The road never got better.
The Hungarian finance student seated across from me and the Romanian guy next to me laughed about it, saying we'd feel a jolt when we hit the Hungarian border because it would be even worse there. At a break, they bought themselves a fortifying supply of beer. Often times it seemed as though you were just on the verge of losing your sanity and then, mercifully, there would be a break and smooth sailing.
I was distracted in my head, and all over a piece of paper in front of me, trying to solve a problem with rebalancing in AVL trees and so was not very talkative—it had also been a very long day—but my two companions made up for it.
Try staring at these for three hours
Both seemed to have a generally dour outlook on their countries and their prospects there: both were planning to move away as soon as they could in search of a better situation. They spoke of a wealth gradient in Europe—the farther east you go the worse things get—which has definitely been observable during the trip. Earlier in the evening they had asked where I was from and I'd said Germany, so the wealth of that nation also comes up in conversation.
They take turns sneaking prolonged glances at the pretty girl across from us, but she does more then ignore them… she seems unaware that they exist. Later, when she gets off the bus, she gives me the very slightest of smiles.
When the Hungarian and Romanian inquire what I'm doing (I suppose it does look odd to be drawing dozens of circles and lines in tree-like formations on a piece of paper and then staring off into space) and I explain, the Romanian sighs, “And that is why the Germans will take over the world.” Later, he offers me some of his bacon-flavoured potato chips.
At another break stop, we discuss the probable price of using the toilet. The Romanian doesn't have change with him, so I him a 50 cent coin. He looks at it, then me, and says with a huge smile, “Oh, German!”
Inside the building I think back to the previous night when, on the way to Berlin, I'd seen a teenage couple giggling and ducking through a child's entrance into the bathroom (children, I guess, can pee for free). This seems like an excellent idea to me, as I follow the Hungarian into the bathroom. Unfortunately, there's a stodgy old lady there screening toilet-goers. Neither the Hungarian nor I can speak whatever language she's using, but she causes us to know that this is the women's bathroom. Abashed, we go out and try again on the men's side.
The same lady is there and no there's no way around it: I pay for the both of us.
Outside, the Romanian hands me my coin back: “The lady was distracted so I snuck in, but if I'd used this, you'd have found it to be a good investment, German.”
An infinite amount of time later, we roll into Budapest as the Hungarian woefully tells us how much better the city used to be, even a hundred years ago. I've explained my plan to catch a train to Szeged, so, as we get off the bus, the Hungarian offers to take me there. During the last chunk of the trip two Bulgarian girls, who we'd dutifully ignored, had climbed into the bus behind us. Now, they ask directions to the train station as well.
The Hungarian leads us away from the fortress-like bus station, saying this isn't the best part of town, and down under the road. “Do we need tickets?”, asks one of the Bulgarians. “No,” says the Hungarian, “no one ever checks.” We come around a corner and see three train guards squared across the steps down to the platform. “Maybe they will leave”, whispers the Hungarian.
But they don't. So we buy tickets.
A few minutes later, the oldest imaginable subway train comes fuming up to the platform. “This is the worst part of the city.”, the Hungarian says, “Sometimes these trains start on fire or break down or get stuck… but I don't think this happens tonight.”
(Veki later tells me that when she lived in Budapest she was late for work multiple times because of trains randomly starting on fire.)
After surviving about three stops, we head to the surface. “We could change underground, but this way you get to see something of the city.”, says the Hungarian. The Bulgarians recognise the intersection and the Hungarian jokes that perhaps they are merely recognising the large spinning sign in the middle which says “Sex Shops” in giant pink letters. They deny this.
As we're waiting for the Metro to pull up, one of the Bulgarian girls discreetly asks me if I know the Hungarian. I shake my head, “No, we met on the bus.” A cloud of mild worry passes over her face.
The Hungarian claims that tickets on the above-ground Metro are checked even less than those on the below-ground. So we climb on board. And no one checks. The metro lets us off at a nameless intersection and the Hungarian points at a bus that's just pulling up, “This will take you to the train station. You cannot miss it. They never check tickets on these.” We thank him and climb on board, just next to the ticket machine.
Sure enough, the bus lets us off at the train station. Inside, the station, bathed in a dim, yellowing light, fits part of my soul. I bid the Bulgarians farewell and hunt down the ticket booths where they tell me that the last train to Szeged left just seven minutes before I arrived.
Disappointed, I wander into the night wondering what I will do next. Across from the train station, a familiar logo glows: Burger King beckons. Inside, I ask if they have free internet and they say they do.
Let's be clear: I don't want to patronize Burger King in Hungary. I'd be perfectly happy never to see another Burger King, especially outside of the States. But both Burger King and McDonalds are some of the few places in Europe that seem to reliably offer free WiFi.
