Waiting for the ferry at Mohacs
War damage, Vukovar
Breakfast on the terrasse, Hotel Dunav, Ilok
The week I spent travelling from Budapest south through Hungary and Croatia brought experiences that were especially delighting because of the low expectations I had laid on the whole journey henceforth due to the rumbling doubts about Romania. I had already learned about the positive power of negative expectations, and no story illustrates it quite as well as what happened at the post office near the Budapest hostel. One morning Trish and I were there, waiting as directed at one of the wickets, but no one came to the window. After some time, an old lady behind us moved to another wicket where a blonde woman was sitting behind the window, watching us wait at the other wicket. The old lady bought a stamp for her letter, and Trish and I lined up behind her. Trish handed over her postcards. One bundle for Canada, which the woman stamped and threw in a bin. Then another bundle for European destinations. The woman was annoyed to get another set, and when Trish couldn’t come up with exact change she slammed the wicket shut and went off in a clear demonstration of a huff to find some. Then threw it through across the counter. I steeled myself for my turn. My mailing was surely going to be more complicated, a pile of books and maps, and I didn’t even have an envelope yet. The envelope boomeranged at me and I was dismissed until I had addressed it. Back at the counter, huge sighs when the large number of stamps required were troublesome to glue on the lumpy packet. I waited for the customs sticker usually required for parcels. She eventually looked up and I asked if I needed to fill out a customs declaration. She snarled at me, if I wanted to register it . . . I said, no, no, thank you, and backed out into the street. ˝It’s only 8:30 and she’s already having a bad day,“ Trish said.
The next day I had a postcard to mail and on the way to the post office prepared myself for more customer abuse, telling myself not to take it personally. When I approached the wicket and handed over my card, the postie beamed at me, looked at the destination, said, ˝Canada!˝ meaning, now that’s special! And I fell in love with him on the spot. So much for not taking it personally. His response made my day in a way that it might not had I expected cheerful customer service.
And my expectations of the road ahead of Budapest? Low, low, low. All the doubtful looks and comments had psyched me out. Leaving Budapest, oasis of culture, music, cafes, and thermal baths, was especially hard. I postponed my departure one day, and left much later than intended the next: there was one more internet session at the so-convenient and cheap place with the QWERTY (English) keyboards, and the math tutor who ran it wanted to show me a web page about ˝noobs˝; then I found hostel buddies Judy and Andy in the hostel courtyard and had coffee with them . . . it was hard to get away. I didn’t want to leave this little community of friends that was already forming and holding me there like the gentle-strong strands of a cobweb.
So I pushed off into the mid-day heat, braced for the worst—and it was. It took me an hour to figure out how to get past the East Railway station, where massive construction was underway. The traffic was constant, an ugly rumbling mass of destructive power. My coping strategy was surreal stoicism and patience, detachment; but unbidden, these time-worn words played at the edges of my mind, ˝Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away, now it seems as though they’re here to stay . . .˝ For three hours.
Silly melodrama. By late afternoon I was in the shade of a riverside fish restaurant, digging in to a most tender ¨heck˝(hake?) and gulping glasses of soda water with lemon. Another hour down a quiet country road I found that the camping I expected in Rackeve no longer existed, and I was only too happy to check in to the roadside ¨panzio˝(pension) nearby. It had huge windows that I opened fully and I could almost have been sleeping outside, enjoying the river air and sounds of insects and birds.
Having finished with the traffic of Budapest’s outskirts, the next main challenge in my first five days travel south through Hungary and into Croatia was extreme heat. Temperatures were approaching 40 degrees, and a steady, strong, south (head) wind blew on me like a hairdryer on the “hot” setting. It took me a couple of days to figure out how much more I needed to drink (several litres) to avoid the pounding dehydration headaches that came knocking by 11 a.m. Each day felt like a serious test. I stayed stoic and tried to focus on the sights and sounds of the road. There was the dyke road soundscape, shirring giant poplars and the rustling of dessicated corn plants. The paprika (pepper) fields dotted the landscape red. Strings of paprika and garlic were strung and hung for sale at driveways. Occasionally a flock of sheep would pour up and over the dyke road, a sheep dog rounding them up in style, the shepherd following behind.
