I have to say this: Hungary did not impress itself upon me as being filled with warm, friendly, compassionate people. I don't remember seeing many smiles, and certainly none seemed directed at us. In fact, no one paid any attention to us at all. Or perhaps I am accusing the Hungarians wrongly, and I was only witnessing the nature of airports worldwide, everyone bent on their own task to the exclusion of all else. I was just glad that it wasn't I, but rather Victor, who had to go up to the desk and arrange for a shuttle or taxi to pick us up. I have to note here, too, that I remain confused as to the differentiation between a taxi, a shuttle, and a minibus, as all three terms seemed to be applied somewhat interchangeably.
We were headed for the Keleti train station, and we were told to wait by the entrance to the airport for our driver. We were prescribed a twenty-minute wait; it seemed much longer to us, clustered around our bags and desperately tired. Drivers came in, one at a time, and read off a list of places they were headed; interested parties voiced their intention of going along, and struggled to their feet. We were worried we'd miss hearing the name of our station. We were pretty antsy overall, but Victor kept telling us to be patient. It was good advice, but hard to follow.
At long last, we heard the blessed word "station" invoked, and made our exodus behind a driver. He was tall, youngish (in his 30s?) and good looking, but aloof. As far as I know, he never addressed any of us (except perhaps Victor) and didn't smile. He stowed our bags in the back, leaving us to clamber into the shuttle with four other passengers (I believe that at least two of them were from Finland, but I can't remember with exactitude).
The seats were covered with cheap cloth, which had been liberally decorated with cigarette burns and that universal adhesive, duct tape. There weren't seat belts, at least in the seat I was in, as far as I could see (if you think I was going to slip my hand into the gap between seat and backrest, you've another think coming). I settled in against the window.Our driver ascended to his seat, settled a wireless earpiece more comfortable, made a phone call, began a conversation...and we pulled out into traffic. This began my first glimpse of Eastern European driving.
I think the attitude I witnessed was best summed up with the phrase, "Get out of my way, I'm in a hurry." It resembled nothing so much as an entire city on wheels, playing chicken. It wasn't so much that we were driving fast, though we certainly were. Nor was it the fact that our driver seemed engrossed in a deeply personal conversation that seemed to touch, at various points, on someone's love life (perhaps his own). The image of hurtling the wrong way down a lane of traffic will forever be accompanied in my head with the sound of someone making "kissy" noises over the phone.
No, it wasn't really either of those things which was so terrifying. More, it was the anything-goes approach toward traffic laws, coupled with an unspoken belief that it is weak to slow or to stop. To an American who is terrified enough of the driving that her fellow Americans are guilty of, it was incredibly stressful to view the narrow misses and the nonchalant disregarding of posted signs.
In the U.S., too, if one is going to, say, tear a hole in the middle of a thoroughfare, there are signs. Cones, signs, netting, barricades: all serve to give the driver a heads-up that there might be an obstacle ahead. Not so in Hungary! Construction there was marked by nothing more than a hole in the ground and a few guys with shovels. Those not currently at work leaned on their shovels, calmly taking in the spectacle of a flood of traffic headed directly at them and then splintering into a couple of directions as drivers sought to detour without stepping on the brake pedal. We made one such detour at full speed down a gravel alleyway and then flirted with death as we drove the wrong way down the street. When this path, too, was blocked by construction, our driver solved the problem by roaring around the pit in the pavement into a lane of oncoming traffic.
In a shorter time than it has taken me to write this, we arrived at our destination (or so Victor said; I couldn't see a train station anywhere). Scarcely had our feet touched concrete before a cab driver was in front of us, asking, "Taxi, please?" We shook our heads, trying to indicate that we were taking the train. He shook his head, repeating, "Taxi, please?" Even Victor wasn't getting through until he mentioned "Chop," the city in Ukraine where we were headed. At this, the man shook his head again with a rueful grin and puffed out his cheeks, as though to indicate either that the distance was much too great or that we were idiots to go to Chop.
But for an "Entrance" sign, I should never have known that there was a train station here. The entry itself was sandwiched in with other small shops, all looking much like a tourist shopping area in any old city. There was construction here, too, on the sidewalk, or at least the plywood and netting one expects for construction. No one seemed to be working on anything at the moment, though.
The inside of the station, grimy and crowded as it was, was an exhilarating sight for this novice traveler. The roof seemed taller than tall, and the room, open in some areas to the outside and closed in with glass in others, was massive, airy, and bright. Shops were crowded along either side, with a wide avenue on either side of the train bays, to allow plenty of foot traffic. And plenty of foot traffic there was: people feet and pigeon feet, mostly. It was a bustling place.
Victor found the ticket shop and bought us four tickets. We could not buy one-way tickets, but instead had to buy round-trip ones at roughly $44 apiece. Our train wasn't due to leave for about another two hours, at 3 p.m. We decided that lunch was well in order, so we found a table in the 'patio' area of the Baross Hall restaurant.
The waiter, a just-over-middle-aged man with graying hair and a portly stature, recommended the 'veal in paprika with gnocchi,' with the explication that it was "real Hungarian papprikash." Victor and I decided to split a portion of that, while Bev and Kassie stuck with soup (Bev's was chicken and Kassie's a garlic cream). I can only speak personally for the papprikash, which was very very good. The paprika was liberally used, and it was spicier and more robust than typical American knock-offs of papprikash.
After we finished lunch, Kassie wandered about a bit to take some pictures, while the rest of us thought that dessert would be nice. Accordingly, we ordered ice cream and sorbet. Mine was black currant, peach, and lemon sorbets, garnished with fresh currants. It was pleasing to both the eye and the palate, but the currants were far more tart than I had expected.
Sitting in the restaurant was quite nice, really. Other than occasionally dropping by to see whether we required anything further, the waiter basically left us alone--no hovering to try to hurry us out. Other people sat at the tables and read, or smoked, or smoked and read. Conversation was often desultory between those at the tables, and I didn't see a lot of people rushing along. It was a very different pace, and one I would come to get used to.
At 2:30, we decided to make an effort to find our train. This wasn't difficult, as the sign indicated that it was waiting on Track 7. The only complication was in finding the one car that would make the journey all the way to 'Chop.' Even this, though frustrating, was not hard...we just had to trudge all the way to the other end of the train from where we were. There was a little difficulty then, as the train doors seemed to have a mind of their own, and closed before we could get on, though a good fifteen minutes remained until the train was to leave! They opened again, possibly with help from an annoyed-looking fellow passenger, and we boarded.
The car was very spare inside. It was clean enough and not uncomfortable, but there was nothing in the way of luxuries. Still, it was nice to contemplate a leisurely and roomy ride after all of the airplane travels. Kassie and I sat in seats that faced each other across a small half-table under a huge window.
As we were settling in, a youngish gentleman entered the car and, hearing our voices, enquired as to whether we spoke English. He, too, it transpired, was heading to 'Chop,' and he wanted to make sure that he was on the right car. We told him that, as far as we knew, this was it, and we invited him to sit with us. He accepted our invitation, and sat next to Kassie. His name, he said, was Cédric, and he was from Nancy, France. He was headed to play chess in a tournament at the university in Uzhgorod.
A little later, the doors closed again, this time for the duration of the journey, and we were off.