Online, I track down a few hostels in the area and give Veki a call to let her know I won't be coming in. “Do you need a place to stay?”, she asks. I look at the hostels, “Maybe…” As we're discussing things and as I'm looking at hostel options, two familiar Bulgarians walk in.
“We're stalking you!”, one of them laughs as they sit down with me. It turns out that the one has just finished a finances degree in logistics and the other is in her fifth or sixth year of med school, training to be a doctor. Regarding Bulgaria, they tell me that their economy is bad, but, if I visit, I will probably have a good time. I ask the pre-doc if she feels stressed by her program—thinking of other people I know who have developed suicidal urges in their programs—and she says no: there's time and funding enough. They ask about the States: don't we watch a lot of TV? How can we justify letting people be sick and uncared for—why doesn't everyone have access to medical care?
I tell them that I may not be representative. I don't watch TV, well, ever, really. And I don't really know people who do. As for the rest, I think the usual justification has something to do with market efficencies—though I find it difficult to explain this point of view because I really cannot grok it: I don't think a free competition market can serve everyone.
One of the striking things you find when reading supreme court cases is that everything derives from either the constitution or previous court decisions, though all this may be interpreted or reversed by the current court to form a new self-consistent system. I have the sense that this is not widely understood either inside the U.S. or outside of it. Congress can pass whatever laws they like, but these will eventually end up in front of a court and will be judged against a legal and legislative background that predates by more than a century our current healthcare system. It's no small undertaking to build a universal healthcare system which is consistent with such a background. The supreme court decision on Obamacare ruled that it was constitutional, but the judges specifically stated that they would not weigh in on its wisdom.
Another aspect of my conversation with the Bulgarians strikes me. The Hungarian and Romanian guys I met on the bus were somewhat dismissive of their studies and their prospects, and perhaps somewhat too interested in the prospect of picking up girls at nightclubs. The Bulgarian girls, on the other hand, seem much more studious and focused on success and making the best of the economic conditions they're in. Is it just sample bias, or is this a gender difference here?
Veki writes back that I can stay with her mother, who lives just five minutes away, and, looking at the long walks to the hostels and being tired from a long day on the bus, I agree that this is probably the best course. The Bulgarians are invited to stay as well, but I've misunderstood, and their next train is leaving in under an hour.
Our conversations finished, I glance casually at a city map and head in the general direction of the house, asking people for directions along the way. Outside, the city around me is dark, grimy, and filled with construction. And people are saying it's more than a five minute walk: that it is, in fact, three kilometers. One set of people give me their map of the city.
And they continue to say this as I walk and walk and walk. Eventually, I discover a second train station and everything clicks into place. I turn and ask one last person for directions, an older man, his face a mask of wrinkles. He begins talking excitedly in Hungarian, offers me a cigarette (which I refuse), and then gestures for me to follow him. Though stooped with age and walking with only small steps, he moves at a good pace. I try to explain, in several languages, that I do not speak Hungarian, but he continues our one-sided conversation.
He leads me around a corner, and down a street towards a hotel. With a furtive glance around, he leaves his cigarette on a newsbox, gives me conspiratorial look, and in we go. He makes sweeping gestures of greeting and commences and animated conversation with the desk people. In a lull, I ask them if they've ever seen him before. They shake their heads, they have no idea who he is.
I'm given another map and very clear directions to the apartment, which is very close by. But my companion is adament about guiding me there, even though we must stop and squint at the street signs for him to know where we are. Finally, we get to the door and I buzz, Veki's mother says, “Come in!” and the door makes a buzzing sound.
I thank the man and turn to go in, but he stops me and makes a universal gesture indicating that there should be hard intercourse. Somewhat embarassed, I enter the building, but he has somehow inserted himself in the doorway. There's a confusing moment in which we both speak to each other in languages the other doesn't understand, and then he steps out again. The door closes and locks. As I walk up the stairs, his silouette is still there.
A voice filters down from above, “Richard? Is that you?“ After exchanging greetings, Veki's mother opens the door to the apartment and there is a dizzying moment in which I'm confronted by a five story plunge into a twisted pile of rebar. We skirt along the balcony and into the actual apartment, which is airy with a dark hardwood floor and a huge set of window-doors looking out over the street and towards the parliament.
I'm offered cooked mushrooms, walnuts, an apple, and more substantial food. In the corner, a couch is already prepped for sleeping; we pull an ottoman up to it to make it long enough. As I'm finishing eating, Veki's mother climbs into bed but continues conversing with me.
“And what do you do?”, I ask.
She laughs, &lquo;That is a good question! I am working to develop what you might call a theory of everything. I did not always call it this, until my son gave it that name. It will bridge quantum physics and relativity.”
We both set in for real sleep after this, but I lie there staring at the reflected streetlights on the ceiling digesting things… a theory of everything in an apartment reachable only through the aegis of a mysterious stranger in a city of burning subways at the end of an infinitely long bus ride.