging in but in Gyor at least there was a refreshing trust and almost innocence. Equally, the food won’t challenge the average British palate. Everything appears to be deep-fried, except for the delicious soups and stews. I also discovered a splendid vegan café with pictures of Ganesh on the walls.

Still on the first day, I met up with Edina, the tour guide for Oswald-Andra Dent, at 5pm. She initially struck a sour note. Firstly, she could barely understand English – not a good sign for an intermediary. Then she either interrupted herself or me with endless phone calls so I didn’t know what the hell she was on about as we had to keep starting from the beginning again.

I finally managed to understand that a taxi would pick me up at ten to nine for a 9am appointment with the dentist. We were given taxi cards so that any money we paid would be refunded from the fees to the Oswald part of Oswald-Andra Dent. I still did not realise I was part of a group, partly because I had arranged my own flight, and partly because I arrived on Thursday. The rest had arrived on the Sunday evening for Monday to Friday treatment.

Pain? I never really thought about pain until Marianne mentioned taking plenty of painkillers with me. Now not only was Edina mentioning them, several times, but some group members were popping them like smarties. I barely slept a wink.

The only blot in service the entire time was breakfast on the first day. The waitress was late, sniffing and blowing her nose unsmilingly. I also did not realise a good cooked breakfast was on offer and made do with two cold boiled eggs and lots of coffee. Luckily, she wasn’t around for the rest of the trip.

I must have been more fearful of the process than I realised. Overnight just my left eyebrow had sprouted three long white hairs (the other was smooth and jet black) and my shoulder pains returned with a vengeance.

The taxi arrived on time, as was I for my first appointment. The surgery itself was larger than first impressions but the street was ‘rundown suburbia’ – like most parts of Gyor and Budapest that I saw. There is a staggering amount of graffiti on virtually every spare wall, even in the nicer parts of town.

I’m not quite sure what went wrong next, and I am saving the dental details for my article on ‘dental tourism’, but I ended up bursting into tears, so he suggested going for a walk and then coming back in 30 or 40 minutes to agree on what happened next.

I wandered up and down these truly drab streets, in the rain, couldn’t find a coffee bar and then crept back in to their waiting room. And I was still weepy.

Andra didn’t look too pleased to see me sitting there but I was buggered if I was going to traipse the streets again. By this time the small waiting room was filling up with more of the tooth tourists. All German or Swiss. Then a tallish, blond guy came in. An English voice! Effeminate, before you all get too excited!

We all started to chat and I discovered they were all regulars. That gave me more of a feelgood factor but to cut a long story short (ie the story I’ll be writing in my article), the dentist only fixed the broken filling (for free) but suggested I came back and that they would pay for the flight or give me a discount. There was no time for a bridge before my flight back this time, which was the alternative to the implant which would require five months of osseointegration. And, presumably painkillers. (More details in the article). And then returning to have a crown fitted. So now I was here in Gyor with no dental treatment planned and lots of spare time.

B, too was at a loose end. He mentioned something about companionship needed for dental tourism – which the Swiss and Germans had but he was the only English bod till I arrived. So we wandered around the medieval streets and had lunch at the vegan cafe. Paid 400 HUF (Hungarian Florints) to visit the Miklos Borsos museum. An entire museum to just one artist/sculptor who, if truth be told, did not light my fire overmuch. But he was a local lad and there was a message of sorts in his works.

I wanted to visit the gothic cathedral and see the Weeping Madonna so we had another wander around till it was open. I said prayers for all the family (and put in a request for a columnist’s job!) and then wandered around some more. I wanted a red jumper and found one that served quite well. He too bought one, although seeing vast expanses of untoned white flesh was distinctly offputting.

As is often the way with foreign trips, swift friendships can develop through shared intimacies and what started as a discussion about spiritual beliefs moved on with discovering more about each other. I think being homosexual may possibly have made all this social chitchat more personally intrusive than normal.

He was born M D, in Germany, to a woman who worked in a nightclub. The social services of the time thought this wasn’t a good place to bring up a child and he was put in an orphanage till he was four. Then he was adopted by a Squadron Leader, who also adopted another little boy. B says he has always been effeminate and that annoyed his father. The hatred seems to have been mutual. He said his father was a homophobe in action as well as thought. It sounded like he said his father went out on queer-bashing expeditions and used to hit him too. Eventually the father left the forces, opened a bar in Sussex I think. However he left, so B felt his life had turned full circle as he was back again with a single mother in a similar ambience.

