My first experience with any Hungarian was a good one. This is a bad way to start out writing a blog, because I’m sure you’re awaiting some deluge of racist comments about Hungarians as a people or ethnic group. Don’t worry, I’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll start with something positive.
When I was 12, we moved to Denver. My mom accepted a two-bedroom apartment near her office with the craziest orange shag carpet you could ever imagine; some leftover token from the Seventies. It matched the gold-flecked formica countertops and harvest-gold appliances. Our landlord was a gentle man in his late sixties, a survivor of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and one of Denver’s many refugees from the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. He could fix anything and was quite an amazing person. Here’s to you, Steve Tyghe- I hope you’re still doing okay.
So... in the summer of 1997, Five Iron Frenzy played its first two shows in Europe. This opportunity came with only one real problem, and that is that they were two weeks apart. Well, this is only a problem if you have a real job or some sort of actual responsibility that goes beyond A. Not forgetting your lyrics, and B. Not breaking any bones on stage because you are considered “uninsurable” as a musician. We chose to look at the silver lining in this cloud by buying the discounted Eurail passes offered up to anyone under twenty-six, and just decided to wander freely across as much of the continent as time would allow. We made it only one day together as an eight-person Ska band traveling in our standard, loose, haphazard way before we were sick of each other, and broke apart into our usual factions. Keith, Micah, and Leanor went south to Rome, Dennis- the great introvert that he was- went alone to Great Britain, Scott and his wife Stephanie went to France- and Team One went to Berlin.
Team One, as I have explained in a previous blog, consisted of Andy, our drummer, Brad, our trumpet player, and myself. We were somehow always together, because this kind of thing happened so frequently. It was almost protocol. The band would try and do something together and then after about half an hour of trying to find some place to eat that everyone agreed on- we couldn’t stand each other anymore.
So, Team One headed out to Berlin. There’s some crazy story about Brad and Andy sleeping the night away while I was being mauled by some hot German girl against my will- that I’ll save for another day- but long story short, it was crazy. We wandered around Berlin for a few days drinking beer and eating various wursts and bread products from the street vendors, living like kings. Well, as much like kings as our $1,164.66 Five Iron Frenzy salaries could allow. Best moment in Berlin: buying a David Hasselhof album, IN GERMANY. Worst moment in Berlin: Leaving my David Hasselhof album in a restaurant 10 minutes later.
After a few days, we moved on to Munich. And... it really was pretty much the same thing. We ate about 42 different kinds of hot dogs, drank beer, wandered around to various sights and museums, pushed each other into some bushes, and had an all-around great time. Best Moment in Munich: Andy, trying to tell an American girl in broken German that he was an American. Worst moment in Munich: Andy leaving on his own for Switzerland.
He wanted to meet up with a friend of his, a former exchange student to Wheat Ridge High School, from Geneva. What that meant to Brad and me was trying to conquer most of Europe- alone. We set out using a method we had been told was the best way to travel Europe on a budget: getting a sleeping car instead of paying for a hotel. Did I mention that we only made $1,164.66 a month? (That was before taxes, by the way, which- in whatever governmental hell of a loophole that put us in, made us self-employed. Our final take-home pay, for being in the second most popular of Christian Ska bands in the 1990s, was about $900 a month. Sorry for whining.)
So we signed up for this sleeper car thing. What we had imagined, after spending a week in Germany, was German efficiency- sleek, linear, functional, quiet, and lightly smelling of progress. What it was in actuality, was some serious leftover Eastern Bloc bullcrap. Number one- there was no air conditioning. Yes, Eastern Europe is just as humid as the Eastern U.S., and also, it was still July. And, it was 1997. Modern air conditioning had been a thing since 1902. Number two- hey, let’s open this window up so that the Hungarian guy on the bottom bunk can chain smoke all night, because there’s nothing more Hungarian than letting Native Americans exact their revenge on you by getting lung cancer. Number three- whose idea was it to stack these bunks three high on the jankiest Soviet train they could dig out of Uzbekistan? Lord knows how good Five Iron would have been, had Brad and I not gotten brain damage from all the shaken baby syndrome we experienced that night. And, Number Four- has the guy on the bottom bunk chosen not to bathe at all for this decade? Yes. It smelled like a colostomy bag left in the Phillip Morris bathroom.