The best pleasure of all, though, I have to say, was the end of the ride, a cold shower or bath, and the chance to spread horizontal, preferably on a bed in an air-conditioned room. I camped twice and was tormented by mosquitoes in addition to the heat, so it’s no tragedy to me that the camping symbol appears less often on my map now. I love this recurring miracle: that one moment I can be homeless, and the next, not. One moment standing on the road, the next sitting in a garden with complimentary cold beers and snacks, laid out for our unannounced arrival by a hostess with the biggest smile I encountered in Hungary, or anywhere (Babolna, with Trish). One moment thinking, I will melt if I have to go further, the next spread on a bed with the air-con remote control in hand; knocks on the door every half hour heralding the arrival of 1) a bowl of ice cream and bottle of iced water; 2) three heated sausage rolls; 3) a plate of grapes; and 4) a plate of homemade pudding squares (Bilje, Croatia). One moment standing at the edge of the manicured grounds of a three-star riverside hotel, the Danube shining, seductive (“last night wasn’t expensive, I would pay 200 kuna for a room here”; at the front desk, “300 kuna ($65 CAD)? I’ll take it”), the next in possession of a room with a view (Ilok, Croatia).
I was apprehensive about leaving Hungary, where I had learned enough vocabulary to survive: etterem (restaurant), elelmiszer (grocery), kavehaz (café/bar), panzio (pension); and my use of “koszonom” (thank you) often brought a smile after a round of sign language communication. (I didn’t get a good grasp of the Magyar greeting: It’s “szia” and is used like “hello” but also in parting. People always said “hallo” to me. The other day as I got off a ferry the dockhand said “hallo,” meaning “goodbye” and I said “hallo” in return. It seemed churlish not to, and maybe it’s become a standard Hungarian leavetaking).
My apprehension mounted at the border. A good looking, tall, young, and very unsmiling Hungarian official scrutinized every stamp in my passport, lingering on the one from Frankfurt on May 30. The heat already had me perspiring out of every pore, even the backs of my hands and forearms, and a few more drops jumped out of my skin. Canadians can spend 90 days out of 180 in the Schengen Area, which includes most EU countries of which Hungary is one. It was now September 7. The twelve days I spent in Switzerland didn’t count towards my 90 allowable days and by my own calculations I had until September 9, two days hence, to get out. However, until now no country had marked my entry or exit, not even non-EU, non-Schengen Switzerland, so it would be my word alone to support my case. Minutes ticked by, and finally he took out his stamp: ka-lick! My passport was handed back and I returned it to my bag, trying not to let my hands shake as he watched me do so. In my blind relief I almost pedaled straight through the Croatian checkpoint, where I collected another stamp: Hrvatska.
In spite of the formality, and in spite of the sudden blank after the border on my GPS map (the map software doesn’t include eastern Europe), I was suddenly happy that first day wheeling along in Croatia. The Danube route is signposted: Ruta Dunav signs appeared at regular enough intervals. The route started to head more east, which meant the south wind helped instead of hindered, adding 5-10 kph to my rolling speed. Best of all, I started to experience something I had missed in Hungary: A light tap on the horn of a small car, three greeting honks from a container truck, a chorus of “zdravo!” from a gang of about eight 12-year-old boys on bikes: I was welcomed as I rolled along. It was surprisingly cheering to be acknowledged. I reflected on the relative infrequency of Hungarian smiles and the probable relationship with their oppressive history. I had visited the Battle of Mohacs memorial that morning. In an hour and a half on August 29, 1526, the Turks disastrously defeated the Hungarians: 18,000 soldiers died out of an army of 25,000 (the Turks outnumbered them more than three times). Hungarian self-determination ended for the next several centuries—the Turks ruled for a couple hundred years, then were ousted by the Austrian Habsburgs who ruled Hungary until the 19th century. More recently the Soviet and Communist regimes didn’t give much reason to smile either.
That night I was safe under a roof in my “soba” (room) in Bilje, well fed and watching old Croatian (maybe Serbian) movies on TV, when a great storm thundered in, flashing the sky and pouring rain. The next day the heat dropped and the air was clear, giving me beautiful fieldscapes to enjoy for my ride to Serbia. I also passed through Osijek and Vukovar, both of them with buildings still pockmarked from the war in the 1990s. Vukovar especially was sobering, as along the road houses were alternately bullet-pocked and faded, restored to pristine condition in all shades of red, orange and yellow, or caved in with trees growing inside the remaining brick walls. In every village I passed through, at least one house was having its façade re-plastered and painted. What a long rebuilding and restoration process. Yet people seem resilient, judging by their continued friendliness along the road. A man on a large blue tractor pulling a trailer pulled over and got out to talk to me. I had just stopped to have my picnic under Jesus nailed to a cross. He said, “Sprechen sie Deutsche?” I said with regret, “No.” Then added, “Nein, Englische.” He gestured at the vines and said “Essen!” “Essen!” I said. Eat. Perhaps I did speak German after all. He was inviting me to enjoy his grapes, for as I understood the gesturing conversation we had, they were his vines. They were sweet, delicious.
And on to Serbia: next post.
Novi Sad, Serbia, 5000 km