By this time, I was starting to feel vamped and he said he was tired so we returned to our (different) pensions before the (group) evening meal.

A coach took us to what looked like council offices in some equally rundown side street. Well, it was raining – again – which always dampens views. Pleasurable surprise. The inside of the Goldenball Restaurant seemed to be richly decorated in red velvet and low lights, with book cases lining the walls, a piano player and a superb menu. and not very expensive either. But then nothing is in Hungary, at the moment. And the waiter spoke excellent English. He used to work on a cruise ship and had lived in North Wales for three years if I recall correctly.

B and I shared a table with Peter and Beatrice, a Swiss-born couple who lived in Texas but travelled extensively and were regular dental tourists. However, they saw a different dentist to us.

The coach seems to have been a one-way trip and we all walked back to our pensions. Well they sauntered under their umbrellas. I loped back as my feet had already started to turn black from the boot dye.

Saturday morning I had to myself as the dental tourists went for final check ups pre-lunch.

I had yet another wander around, buying a little angel in a feng shui shop and trying to find a massage parlour for my shoulders. Stuck my head into a hairdresser and made hand gestures as if giving someone a good pummel. A lady got up from under her drier and wrote down the name of a salon and the address….

The Gyorans have a friendly imprecision with addresses. All to whom I showed the paper, said ‘es’ – presumably because it was roughly in the same neighbourhood.

Several tours of the streets later, and just about to give up, I found it. A manicurist’s salon. So much for my skills at charades!

Went into a health food shop and the thin and tired looking lady decided to close up her shop for twenty minutes while she took me round three different massage parlours to choose from. Ida was her name (pronounced Eeda). A fan of Krishna. Unfortunately, all shops close at lunchtime and the salon with potential was fully booked – so it was back to the Teatrum to meet everyone for lunch and pay Edina for management services and any dental work.

I asked Edina to change my flight but as it was a cheap flight and Pentecost, had no luck. B said to go to the airport and try face to face, so I booked my return taxi for 9am Sunday to give me plenty of time and maybe even a Sunday flight…

As B had gone on about being adventurous, I thought our last day ‘together’, on Saturday, could be spent discovering places other than Gyor…. except there was a free goodbye lunch provided by Oswald. A three-course meal, with lunch and a gypsy violinist. I suppose my attitude wasn’t that good as you know how fond I am of crowds.

With the very best will in the world, and B had already described them in similar terms, the group were mostly working-class pensioners. The British version has its own particular charms, but Swiss-Germans are almost on another planet, for me. For a start, they understood no English and our German was non-existent.

Luckily for me, I sat next to the lady from the dentist who spoke French. She (Therese) and Yuri, her racy looking Serbian husband (he wore a grey pony tail) looked wonderfully in love, as if they had been together for years. In fact, they met in a singles club and had been married for ten years. She had been a milliner, while he was a theatrical costumier. He just got a bit miffed at not being able to understand what we were saying. Therese said it was good for him not to know everything.

The subterranean restaurant amplified the acoustics so the already loud violinist and the electric piano player played havoc with my ears.

I rather ungraciously blocked them with my hands especially when the blasted violinist stood behind me giving me a personal serenade. As he didn’t get the hint, I got up and waited in the loo till he moved on to someone else. Fortissimo is not conducive to digestive flow. Interestingly, all those who enjoyed it left no tips while I, whose ears were assailed, did.

Post-lunch, we all went for a coach trip to a local shopping mall. As before the location was ultra-grim, but inside were some rather pleasant shops. I treated myself to two citrine rings and just hope I come into some money before the credit card bills come in!

Back at base, I started to feel soul weary. Desperately wanted to be back at home and missed my sisters too! Got out the digital camera and mucked around taking some self-portraits. Unfortunately, I looked really ugly and horrid in virtually all of them which made me feel even more down.

