My eldest son offered to take me abroad for a few days as a thank-you for helping him with his business. The only provisos being that the return flight shouldn’t cost more than fifty quid and the beer should be no more than a pound a pint when we got there.
So, Eastern Europe it was then.
Hungary has a bit of a history of being occupied, other than by Englishmen wanting to get bladdered on a tenner. For nearly two hundred years the incumbent invaders were the Ottoman Turks, then the Austrians thought they’d have a go. During the Second World War the Nazis moved in and supported a vicious local fascist-franchise called the Arrow Cross (similar politics, similar logo). Once both they and the Nazis were evicted, the Russians took up vacant possession of the property. They made themselves at home and didn’t surrender the lease until 1991.
All these problems with dictatorial invading forces may well come from being landlocked, i.e. there’s no natural barrier and plenty of back doors to sneak through. It is also bordered by seven other countries, so there’s always going to be at least one noisy neighbour wanting to kick off. Therefore, if you are ever looking to buy a country, make sure it has a coastline to build castles on and have a word with the locals about the ASBO status of Mr and Mrs Mental next door.
If your bear all that in mind, the city of Budapest has only really been free to do what it wants for the last twenty-five years. So you have two populations; a younger one that is going a bit nuts on all the new nightlife and an older one that still thinks there will be a knock on the door from the secret police if they fart on a Tuesday. There’s also going to be a proportion on the older population that actually worked for the administration of repression, and I’m sure they won’t want to talk about it.
Consequently, and probably understandably, the older ones can be a bit surly. I may be generalising a bit here, but I can only say as I find. Admittedly I only have two examples to back up my hypothesis.
The first was an unlicensed taxi driver that wanted to fleece us for ten times the going rate. He threatened to call the Police if we didn’t pay. As he was doing all his threatening in Hungarian he could well have been summoning up his old mates from the Stasi. I’m sure he’d have had much more help from them in the good old days. Fortunately the Police in Hungary’s modern democracy see unlicensed taxi drivers as little more than tea-leaves*. Be warned, these villains paint their cars to look just like real taxis. Hence, when you’ve had seventeen pints of Budapest’s finest, you aren’t going to be checking the exact pantone shade of yellow.
The second example was the steward on our hotel boat. For fourteen pounds a night I don’t require the staff to serve, smile and give me a massage with extras… but I do expect freedom of access to sausages. The breakfast bar had a limit of one sausage per guest, as was forcibly pointed out to me by our finger-wagging steward. I could see him in a different uniform too.
Budapest did have a previous spell of relative freedom at the end of the nineteenth century and, just like today’s younger population are doing, it went off on a madly creative spurt. The result was an amazing outbreak of art nouveau architecture. Despite the best efforts of the country’s subsequent invaders to blow it all up, a lot of it is still sitting there. There are organic flourishes everywhere; apartment blocks, spa hotels, train stations. It certainly has a lot more than Brussels, the more established are-nouveau tourist destination. Before this becomes too widely known perhaps the Belgians should have a go at invading, they’d be about the only ones that haven’t.
*Tea-leaf: This is Cockney Rhyming Slang for ‘Thief’. If you’ve never heard of this strange language before, here are some other examples:
Whistle: Suit (whistle and flute)..as in “I’m wearing my new whistle.”
Marbles: Crabs (Marble Slabs)..as in “My marbles are itching.”
Oh my God, what have we done? (I blame The Mail and The Sun)…as in BREXIT .