My First Night in Budapest: I Meet László
A mysterious Hungarian man named László wanted to talk to me. He had given me his number.
I had spent an entire day and night getting to Budapest by air, connecting at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and going from there to Liszt Ferenc Airport, about twenty miles south of central Budapest. I crashed in an airport hotel, slept till nearly noon, and wandered through cold drizzle through an industrial park to hop on a bus to the nearest subway station. László would have been proud of me.
A subway car full of Hungarian people, looking uncertainly at the tired and fierce-looking American man in their midst, gave me little encouragement. Was it possible that one of them knew László? I wanted to ask them about the guy, but I was a bit shy and still very tired.
Finally I emerged from the underground at Ferenciek tere, a station near a town square of the same name. Evidently I had gone through a time warp of some kind. Except for the Japanese cars on the street and a few spoilsports jogging in spandex suits listening to their iPods through earbuds, I had taken a great leap 130 years back in time! I had always wanted to know how it felt to live in the nineteenth century. Now, for four days, I would have the privilege. László would make or break me—if I could ever find the guy.
László owned several flats in a complex called the Central Budapest Apartments, and he had kindly agreed to rent one of them to me for the tidy sum of around $220. Actually, it wasn’t $220, but some ungodly sum in Hungarian Forints. Something like sixty thousand of those worthless little Forints would change hands between László and me if I could ever find his elusive place.
I walked up and down the streets, but I found nothing familiar about the year 1880. I was forced to do something I didn’t want to do: whip out my cell phone, start using an international global plan for what would surely be several thousand dollars a minute, and actually call László since I couldn’t figure out where the hell his place was.
“Meet me at the Catholic church,” László instructed me tersely. A man of few words, this László. I began to suspect that maybe he was a spy. I’d end up with a good hotel deal, but by tomorrow night I’d be floating face-first down the middle of the Danube.
I was sorry László had been so quick to press the “end call” button, because when I looked around me I saw about six churches. I decided Budapest must be a very religious place. I did some quick math and determined that for every ten living beings in the town there was one huge cathedral.
“Must be some really big bills in the collection plates,” I surmised.
I saw somebody waving at me by one of the churches, the one that was Catholic. I hadn’t noticed the denominations of the other churches, but I imagine one was Southern Baptist, one was Jehovah’s Witness, one was African Methodist Episcopalian and one was Latter Day Saints.
I knew the man waving at me had to be László. He really did look like a spy. I was scared.
“Good aff-tair-noon,” he greeted me in a thick accent and a mischievous smile. He was wearing a coat that I suspected had a gun in one of its interior pockets. “Follow me and I vill show you to your apartment.”
He had laser-like blue eyes, a pasty complexion and a receding hairline; about forty years old, of medium height. He pulled out a hornet’s nest of keys from his pocket and led me to a large black wrought iron gate which opened into an old arcade covered with small floor tiles.
“Zees is open during veekdays,” he promised me. Today was Sunday. He fidgeted with his hornet’s nest and within five seconds found a key which opened the gate. He yanked it shut behind us and we walked to a creaky elevator which had room for two thin midgets.
“Tight sqveeze,” László admitted and then László was pressed against me and I could smell in his breath all the spicy goulashes he had been eating for the last three days. On the fourth floor I peeled myself off of him and limped out of the elevator. He whipped out another key from his large collection and opened a black gate in front of a door to a suite of rooms. Then he selected yet another key to open the heavy wooden door.
“You vill only need von key,” he instructed me, then leaned his shoulder into the bulky door to push it open. “You dun’t need to lock zee gate.”
As soon as we got inside and László began showing me around his place, I saw that he was really a great big blue-eyed Hungarian teddy bear. He whipped out maps of Budapest. “Dun’t go there,” he circled one district with a pen. “Too ex-pen-seev. Turr-eest TRAPS!... About zee bath spas… My personal favor-eet is Széchenyi. It’s right here. You take zee Metro train. Gellért Baths, you can walk zhere, but not as exciting and costs more.... Király is smaller…”
“You’re a good guy, László,” I admitted to him, and I jerked out my wallet, turned it over, and emptied all the bills in it onto the table for his immediate consumption. Suddenly I became László’s best buddy. American Turr-eest Extraordinaire!
“Sank you very much, Meester Craw-ford,” he shook my hand. And then I was off to the races. It was almost dark already! I needed to explore some of the town on foot.
Within a few minutes I was crossing the Danube River on the Elisabeth Bridge and admiring the romantic charm of the old town as it prepared for evening. “Budapest” is a misnomer of sorts. It is actually a combination of the names of the original towns on opposite sides of the river: Pest, on the left bank, which is today the more populated and developed side; and Buda, on the right bank, which is hilly and less commercial. Not until 1873 were the two consolidated into a single municipality (along with a smaller town named Óbuda). Once I had crossed to the Buda side I wanted to scale the hill to the Buda Castle (Budavári Palota), where I hoped to enjoy the nighttime view of the Hungarian capital city in lights.
It was misty now, and cool: the first week of December. The wet stones of the fortress glistened under the lights. I climbed to the top of a long flight of stairs and there in the chilly mist beheld a wondrous sight: the nineteenth century reincarnated, full of cathedrals, palaces and museums. The Castle itself, originally built on its current site in 1265, is now a national gallery.
The mist became rain and with umbrella-less determination I went back down to the Danube again and crossed it to Pest on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Originally built in 1849, this was the first permanent span over the Danube in the entirety of Hungary. It was destroyed by the Nazi army in 1945 and rebuilt after World War 2.
Nearby I saw a Christmas festival in Elizabeth Square and nearly got mesmerized by all the festivity underneath the shadow of the city’s largest Catholic church, the 1905 St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István Bazilika). At an unguarded moment I lost control of my senses and began to reach for my wallet out of sheer carelessness.
Then I remembered. László had circled this district on the map and told me not to get suckered here.
I kept my wallet in my pants and hurried back to my flat. The smiling spirit of László hovered over me.
© 2015 James Crawford