Because B was so open with his life story, I felt able to push the boundaries of normal conversation. For example, using the word ‘homosexual’. He didn’t like it, saying it was too clinical, whereas I dislike using the word ‘gay’. He suggested ‘queer’ but I think that’s rude, rather like ‘nigger’. So when we met up later on Saturday prior to finding somewhere for supper, I wanted to discuss some anthropological aspects of homosexuality, for example the effeminate voice. It really did sound like that guy in Are You Being Served? so I felt it was a bit of an act. Not that I said it in so many words but that was the beginning of the end.

As we sat having a drink, he told me about an Egyptian experience of his. Thinking he’d reached a natural stop, I replied with mine at Abu Simbel. Big mistake. He really flipped. Said he hadn’t finished and that I did that to him before (Guilty, m’lud. It’s a Labon failing. Ask the brothers-in-law.)

I apologised and let him drone on… something about meeting someone in Egypt and which lead to an Australian experience, having three mothers, one in Australia who foretold lots of things about him. But he was still cross with me so I apologised again. I said he seemed rather ‘vulnerable’ meaning it in a kindly way but he went absolutely apeshit. Said that was critical. Gave me a lecture about my failings (he thankfully missed out quite a few). I actually listened then mistake three or was it five, I muttered ‘if you are going to be painful…’… and off he flounced. And that was that. Never heard from or saw him again. Although quite pleased to be alone, I did send him love and light so whatever was bothering him would be resolved.

Over the time we spent together, he wanted to know about his numbers, the turquoise ring on his Saturn finger and various other things so it seemed like he was seeking direction. Well that remark was ‘critical’ according to him. Yet to seek it is nothing to be ashamed of. Mark you, if he had read my original notes then he may well have thought I was critical. I wrote that he was tall, blond, pleasant-looking, untoned and walked like he had a rocket up his arse. And that was before he confirmed that he was HX (homosexual).

God knows why I felt guilty. All that mincing effeminacy was beginning to grate. Could be why I wanted to know about the voice. Maybe deep down I wanted him to go. He said he knew more about me than I did about him. Quite possibly. I see my life as a spiritual experiment to be shared in order for others to learn, if they want to that is.

Anyway, if I had seen him again, I would have invited him to join me. As it was, I found a lovely restaurant called Komedia and had a light supper pre-bed. There was a long table with mostly men having the tail-end of a celebratory meal. I was made to feel like a welcome gatecrasher.

Sat with Peter and Beatrice in the restaurant in Teatrum on return, for quick chat. He was an engineer in the paper industry, she does temporary work in finance. They lived in South America (among many countries) and bought precious stones as an investment.

Beatrice said that Peter was very opinionated which probably triggered some equally opinionated remarks from me. Like genetic modification and the rise in homosexuality. I know, dicing with death! But then I have always been an acerbic observer. In B’s rant he said I was judgmental but how can a writer not observe with clarity without appearing to be judgmental?

Peter meanwhile seemed very interested in British politics and life. Mentioned that even co-habitees might have to share assets. He, tongue in cheek, said he’d be too scared to live with me, and then spoiled it by asking it that offended me. No, of course not… although he’d be lucky to be invited in the door let alone live with me. I know I have a strong personality but I am not going to keep apologising for it. God gave it to me for a purpose and so I will treat it as a gift.

That said, about to step into the shower, I was feeling a little gloomy, when the radio played my lumiels tune – Love Is All Around. I really needed that and it felt like my guardian angels (lumiels) wanted to tell me that God loved me and is looking after me.

By the way, Sky Radio in Hungary has a novel way of murdering songs by playing adverts mid-melody. Most odd. Luckily, they left my lumiels’ tune alone.

Last morning in Gyor – got rude awakening at 4am. By mistake. Then another at 6am – and that’s despite saying wrong room. Passed time waiting for the taxi by watching Teletubbies on BBC World. Can’t believe children enjoy that programme. They look and sound like fluffy Daleks.

After a couple of false starts, lovely Csilla at Malev found me a seat on the Monday flight even though it was overbooked. I had to pay an upgrade and booking fee which was less than if I’d stayed in a Budapest hotel till the original flight, which I thought worth paying.

I also decided to treat myself to an overnight stay at the 4-star Gellert and got a single room for a reasonable price. A spa hotel, built in the early 1900s, it still has that vaguely forgotten air, but the location was excellent as was the food. Booked a Thai massage for later and decided to have a wander around.

