By Mona LaVigne ©2002
Budapest is divided in half by the Danube River. To the west lies Buda, the lush, green country. It is mostly residential, the rolling hills lined with large, post-WWII homes. My friends, István and Gabi, live in Buda. Their home is almost like a mansion: vast rooms filled with expensive European art, a huge kitchen complete with a live-in cook, three bathrooms, each with a bathtub, shower and toilet, and the master bath with a Jacuzzi. In their backyard there is a cherry tree, and when the wind blows it throws fat, juicy cherries on the ground.
When I went to Budapest to visit István and Gabi a few years ago, I was looking forward to staying in one of their well-decorated bedrooms, reclining in one of their lapis blue bathtubs, and smoking Hungarian hash under the cherry tree at three in the afternoon. As István carried my bags from the airport to the car, Gabi put her arm through mine and said,
"We have the fully-furnished apartment in Pest and we’ve cleaned it up for you. You can stay there and have all the privacy you want. Isn’t that great?"
Pest is on the east side of the Danube. It is a city in every sense of the word. There is a heavy business district, lots of walk-up apartments, department stores, and Vörösmarty Square, an Eastern European version of Times Square, except with less Disney and more outdoor cafés. I had heard about this apartment from Gabi’s letters. I was not looking forward to staying there. I was not renting a car, so I knew I’d have to take public transportation to get around.
When we arrived at the apartment, I saw that the descriptions had hardly done it justice. It was a shithole. A clean shithole. Small and worn, the paint on the walls was flaking off, the mattress in the bedroom was frayed and stained, and the refrigerator was empty, save for some moldy sausage and a half-empty jar of jelly. I was excited to see two bathrooms, but deflated when I realized that one had a toilet and the other a stand-up shower.
"Isn’t it great?" said István, beaming at his wife, who had an equally large smile on her face.
"Yes," I replied, trying to be grateful, "it’s charming."
"There’s a bus across the street that goes straight to Vörösmarty Square," said Gabi. "I have to go to work in the morning, but István can meet you there and show you around the city. How does that sound?"
I looked at the glowing faces of my friends. They were so excited to have me there, how could I show my disappointment? I couldn’t. The crooked clock on the wall read 1:00 AM, and I yawned and said, "Sounds like a plan. It’s late and I want to get some rest so I can really enjoy my first day in Hungary."
They hugged me and István and I agreed to meet in Vörösmarty Square at 9:30 the next morning. They left the keys on the kitchen table and departed, leaving me in solitude, in a foreign country, in a ratty apartment. I was hungry. I opened the refrigerator and took out the bottle of jelly. I found a piece of bread on the bottom shelf, glopped some jelly on it, choked it down, and went to bed.
I dreamed of cherry trees, Chicken Paprikash, Bela Bartók, and Franz Liszt. When I woke in the morning, I ran to the window in the kitchen. No composers and no goulash. Instead, there was an overgrown garden and a trafficless street before me, the only sign of civilization being a weather-beaten bus stop marker. I used the toilet and walked across the apartment to the shower. While getting dressed, I stared at the phone. For the first time in years, I wanted my mommy. I wanted to call her and tell her how I felt betrayed by István and Gabi, how dare they not let me stay with them, and how I didn’t think I could bear staying eight more nights in this little hole of an apartment. I finally decided against it. I had lived in Canada for most of my life, and was not about to call my parents and bitch, just to hear them tell me that didn’t I know that "everyone outside if Canada is inferior? Especially those Eastern Europeans…barbarians…huns."
I left the apartment and headed toward the bus stop. As I was about to cross the street, I saw a dead rabbit in a ditch. A shudder crossed my body. There were no people around, no cars. How did that thing get there?
I stood on the corner and waited for the bus. Every once in a while, a Honda or Toyota would fly by. I saw a few red birds that I did not recognize, and a woman with a stroller ambling down the street. That was it. I could not believe that I was in Pest, the "city side" of Budapest, and there was nothing happening. What if I had told István and Gabi that I would rather have stayed at their house in Buda? Would they have said "no?" Would they have forced me, a guest, to stay in squalor if I were really against the idea?
When the bus finally arrived, I was shocked. It was a model of modern transport: very clean and quiet, no stinky black emissions, soft-looking seats. Of course, I never got a seat, because when the doors swung open, I squeezed my way on. The bus was full. It baffled me: where did all these people come from? While waiting, I had not seen anything in any direction. No other apartment buildings, not many cars, no offices or businesses. Nevertheless, this bus was packed to the hilt. I knew I was going to the last stop, so I shoved my way to the back, hoping to find a strap or poll to hang on to. Once I was stable, I took a deep breath and nearly vomited. Oh, the stench! Were there more dead rabbits on this bus? Were there a hundred babies with shit-filled diapers? Was there a secret burial ground under the seats? Whatever it was, it was all I could do to keep from retching. I began breathing through my mouth but the awful smell seemed to be seeping in through my eyes. I looked around and noticed that nearly everyone else on the bus was a businessman wearing a suit. It was July. There was a woman standing next to me, her hand above mine, clutching the same bar. I turned my head and came face-to-face with her hairy, dripping underarm. I began to cough. On my left was a man in a blue wool suit, his arm extended above his head, the side of his jacket stained with sweat. Every time he would shift his weight, a pungent scent would pound into my face. Everyone on this bus was wearing either wool or gabardine suits. As the bus bounced over the roads, I started to gag. I was tempted to get off and walk, but I had no idea of how to get to Vörösmarty Square by foot. The windows were locked, the fans were off, and no one but me seemed to care. Where was I? It felt like some twisted Twilight Zone, where everyone is doing crazy shit, and I’m the crazy one.
When we pulled into Vörösmarty Square 20 mintues later, everyone got off. I had tried to be the first, but was shoved aside by the sweet-smelling natives. When I finally set foot on the concrete, I almost kissed the ground, so grateful to be outside, not minding that the exhaust from five or six other arriving buses was filling my lungs.
I walked into the main square and saw István in front of a statue, reading the paper.
"Hey," he smiled, when he saw me, "you found it O.K.?"
"Yes," I replied, lighting a cigarette. We started to walk.
"Are you all right, Mona? You look kind of pale."
I stopped in my tracks. "No, István, I am not all right." I told him about the bus ride, sparing no detail of the stink that had plagued me from the moment I got on until I was blessed enough to get back into the fresh air. He was laughing so hard, I wanted to punch him.
"What is so funny?" I demanded.
"I… I’m sorry, Mona…" he said, gasping.
"István, please tell me something. All these people, fuck, they smell so bad. But you…you and I have been in close quarters together. Why don’t you smell like that?"
"Oh my dear," he said, finally catching his breath, "that’s because I was born in America!"
Mona LaVigne is a writer from New York City.