Somehow, I drew the short straw and got the top bunk. I had imagined the rhythmic motion of the train lulling me to sleep. In reality I could barely doze off amidst the choking, smoke filled gasping times in that jerking, Soviet-era, missile. This was only interrupted every fifteen minutes by the deafening screams of a train passing us, about three feet from my head. Best Moment on that train ride: Anything I have had to endure since that point in my life is easily better. Worst part of that train ride: that entire train ride. Seriously. I would fall asleep in that smoke and B.O.- filled deathtrap and then some train would just be screaming by my head. If I closed the window, we would surely have suffocated. And by the way, it wasn’t normal B.O. It was like cleaning the bottom of a hamster's cage that has eaten nothing but garlic and used diapers for twelve years. It was that bad.
When we got there, Brad just rolled out of his bunk like he had spent the night sleeping at the Hyatt. Because- he had spent the whole night sleeping. The smoke and B.O. had only wafted straight up to me, and apparently, the shrieking death trains passing in the night had not phased him at all. I was literally shaking from the adrenaline bender that trying to sleep had been. We grabbed our backpacks and stumbled out into the train station in Downtown Budapest.
Named after a combination of the cities Buda and Pest in 1873, Budapest was renowned as a center of culture and an emerging world market soon after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. What it was not so renowned for, is that in July of 1997, it was a sweaty, dirty, cesspool where the cops were hustling all foreigners who were stupid enough to take the top bunk in one of their sleeper cars. In some ill-fated daze, Brad and I turned down an empty corridor of the train station, thinking that at least one of them might lead us outside.
The difficulty with everything being written in Hungarian, is that no one knows Hungarian. Not even the phrasebook of Hungarian phrases knows Hungarian. Throughout the rest of Europe, you, as an accomplished English speaker, may extract some resemblance from phrases read in any Romantic or Germanic language. Luckily, English happens to be a marriage of both. If you read the word Vater in German, or Vader in Dutch, something in your brain might tell you this means father. Toilette almost certainly means toilet, and if a Spaniard asks you “¿Dónde están mis pantalones”, you’ve got a bonus track for a Five Iron Frenzy EP. But Hungarian is a completely different animal. Technically it is called Magyar. For the record, its closest living relative is spoken only by some backwards, dirt-eating tribe in the middle of Siberia. So basically, only Hungarians know that language. And thusly, Brad and I stumbled into the wrong hallway in Budapest.
The first problem is that, aside from one blinking fluorescent bulb at the end of that hallway, it was pretty dark in there. The second problem is that, even if I had gotten a good night’s sleep and wasn’t hepped up on adrenaline, we were still a couple of dumb Americans. We pawed our way down to the end of the corridor where we started to make out the faint glow of what looked almost like daylight. Well, daylight plus. Plus a couple of shadows from the two friendly Budapest Policemen lurking at the end, waiting to hustle anyone half-witted enough to travel there.
They were two policemen, we realized as they approached us, hands lightly resting on their service pistols, AK-47s gently slung over their backs. “Mit idióták csinál itt?”, said the first one. “Umm... do you speak English?”, we plead in complete bewilderment. The second one turned to the first with an impish sideways grin. “You’re going wrong way,” he said flatly. They both turned to us smiling. “Fifty dollars,” said the English-speaking one with a grin. Brad and I gasped. Was this really happening? “Fifty dollars or we take to jail. With dogs.”
Neither of us wanted any part of “jail with dogs”, so we dug as deep as we could into our wallets and quickly handed it over. One hundred US Dollars in 1997 was worth approximately 26,643 Hungarian Forints. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it seemed like an awful lot of money by the expressions on their faces. “You. Go. Out that way,” said policeman number two pointing, as the first one counted through our wad of ones and fives. We quickly turned and sped out of there, careful to chose the next hallway by how many people seemed to be using it as an exit as well. A hundred bucks, I thought. I wonder what kind of a good night’s sleep we could have gotten for that in Budapest?