In case you thought that traveling in Europe was yesterday’s news, I’m here to tell you that there’s lots of adventure yet to be had. Just because Mark, Frank and Guilder have all gone off to meet that great currency speculator in the sky, and crossing the border is little different than driving from Delaware to Pennsylvania, that doesn’t mean that all of the thrill is gone. After all, the language barrier is still with us, and that’s not going away anytime soon. If you leave Slovenia, for example, you hit a Romance language to the west, a Germanic language to the north, a Slavic language to the east and a Finno-Ugric language to…the…well, also to the east…but also north. You know what, here’s a map:
Yes, it looks like a chicken running. Not convinced? How about now?
Still not convinced? Well, then I don’t know what to tell you, but 2 millions Slovenians can’t all be wrong. I’ve even got a good friend who wants to print up t-shirts with this outline and a picture of an actual chicken running and write, ‘Let’s go!’ and ‘Let’s eat!’ below the respective images (and in Slovene it rhymes!). So don’t be the guy who can’t see the sailboat among all of the trippy, wavy lines. It’s a chicken. Running.
The funny thing is that it’s running east, toward Croatia and Hungary. This does not reflect Slovenia’s socio-political ambitions. These are not the places Slovenians want to go, unless they want an awesome vacation. Slovenia is a very westward-looking land, so much so that I’ve had some Slovenians describe themselves and their fellow countrymen as Slavic Austrians. I won’t mention any names. In my opinion, though, the geography has a humourous result. In the map above, do you see how the Italian city of Trieste is positioned just under the rump of the chicken? Well, some Slovenians are still bitter about losing Trieste to Italy after the First World War, and I think this rendering of the map speaks to that in a passive-aggressive way that only geopolitics can. That, or it was just a happy accident.
But if languages aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other stuff to hold your attention as you travel through Europe. History, architecture, gorgeous and diverse topography, and the charming belief each country holds that they are the center of the universe (and yes, they still believe this even though some of them have been to the US!). No place seems to demonstrate this conviction quite as well as Hungary. And don’t throw France at me. Honestly, there are probably lots of places that demonstrate it better, but I was just in Hungary, this post is about Hungary (I promise, it really is about to be), and it’s Hungary that I want to discuss.
A friend of mine, we’ll call him ‘Hamilton T. Burberry, III’, and I rented a car and drove to Hungary for the May holidays. Hamilton has a friend who lives in Budapest, whom I have dubbed ‘Reginald Elroy McMasterson, Esq.’, and the plan was to meet up with him and spend a few days traveling around Hungary. Another friend of Hamilton’s, a French girl who shall now and in perpetuity on this blog be known as ‘June’, was going to meet us the following day in the little southern city of Szeged. No, that’s not misspelled, it’s just Hungarian. Hey, at least it’s not ‘Szigetszentmiklós’.
Now that you have the cast of characters, we’re ready to begin. Let me start by saying that I love just about everything Hungarian, the obvious exception of Viktor Orban being hardly worth mentioning. The language is incredible, the food is delicious (like an island of spiciness in the bland waters of Central Europe) and the cities are gorgeous. Hungarians know this. This is nothing new. It’s why they put pictures of badasses on their currency:
I mean just look at that guy! And look at the word for ‘500’! It’s a well known fact that this individual made his enemies explode just by walking up to them and saying, ‘Ötszáz forint’. Then he’d smirk, just like he’s doing here. That’s why they put him on the 500 forint bill, and that’s why Hungary is amazing.
So we were having breakfast the morning of our trip down to Szeged from Budapest (Reginald had made delicious pancakes!), and during the discussion of how to spend the next few days, Hamilton suggested that we hit up Romania. Timișoara, famous for touching off the 1989 revolution in Romania (and only slightly less famous for being the first city in Europe with electric street lights!), lies only two hours or so away from Szeged, and as none of us had been there it seemed like a cool side trip. Now, had there been Hungarians present, they would have asked us why on earth we wanted to leave Hungary, and further, why we wanted to go to Romania. Reginald had traveled to Bucharest earlier in the year, to much taunting from his Hungarian friends. If you live in paradise, why leave? I contemplated the milk carton on the table, which was emblazoned from base to really-hard-to-open-properly-without-fingernails-so-that-you’re-almost-always-tearing-it spout with the red, white and green of the Hungarian flag. Yes, this was a proud country. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a milk carton in Amurca. And yet, not being Hungarians, we were thrilled by the idea of going to Romania.
