The welcome wagon when we arrived in Hungary wasn't singing "gypsies, tramps and thieves," but we did hear echoes of "you've got to pick a pocket or two."
That would be our pockets, to be precise, on the overnight train from Prague. Our wallets were cherry-picked: I had cash in three different currencies in three different locations in my wallet, and all of it vanished: my Euros, my Czech crowns, and my U.S. dollars, both in the main section and where I hide my $20 mad money in a different pocket.
Fortunately, our thieves left our wallets, tickets and passports with us. We wondered how they got into our compartment -- our handbags were at our feet, close to the window, and the compartment floor was filled with our suitcases, totebags, shoes and other sundry items to trip over.
We suspect it was an inside job. I did admire their finesse. I've never had my wallet disturbed in New York. For these people, it was an art form.
When we left the Czech Republic, someone stamped our passports out. The staff changed and new officials boarded in Bratslavia, where our passports were stamped again, in and out. When we crossed the Hungarian border, the train staff changed again. I can't remember if our passports were stamped again: after the third time someone has awakened you from a sound sleep between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., it is easy to lose track.
At that point, I would have handed my passport out the compartment window to anyone in a suit who asked for it.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "'Tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive." On the Prague-Budapest train, I would have to disagree. We arrived broke, found a cash machine (the global village writ large) and were met by our driver, who ushered us to the hotel, where the five-star suite featured a rubber duckie in the bathroom and two baby stuffed bears on our beds.
The walls have fallen in the global village: in my hotel room I saw a TV show created for an American audience, filmed in Canada, dubbed into German, and shown on Hungarian TV, along with the ubiquitous Law & Order
, in French and in German. American jurisprudence has never gotten so much good P.R.
Budapest? A beautiful city, one that has been invaded and renovated more times than anyone can count. The citizens are resilient. This beautiful city is the Paris of Eastern Europe, on a much more human and smaller scale. Hungarian is a language one must learn at birth, but we managed, with our French, English and some German.
We saw cathedrals, plus the second biggest operating temple in the world (next to New York's Temple Emanuel, the suburban offspring of which was the house of worship, such as we did, of my childhood. Our Westchester outpost was nicknamed "Our Lady of 287," after the interstate that ran beside it. And yes, we were about as religious as all that.)
We went to ballet; we heard the Budapest Philharmonic; we saw another dance performance. Culture of any sort costs practically pennies compared with the same quality in my little town. There is a lot to be said for government subsidies, though I don't think this U.S. administration would recognize a culturally significant building, painting, or event if one smacked it in the face and strapped it down to appreciate it.
I explored the thermal baths: the Gellert are the most famous, with interior skylights and intricate tiling. I swan one afternoon at the Szechenyi baths and swimming pool, an outdoor extravaganza opened in 1938 with a full service spa and Art Deco buildings. Had we stayed longer, I would have made it a daily stop.
I want a branch of the Szechenyi -- its shared thermal fountains, jacuzzi and swimming pool -- down the block from me, one where everyone is clean and polite, and you can spend a relaxing afternoon under the Hungarian sun. In New York, I am unlikely to find the most remote replica, particularly not at a $10 entry fee. We don't have that form of relaxation built into our society. We are definitely missing a critical element of the Old World with its absence.
Sidewalk cafes, thermal baths, a stroll down Andrassy Boulevard just to view the architecture -- days spent like this may belong to the tourist, but they derive from the cultural history of people and their way of life. I could get used to it.
Labels: Alice outside Wonderland