Last week, we left humble Bulgaria for the ornate charm of Real Europe. We spent a week in Hungary, and I say Real Europe because Budapest has everything that people associate with Europe when they fantasize about studying abroad, or “finding themselves” on a journey of self-discovery with topless beaches.
Budapest is usually linked with Prague and Vienna as one of three uniquely beautiful European cities. Hungary’s capital is truly breathtaking: a blend of ornate Gothic splendor, baroque Hapsburg grace, and the charm of art nouveau. Budapest boasts a railway station designed by Gustave Eiffel, and its incredible parliament building makes the mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein look like a puddle of piss. Ludwig II spent the duration of his reign and much of the royal Bavarian treasury building otherworldly castles—Neuschwanstein inspired the castle in Disney’s Cinderella—and NOW HE LOOKS LIKE AN IDIOT.
As our bus wove through Serbia towards Hungary, we noticed how much the scenery resembled what we’re used to in Bulgaria. Along the highway were countless signs in Turkish and red-with-white-crescent Turkish flags, advertising Turkish food and roadside mosques for weary truckers on long hauls from Anatolia. There were even separate lanes for trucks coming from Turkey at the border, a sign of how dependent the Balkans are on trade and commerce from our regional power. As our friend observed, kind of like a mini-China.
But Alhamdulillah for the Turkish influence, because by the time you get to Hungary, everything is German-inflected. Hungarian food is delicious, but it’s very Central European. After a few days of eating animal fats, fry, carbs, and starch, you’re ready for plain yogurt again. Eating in Hungary starts to feel like dining at an upscale county fair, and funnel cake gets old fast.
The richness of the food and the grandiose architecture are awe-inspiring, especially coming from Sofia. The perverse course of history conspired to make Sofia a warren of Brutalist Soviet-era concrete bloks, with the occasional Stalinist Gothic and Byzantine revivalism thrown in. To put it euphemistically, living in Sofia has a certain lo-fi charm. In contrast, Budapest is very developed, with first-world touches like the availability of pour-over coffee and toilets that can handle paper. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when every local you encounter speaks excellent English. A testament to both Budapest’s status and the bizarre and inscrutable nature of the Hungarian language.
Budapest’s stature isn’t just written on the façades of its buildings, it’s on the street. After driving through 3 countries in this neighborhood, I noticed that the trash bins are a good indicator of whether the coffee is imported from Ethiopia or dispensed from outdoor Nescafé vending machines. The ritzier parts of Europe have new trash and recycling bins, while these Czech-made aluminum whales are omnipresent in Bulgaria and Serbia.
Hungary’s roads are full of Mercedeses and new Volkswagens driven by impeccably dressed people. I even saw a Hummer H3, which must be an even bigger middle-finger to one’s fellow motorists in a continent where gas is €8 a gallon. A week went by before I saw a Lada sedan in Budapest, which are ubiquitous in Bulgaria. For reference, the Lada is a car manufactured in the Soviet Union, and that’s not even the most humble means of conveyance on Sofia’s roads (that honor goes to the horse/donkey cart).
Of course, Hungary is a Central/Eastern European country, so it’s afflicted with a certain inferiority complex. Most countries in this neighborhood have spent a few hundred years getting conquered by the Ottomans, the Germans, the Russians, and Dracula, so they’re understandably quick to point out their country’s inventions and cultural contributions. Check out this infographic on Hungary to see a typical expression of this: it starts out lamenting Hungary’s obscurity, and links its poor track record in numerous wars to its high suicide rate and alcohol consumption. Despite this, though, Hungarians are proud of the ballpoint pen, their 12 Nobel prizes, and an auspicious victory over the Soviets in water polo in the 1956 Olympics
And sure, plenty of people don’t know where Hungary is. Take this dopey Mormon missionary who, despite having visited Germany, only knew “that’s not South America!” Good one, you’re gonna make a great Sister-Wife.
However, if any country around here has no right to bemoan their obscurity, it’s Hungary. Last year, CNN called Budapest the world’s second-best city. Some of Budapest’s nicknames are “the Heart of Europe, “the Pearl of the Danube,” “the Paris of the East,” and “the Capital of Freedom” (the last of which is attested to by their 6’ bronze statue of Ronnie Reagan). Wes Anderson’s last movie used the name Budapest to invoke the full range of old-world charms nostalgically associated with a bygone Europe.
Albania and Macedonia would probably kill to be as “unknown” as Hungary. Likewise for the (very real) country of Montenegro: countless reviews of 2006’s Bond reboot Casino Royale referred to the former Yugoslav republic as fictional. Given that even Roger Ebert—and his editors—don’t believe in Montenegro, Hungarian bellyaching sounds less like genuine grief than humble-braggy false modesty. If Hungary weren’t firmly pegged to idyllic European beauty in the American imagination, why is the movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel?
So if there’s a second-world Europe and a first-world Europe, Hungary’s probably in the latter category. Huelo and I got an object lesson in this when we tried to leave on Monday, July 7th. To catch our 5:30 am return bus to Sofia, we were on the Metro by 4:50, a 10-minute ride to Budapest’s central bus depot. We got to our spot by 5:05, and we waited. 5:30 passed and the next bus was queued up, and we waited. We waited an hour, then three, until the office opened and Huelo could try to get some answers.
Metro Turizm didn’t have a presence in the bus station, so Huelo tried to get answers from the information kiosk. The woman behind the Lucite window called the company in Sofia and got no answer, so she tried a few more times. On the fourth attempt, someone picked up and hung up immediately. After the tenth try, someone generously picked up and answered. The woman passed Huelo the phone, cord winding through the small hole underneath the security window, and Huelo was told that the bus was already in Serbia.
We waited another few hours for another Sofia-bound bus, and unsuccessfully begged the driver to take us home. We got back to our friend’s apartment at 4 pm, destined to miss the next few days of work and desperate to see our cat. The next day, Huelo called the company in Sofia to find out when the next bus would be. The third person she called, a woman in the Czech Republic, screamed at her and lectured her on how to successfully locate and board a bus. The second person told us the next bus left Wednesday, the fourth person told us the bus left Thursday. One person told us we could use our tickets, another told us we’d have to buy new ones. With one exception, everyone treated Huelo like a confidence artist caught mid-grift, a liar whose con was trying to get home using a service we’d already paid for.
We had to enlist the help of two other people who made about 6 more phone calls. After our friend Rossi called the manager, we managed to get something approximating a straight answer. He, like everyone else, refused to believe that the bus driver would simply be too lazy or incompetent to leave Budapest at the time the ticket says. It’s particularly strange that no one believed us, because it was classic Bulgarska rabota.
Bulgarska rabota—“Bulgarian work”— describes the shoddy, careless work that’s stereotypically associated with this country’s ethos. It’s similar to how Americans disparage something by calling it Hillbilly this or Redneck that, except it’s endemic to the whole country. Bulgarska rabota is something that only exists when you’re not the one doing it; solely its victims diagnose it.
One of the things I love most about Bulgaria is the sense of freedom. Unfortunately, this freedom extends to the freedom of a bus driver to blow through his stop, leaving you stranded two countries away from home. When this happens, don’t expect the “customer is always right” treatment from a mustachioed Ralph Fiennes with nightmares of bad Yelp reviews—this isn’t that Europe.