We drove to Szeged, a beautiful little town that offers cotton candy to any who will have it. Yes, I had cotton candy. I was beside myself with happiness. Later, in a different Hungarian city, I had it again, and I saw a llama…no, I saw two llamas. Hungary wins forever. So we picked up June, after a lovely afternoon of wandering around Szeged, and headed east. It wasn’t long before we hit the border and what appeared to be an abandoned collection of immigration booths. None of us could quite remember whether Romania had dispensed with border checks when it joined the EU in 2007, but as we approached the booths the entire area had that eerie ghost-town quality. We shrugged and drove on, only to be stopped at the next set of booths, which weren’t empty at all. No bother, we were prepared, weren’t we?
We never made it to Romania. I knew that the suspense must be killing you, so I went ahead and got it over with. Here’s what happened. June, Hamilton and I all had our passports with us, and Reginald had his official Hungarian residence permit, with which he had traveled to Romania once before, albeit by train. Whether going by car subjects travelers to stricter rules, or whether these particular Romanians found us terribly suspicious, we’ll never know for sure. Passports and resident card were handed over, and a very serious looking Romanian woman shook her head and asked for Reginald’s passport. He tried to explain that he didn’t have it but that in the past the card had been enough. It wasn’t enough for her. She asked again for his passport, and he once more lamented that he did not have it. She looked at her colleague for help, who then leaned into the car and said that what they really needed at that moment was to see Reginald’s passport. This continued a few more times before we were finally sent back the way we came, and somehow, on this side of the empty booths leading into Hungary, there was tremendous activity.
You know how in the movies there’s always that guy who makes the sarcastic comment to tempt fate and ends up predicting exactly what’s going to happen next? I was that guy. It occurred to me that we could meet a similar difficulty going back into Hungary, a country which, by all accounts, we had never actually left. So I made the crucial mistake of saying this out loud, followed by the requisite laugh of kiddery that angers fate both on and off the silver screen. In other words, we encountered some problems.
An almost exact, although certainly more frustrating, reenactment of our border conversation with the Romanians ensued. We handed over our passports and resident card; smile, smile, smile, frown. Reginald was asked for his passport. Reginald, in a theretofore unmatched display of Hungarian language prowess, explained that he did not have it. They told him he needed it. He said that that might be so, but he did not have it. There followed a period of much shaking of heads on the part of the Hungarians and much shrugging of shoulders on the part of Reginald. There appeared a colleague who, after conferring for a moment with his compatriot, politely informed Reginald that he would need to show his passport. And so on. Then the Hungarians got clever. Just how did you get into Romania in the first place without your passport then, hmm? And Reginald explained, in Hungarian and in English, just what had happened. We had never been in Romania. They had turned us away. We had never technically left Hungary at all, in fact, so there was really nowhere to go back to. Couldn’t we just drive on? No, we could not.
Our passports and Reginald’s useless-for-travel-to-and-from-Romania-by-car residence permit were not returned. ‘Confiscated’ was the word that crossed my mind, although I wasn’t particularly worried. These things always had a way of working themselves out. Nevertheless, the mood was a bit tense. Reginald apologized profusely for not bringing his passport, as he had at the Romanian border as well, and we all assured him that this was nonsense. How could he have known it only works on trains? We were then directed to pull off to the side and wait, and Reginald got out to talk to the border guards. After a few minutes, June suggested that I join him and keep him company. It was just as well that I did because no one else was. He stood by one of the booths as the border patrol busied themselves with everything but him and our documents. And I get it. It’s busy at the border, we had been silly, sort of (in their minds most certainly-first and foremost we had made the ludicrous decision to leave Hungary, after all), and there was probably some kind of procedure involved that we were unaware of.
After twenty minutes or so a man walked up to us, handed over our documents and pointed back into Hungary with a friendly, almost apologetic look on his face. And that was it. Anticlimactic? I thought so. I didn’t tell the border guard this, though. I didn’t need my story to be spicy Hungarian style. Regular old Slovenian sour cream style was fine with me. What was funny, however, was the fact that they had stamped our passports coming back into Hungary. This led us to an interesting philosophical question: where had we gone? We were never in Romania and no one had stamped us out of Hungary, so where had we spent that last half hour?
In the past I’ve always wondered about this no-man’s-land between checkpoints and asked myself just how you define that space. Is it subject to international law? Some kind of amalgamation of the laws of both countries? If a tree falls there, and no one is around to claim it, who gets the wood? But in our case we had officially reentered a place that we had never left, and that was strange to consider. It’s like that scene in Being John Malcovich when John Cusak (ha! Another John Cusak movie!) is inside of John Malcovich and then reenters him, finding the entire world populated solely with John Malcoviches. So it seemed possible that we would find a world populated only with Junes, Hamiltons, Reginalds and Peters…but we did not. Good thing, too.
So Romania didn’t happen that trip, but that was okay. We had a grand time in Hungary, and I look forward to writing more about that in a future post. For now, just remember that if you’ve gotten used to the lack of border controls in the EU and you’re looking for that extra stamp to fill those empty passport pages, Romania has a lot to offer in that department. I also hear that they have vampires.