First stop was the cave church carved into the Citadel rock face. Said a prayer for all the family and thank you for everything despite still having the tooth gap.

Tourism can certainly corrupt quickly. Although people are generally friendly, some of the hotel staff had that cynical and supercilious air you often find in more expensive hotels. Probably from years of dealing with obnoxious customers. There was also a deeply unpleasant girl in a perfume shop who made offensive hand gestures when I tried out the testers. Isn’t that what they are there for? I was so put out that I lobbed back that she was a great lump (she was quite a bit overweight) and very rude. Not sure if she understood, but she would have seen from my face that I was NOT pleased. Even if people do come in and steal testers, not everyone should be tarred with the same brush.

When I asked her the price of something, she added that payment by credit card had to be with a passport as well. That’s a first, and needless to say I did not buy anything. However, I subsequently discovered that PIN numbers are only accepted with additional signatures (although no-one else asked for my passport). Thankfully, I used my M&S credit card which I rarely use so it will be easy to monitor any abuse… and is easy to cancel without disrupting my finances.

The perfume girl was the second sour note after B, and I felt in need of spiritual light, so sent her some L&L to clear the flow, although really I was still unhappily outraged.

Despite the four and five star area, there was an amazing amount of graffiti everywhere. It is such a potentially beautiful city and could really do with a massive clean up.

The first brown faces I saw were tourists staying in and around the Gellert. I wondered how the Thai girl managed but her English was not brilliant. Her Hungarian was apparently non-existent despite living there for three years. As she lived alone, and did a good job (I skipped cracking my spine as I was still in some pain), I left her a whopping tip. In fact, I seemed to tip everyone as if I was the Sultan of Brunei, since I got 70,000 HUF (Hungarian Florints) for my £200, and it goes quite a long way. I really felt that spending it or giving it away was a form of tithing and was helping their economy. Hope God feels the same way for my bank balance!

And thank you God for a certain type of Frenchwoman. They are unafraid to openly appreciate what they believe is physical attractiveness. I’ve even been stroked before now. Mark you I hardly expect any admiring glances these days with increasing CF (age) so that really made my morning…; so much, that I left a large tip for the young taxi driver who took me to the airport. He almost burst with pleasure.

The airport sounds like something out of Star Trek (Ferihegyi). Unfortunately, it is definitely not space age, and as I arrived three hours too early, I had to make do with crisps and a glass of wine while writing up copious notes. At least staff were friendly off-airport.

Once into passport control, there was more officiousness and unpleasantness generally though I only got the officious passport control woman, who spoke no English but kept gesturing that my passport photo was not me. I think she mentioned distinguishing characteristics, but since they are not listed in the passport how the f… would she know? In the end, she turned to her colleague who must have told her to let me through.

That’s the second East European country that let me IN with barely a glance at my passport, but kicked up a fuss when I tried to get OUT.

The general tetchiness and suspicion of the duty free staff could have spoiled things but meeting the French footballer and Rosemary again gave the trip a ‘school reunion’ feel. They both had less than perfect trips. The poor guy broke his foot and they narrowly averted disaster with their coach when someone grabbed the wheel just in time.

Saw another blubbery white belly, which then sat next to me on the flight back. A truly miserable sod. In front of me there was an HX couple (did I mention it’s my new term for ‘homosexual’. I don’t like using the word ‘gay’, and ‘queer’ – which they like – sounds too rude. And, according to B, they think homosexual sounds too clinical.)

I have a feeling that the miserable sod was also HX and, since I had seen LOTS of cosy male couples, wondered if Budapest was now some sort of HX holiday hot spot. I am also trying to lose the image of the miserable sod’s chocolate eating habits. He literally crammed a 3×7 bar into his mouth with BOTH hands. Whatever happened to breaking off a square at a time?

Meanwhile, the guy in front, reclined his seat so far his head was practically in my lap. I do leg exercises on even short journeys as I once got a blood clot on a flight so I rather rudely prodded the back of his seat. However, both of us must have been innately courteous and harmony returned after a short apologetic conversation. Nonetheless, I was disconcerted to see them waiting for the same courtesy coach as me but decided to make a joke of it. Thankfully, he got it and we chatted about various things…

And then it was back into my car and en route for home.

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