Because science into life doesn't go

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pest Perfect

Castle District, Buda

"Hey, Steve!"

"Hey, Tibor! How are you?"

"You look fat."

That was the moment it sunk in that I was really back in Budapest. I appreciated Tibor's frankness to be honest. Most places, people will bend over backwards not to offend you. Here it's not seen as rudeness, just honesty. It can take some getting used to. I think in the developed economies of the West, we try to convince ourselves that we're living in some materialistic utopia and we don't do anything to destroy the vision. The economy's growing at record rates! My house went up 20% this year! We've broken new records on living standards! Waiting lists are down! There's less criminals! When was the last time you said something honest, something that matters, to someone who wasn't a friend? The English are a nation of tip-toers, hoarding their frustrations until they can use it as serious ammunition on loved ones. From overhearing conversations on the street, and through the interviewing job, I would go far as to say that the tip-toeing is no longer a deliberate ploy. It's become ingrained.

Anyway, I digress. The point was that six months outside Hungary and I'd lost sight of the blistering honesty that locals bring to the conversation. When I teached at the state school in Csepel, I can now remember some of the painful exchanges I had with the other English teachers.

"How was your weekend?" I'd ask.

"Nothing special. I looked after my dying mother, and wondered if my contract would be extended. How was yours?"

It's easy to see why this directness might translate into a national spirit that is, above all, depressed. On balance, I think I still prefer it to the English tendency to brush everything under the carpet and attempt to turn that grimace into an ironic grin though.

The trip got off to auspicious beginning. Heading out of the Metro at Nyugati, a big grin on my face from being back in this amazing city, I heard a shout from behind.

"Hey, swan!"

I turned around. Lo and behold, it was my host, Nick. Had he been waiting for me? No, it was just a happy coincidence.

"You're going the wrong way," he said, somewhat spoiling the moment. "You didn't listen to my directions this morning, did you?"

"No, I was panicking about missing my flight."

That's the best thing about good mates. You can slip straight back into the old routine, no need to have those kind of conversations with relatives where they ask you where you are in your life, what your plans are, whether you're ever going to get a real job. Those conversations are important, of course. They're just hard to answer in easily digestible sound-bites of less than twenty words to people who are already thinking of the next question.

We went to Nick's new place, a spacious one-bed apartment in a great location, a couple of hundred yards from West End City Centre (a shopping mecca). There was some good news. The day of painting that Nick had cunningly arranged for the weekend was off. The wall's need more preping before painting could begin. Shame. Second after watching paint dry, painting is my favourite holiday activity. Next time, Nick! Next time. Instead, we ducked off to a local computer store with Nick's dying PC where he harangued the shop assistant in German, and I witnessed Hungarian staff motivation techniques--"You're shit, underling. This is all your fault.", "No boss, this is your fault...asshole."

A true bachelor...

Since it was only Wednesday, we had a low-key night that wound up with my brother and I in a deserted Cha-Cha-Cha's. Now, Cha Cha Cha's is located in the underground. When it's empty it doesn't have the best vibe, what with the homeless winos and the distant rumble of trains. When it's crowded you wouldn't even know you were in the underground, the sheer mass of bodies giving you an unimpeded view onto the next person's armpit. Still, we had an entertaining hour with a former squadie who'd served in Iraq, and an over-intense Australian who was looking for answers to life, the universe, and everything.

The next morning saw me plonked down bang in the centre of the cut-throat world of high-finance and property as I visited James's offices. One of the "property consultants", Dominic, was reading the latest Ashes debacle, my brother was making the tea, and the boss, Rich, was sorting out his skiing hols. December is a quiet month, apparently. Dreaming of a mortgage-less future I looked at some apartments on their database, and made some appointments for the following afternoon. Apart from the weather, the gloom, the language, and the lack of peanut butter, I could quite happily live in Budapest. Having no rent to pay would certainly make the science-fiction writing aspirations easier.

Yes, I have just come with unbridled joy

For alcoholics, Budapest is nirvana. Best of all, a penchant for pilsner is open to all stratas of society, regardless of money or status. In every corner of the city, from station platforms to chrome-and-glass shopping complexes, there's always a sörözo nearby. They come in all shapes and sizes. In the backstreets you might stumble past a crumbling building that houses a student hangout with threadbare sofas and cheap beer. In the tourist district you'll find plush bars with surly table staff and aquariums for walls. In the metro mezzanines, between a newsagent's and a cheap clothes vendor, you'll find super-slim bars with dirty glass fronts and ancient fruit machines. Over the weekend we sampled the entire range. What surprised me most was the ability of the city to always throw up new places of unique charm. About half the places we frequented were new to me, either newly opened or older and previously undiscovered.

Friday morning I met up with Mate, one of the few Hungarian friends I'd made during my two years living here. He took me to a joint that specialized in főzelék--a thick, gelatinous soup that comes in flavours like pea, onion, and cabbage, garnished with frankfurters and served up with chunky bread. It's a real peasant's dish and I've got to say it's not my favourite Hungarian food. It reminds me of lukewarm, stodgy school dinners. To wash away the taste we headed for the nearest bar--a darkened basement of an establishment with an 80's jukebox and industrial strength vodka. Mate's a unique guy. He feels old-skool to me. Someone whose family was steeped in the traditions of Hungary and isn't as keen to the ditch the past as many of his compatriots. Not that he's into secret police forces or five-year plans or anything. He's very academic, very civic oriented, and surprisingly good at football considering his wiry frame. At present he works at a school for disadvantaged kids while he studies. The hours are horrendous, with shifts of eighteen or more hours, and the kids are hard work. I could see that the effort was killing him. The problem is money, or rather, the lack of it. Mate's a principled man and he knows that if he doesn't work these hours one of two things will happen: the other teachers will have to work even harder to cover him, or the kids won't get the care they need. That's not a path he's willing to go down, and I respect him immensely for it.

