On the Angst of Travelers

IMG_1046_editI was in northern Hungary, and I needed a break from my traveling partner. After weeks together, we strained under the expectations we laid on one another.

I saw the town name Egerszólát next to an arrow pointing west on my map of Eger. In my Lonely Planet, I scoured the chapter and the author noted only that it was a quaint wine town. That was the only reference. No dot marked the location of the town, just an arrow at the map’s edge: 13 kilometers west.

I decided to walk there. My travel partner decided to spend the day sightseeing in town.

I didn’t get a different map. I didn’t check my GPS on my smart phone because I hadn’t paid to have my phone work abroad. I didn’t ask for directions.

The arrow would suffice. I wanted to feel the pavement under my feet; I wanted to feel like an explorer, I wanted to feel the magic of being somewhere foreign to me.

At breakfast I pocketed a roll and an apple and tucked them in my backpack.

I walked to the edge of town and checked the map. I matched the curve in the road to the curve at the edge of the map. Same enough.

A narrow shoulder banked one side of the two-lane road paved for roadsters, not sports utility vehicles. I walked. A man in shorts and no shirt traipsed out of the woods. He was bearded and if I had been in a California mountain town, I might have thought him a marijuana farmer or a serial killer. But I was in Hungary, a place unfamiliar to me; I smiled and nodded hello.

I walked. It was a lone stretch of road. The forest gave way to fields of grapevines. I didn’t see many signs. I did see farmhouses speckling the horizon. I didn’t see other walkers. Still, I wanted to see this offshoot town described as quaint, yet not worth a description or a dot.

A car stopped and backed up toward me. A woman rolled down the window. “[Insert Hungarian words I don’t understand here.]”

I shook my head and pointed forward.

She smiled and gestured at whom I presumed to be her husband. They looked so much older than I was at the time, but now thinking back, they just looked so much more content.

The man leaned over the woman with a familiarity that confirmed a partnered intimacy.     “[Insert more Hungarian words I don’t understand here.]” Yet with the inflection, the message was clear: What the hell are you doing walking along the road by yourself?

They sped away.

I walked.

By accident, I followed a sign that said Egerszalók, lazily seeing the beginning of the town name and not the slurry of letters after. My first detour. I pulled out the guidebook, but I was beyond the edge of the map. I retraced my steps best I could.

This was the first time anxiety filtered into my consciousness. Still, I walked. What else could I do? I was on a country road. There was no cab to hail. No bus to take.

I passed fields of sunflowers yielding from the sun. Their heavy heads hanging down, the centers browned as if they could no longer stand the summer heat.

I was hot too. My jacket was stuffed in my backpack. Sweat dripped to my tailbone. I hadn’t seen a sign for Egerszólát in several kilometers. My water was running low.

Panic began to set in. Under the bright blue sky, I was alone and no one in the world knew where I was. Even my travel partner hadn’t asked. I breathed. The sun fed me. I could knock on a farm door and utter Eger with a question mark. I had passed a church. Someone there might help me.

I knew as a woman closer to middle aged than not, I didn’t pose a risk to anyone.

I kept going.

And then I saw the road sign with an arrow. Egerszólát. Within an hour, I wandered into the town of low-lying homes nestled into a hillside. They were stucco and small. I happened upon a square and unadorned pink building, like one you might find in the flats of south Los Angeles. It was purposeful; it was not quaint. A store. I bought homemade sesame candy from a woman who didn’t smile.

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I continued walking. Everything was closed. This was a weekend town and it was a Wednesday. I stood in front of a winery and looked up and down the road. I contemplated walking further into the foothills. What would the next town look like?

Someone tapped my shoulder. I screamed.

It was a sturdy woman with black hair, remnants of a platinum dye job on her ends. She beckoned me into the winery. There was a red tiled floor and a hearty wood bar reminiscent of a pub in England. She poured me a glass of wine and offered me a seat on the patio. I accepted. I couldn’t understand much of her Hungarian. But she smiled when I said where I was from. I smiled when I understood it was her family’s winery.

She offered me cheese to go with my roll. I sipped my wine. I breathed free, freer than I had felt in weeks. What did that next town look like? I wondered.

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On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #11

Near the river, Budapest.

What’s not in the picture is what I couldn’t bear to see.  I didn’t crop it later, I didn’t edit out his image.  I just moved my camera to the right and snapped.

We Americans like our gadgets in vibrant colors.  My toaster is a shiny teal.  My friend’s stove is fire-engine red.  We like our bumpers painted even if we grumble when they get scratched.  We like our celebrities suffused in soft light.  That way, they never age.  We like our bathrooms large and shiny.  We joke, but we call our toilets thrones.

Frankly, we usually like our strangers to be shiny, pretty, and in vibrant color too.

Walking through Népliget, I am not alone.  The first cool day in Budapest in more than a week, the city was promenading, licking ice cream cones, playing table tennis, posing for selfies.   Old, young, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, we all wanted that breeze on our face.

What I couldn’t unsee, what I couldn’t take a picture of because it would be too rude, too invasive, too salacious, too too was an adult-sized pram and in it, an adult-sized man. Homemade from a metal container, the pram’s bed was a human-sized sardine can.  Unpainted, it was what is was: worn and dull metal.   The wheels were the wheels of a ten speed.  The handles were maybe from an old shopping cart.  It was brilliant and ugly and real.

I looked and didn’t look.  I refused to gawk, although how could I know?  Maybe I was.  I reddened.  I smiled.  The women smiled back.  The man laid there unaware, his body not well covered.  His knees were knobby and his legs curved inward like a runway model’s thighs.  He had longish brown hair parted on the side.  Someone had taken the time to make sure his part was straight and the bangs brushed from his brow.  His nose was aquiline and pronounced because he was so emaciated.   His almond eyes were brown and not lit from within.  I wondered if he were day dreaming and enjoying the sun on his face.  I hoped this was true.

Let’s face it, we might venture a private utterance of grotesque—incongruous to a shocking degree.  I thought it.  I looked and didn’t look at this man stowed, albeit in loving comfort, into a tin can.  But look harder.  This scene wasn’t shiny and packaged for tourist consumption.  What I saw were women bonded together as kin telling stories and making one another laugh.  Women who cared for a fellow human.   Women who pushed his carriage from where ever they lived to enjoy a summer day in this tree-lined park.  In another life, this man might have been a prince.

These women in polyester dresses and comfortable sandals played cards next to the man in the pram.  We all felt the breeze.  They were truth in beauty.