Spare a thought for the hard-pressed locals

Later, James showed me some apartments. Inside, they're beautiful. High ceilings, cavernous rooms, wooden floors, and a sense of solidity which is lacking in many modern builds. Some of the layouts needed a re-think, but by-and-large, they'd make fabulous homes. The problems stem outside. First, the external conditions of many of the buildings are terrible. I'm talking more than needing a lick of paint. The walls are scarred, some looking straight out of a war zone, and it's difficult to assess how serious the damage is. Then you've got the dog-fouled streets and the unrelenting greyness of the city. All this has to be balanced with the vibrancy of the city--Sziget festival, State Opera House, a politicized and active population, lively nightlife. I'm not torn as of yet, but in a couple of years when the MSc is over I could be.

Friday night I was billy-no-mates. Everyone I knew was having their company xmas do, and weren't coming out until later. I ate a plate piled high with gyros at West End city centre and then went on a mammoth excursion trying to find a place I could have a drink on my own without feeling like a loser. Forty-five minutes later I settled on Szimpla Kert, a huge, grungy student place with cast-iron garden furniture and peeling wallpaper. Within moments of arrival I bumped into some Hungarian acquaintances who all spoke excellent English and my preliminary social outcast license was revoked. The guys showed up in dribs and drabs over the course of the next hour in various states of inebriation--from Nick's flu-induced sobriety to Dean's mid-sentence-semi-collapse-and-recover-at-the-last-minute lurch towards Mark's crotch. Around one we stumbled on to a hip Latin-vibed bar where things got hazy and possibly rude . . . Mark.

Bill: Deano, you sure we're playing cricket?

Saturday began with palacsintak (pancakes) followed by 5-a-side football. Perhaps the reverse order would've been more sensible. Profuse sweating, near-vomit experiences, and dodgy shooting were the hallmarks of the game. Still, it was fun not being the eldest for a change, and the camaraderie that the Szigeti team has is something very special. Afterwards, in a swanky bar, feeling like a pick-up I ordered some mulled wine. Or at least that's what I thought I was ordering. You see, mulled wine is translated as "hot wine" and I'd asked for "warm wine"--or by another more slangy translation, "gay wine". The waitress looked gobsmacked until she understood my mistake. Five hours later, after watching the new Bond film and supping on Nick's signature dish, mushroom pasta, we were re-energised for the night. We went back to the hip Latin bar of the night before and discovered it was their anniversary. Free drinks all night--if you could convince the barman the round of five beers you'd just ordered wasn't only for yourself. There were girls galore too, and hanging around with my birth-and-namesake, Steve Wooten, I got introduced to some very attractive, very tall women. Thanks, Steve. Sadly, they weren't headed where we were headed so we parted company before jumping in a taxi for Nagy West Balkans, the new, big-brother of decayed student haunt, West Balkans.

The place was a cross between the Addams Family home and a field hospital. To get to the place you had to walk across a rubble-strewn yard and down a canvas walled corridor partitioned with those perspex curtains you find in supermarket warehouses. I think it's a noise reduction thing. Entering the space proper a wall of sound hits you. A long spartan bar stretches off to the right and a motley collection of chairs and tables to the right. Far ahead is the dance floor packed full of sweat and hormones. The cloakroom, oddly, is at the farthest point from the entrance. You have to go across the dancefloor and up a couple of flights of dimly lit, crumbling staircases to reach it. Not many bother so at least there's no queue.

Nick and I talked to/at a lot of girls that night. Although we still only had each other by the end of the night, the thing I like about Hungarian places is the variety of people. We met girls who were so vain they wore mirrors on the soles of their heels to check their asses. We met geeky girls with big NHS specs and underlying beauty. We met gorgeous women who weren't egomaniacs with it. We met drunken girls--one who said to Nick after his long opening spiel: "I don't know what you said, but I'm very drunk and I don't want to have sex with you." It was a fine night. I recommend a visit if you're ever in Budapest.

On Sunday, a traditional English breakfast, including black pudding, helped to sink the awful aftertaste of gyros from the (v. late) night before. We watched the Old Firm derby and then Nick wrangled a swim/sauna at his workmates swanky apartment complex. It was heavenly, darling! Except when we tried to make the sauna as hot as we could...

Boy, am I glad the chests are out of shot!

The evening was spent on the links at Lee and Linda's new place--we had a marathon session of Tiger Woods Golf on the PS2 while their superstar cats went nuts. One of the features of the game is the ability to create player models...down to the level of nasal hair length. Since Lee, Linda, and Nick already had their models built (or semi-built--Nick didn't have the patience to do a proper consultation and ended up with a Pinochio nose and close-set eyes making him look like one of Gary Larson's monsters) I had to have the treatment too. It wasn't so bad. I ended up looking like Seve Ballesteros--partly because I began with zero cash and got kitted out in standard sleeveless blazer and slacks. I didn't play like Seve though.

Who said Lee's chained to the's the cooker!

We got a taxi back and crashed. The next day I flew home. Even the two-hour delay couldn't wipe my good I just needed a break...luckily Xmas was round the corner!