12.12.2009 - 13.12.2009
Lake Balaton is definitely a summer destination I whispered to myself as I strolled through the wooden business huts near Balatonlelle train station, each one with its windows, doors and hatches locked-shut, and had been for some time. Flags curled in the wind, leaves scuttled across the ground and the air vacuous with the absence of human frivolity, some places are made for people and without them, those places feel very strange indeed, like walking through a funfair after closing. The sun shone unobstructed from the canvas blue sky, but this was December, there were no tourists, or holidaying Hungarians to expend their purses and bring this town to life with their antics and city-earned wages until Springtime. The boats bobbed gently in the mooring, the whites and blues becoming one continuous body of nautical swaying. A dozen fishermen lined the rocky outcrop, which extended into the lake like a tiny finger. One of them saying something to me in hope of an agreeing response, the way we do when we express our superficial thoughts on our surroundings. 'Ah, English....OK'. That was enough to end his fervour. I sat on the sand lining the shore, it was an industrial grey sand that hinted at man's influence. A single swan fluttered its wings and moved off into the distance. The soft turquoise of the water met with the sky on the far side of the lake where faded hills defined the horizon. This was to be my last full day in Hungary, I had been blessed with favourable weather and a stillness to the air that brought a calm reassurance to an uncertain afternoon.
I had arrived in Balatonlelle earlier that day expecting to receive some help from information, but then realising that too was out of commission for the winter months. I had stepped into the only drinking hole that hinted at some human activity and got talking to a man at the bar, he was in his fifties and wore a purple puffer jacket and beige cords. He lifted a shot glass to his mouth, swallowed half of it's whisky-coloured contents and turned to face me 'is there something I can help you with?' he offered, 'yes, thank you, well, I was hoping to find a room for the night from the information place'
'It is closed in the winter, so you want a room, just you?' the German lilt in his voice conflicting with obvious Hungarian influences.
'Yep, just me' I said.
Three minutes of conversation unfolded between himself and the barmaid, he took out his mobile phone and held up a finger, 'moment'.
'OK, no problem'
He made a call, speaking in Hungarian then hung up, slid his phone back into his pocket and spoke to the barmaid again, she began writing something down on a piece of paper that she tore from a large notebook on the till. He took it from her, folded it and prompted me to follow him into the street, leaving his two drinks gathering condensation on the wooden bar.
I followed him across the tracks, we stopped and stood on the side of the road, 'ah, normally you could get a taxi from here, but I don't know where it has gone, you wouldn't have to pay, it's not far, how can I tell you?' He paused a moment while gathering the directions in his mind. 'It's OK I can walk, what is it? Ten minutes?'
'No, not even that, maybe four minutes, it's cheap like you wanted, ten Euros, it's OK?'
'Yes, yes, that's fine, thank you.' He gave me the directions, handed me the piece of paper which had the address written on it, 'show that to anyone and you will find it, they are waiting for you.' I shook his hand and began walking.
'Nümmer zwölf, Nümmer zwölf' I said to myself walking up to the gate of the un-numbered house between ten and fourteen. A small Highland terrier barked its way up to my ankles, the lady stepped out of the house and spoke in German, shooing the dog away from my heels 'Jenny! Oi! Jenny! Hey!' She waved her hand and beckoned me to follow her back up the street to what must have been house number four or six, she knocked on the door and spoke with the lady inside, a small child played at their feet. I assumed she didn't have any room for me and was asking a neighbour to put me up. Every other house in this quaint road advertised Apartmente und Zimmer Frei. The lady left and I was now at the mercy of this new stranger, she spoke, again in German, and then handed a piece of paper to me with the number 10,000 on it. My eyes widened. I then politely refused and left knowing there were twenty other doors I could knock on. 'Hello' she said and turned and went inside. I was going to have to become accustomed to the use of the word hello as a form of farewell. Very strange.
'Where to go, where to go? Ten thousand! No way lady' I muttered to myself, walking up the gentle hill of the tree-lined street. I walked in and out of several gardens which had Zimmer Frei hanging from a sheet metal or wooden sign at the gate, to no avail, or just to no answer. I walked through the gate and into the garden of a pink house with hanging plants and a wooden staircase leading up to the front door. An old lady answered after a time that suggested she was less than mobile or just busy. She was small in stature and slightly rotund, her grey hair framed a face that didn't smile, but didn't scorn either. 'Haben sie ein zimmer frei?' I asked. 'Err, ja, ein tag?' she said looking up at me through her convex spectacles and then shifted around as if unprepared,. 'Ja, ein nacht, wieviel kostet es?' I asked. She brushed aside my question on the price, welcoming me inside to see the room. The house was filled with the smell of traditional home cooking. I trod carefully, shoes removed, up the steep solid wood stairs trying not to knock any of the hanging trinkets from the walls on the way up. She opened the bedroom door and gestured for me to step inside. The room had a modest flowery chandelier of green and gold hanging from the centre of the ceiling, surrounded by a decorative coving, the walls laden with impressive oil paintings. Old, but practical furniture lined the skirting, a dark wood cabinet with more ornamental pieces placed on top stood opposite the firm double bed. 'Wieviel kostet es?' I insisted, ensuring I didn't get too comfortable before knowing the price. She looked down in concentration and drew a 1 and a 5 in the palm of her hand with her finger. 'OK, so funfsehn...Euro?' I asked, asserting my ability with the German numerical system and hoping her response would not be 'nein...thousand forint.' She nodded, 'ja funfsehn Euro.'
'OK, das ist güt, funfsehn Euro, danke.' And with that she shifted off from whence she came into the downstairs kitchen, leaving me wishing it might be a batch of fairy cakes for unexpected guests that she was busy cooking.
Having seen the lake from the train earlier that morning I remember wishing that I had extra time to relax here as I stared out upon its still waters. However, having been to the lonely promenade that afternoon I felt one day would be enough, tomorrow I would be catching an overnight train from Budapest to Sarajevo, Bosnia. I was sure that would bring some surprises.
'Would you like?....' the young lady said offering me a snack from a packet of pink wafer biscuits. 'Oh, no thanks... thank you' I said, slightly regretting not taking one. It was an auto response that interjected without due consideration and one that left me with the same feeling many times before when being offered food. Although I didn't actually fancy a wafer biscuit I thought that to accept one would, on the one hand, be polite, and on the other, be a good way to connect and start a conversation. From the moment that Zsófia walked into the train cabin I knew, and I told her this in our subsequent conversation, that she was going to be an interesting person, someone approachable and without the normal social boundaries you might expect of a young twenty-something.
'OK, so see you at 8', she hung up the phone and crossed her legs, her black patterned tights accentuating the gentle curves of her calves. I seized the opportunity, having witnessed that she at least spoke a little English. 'So, does the train arrive in Zagreb at 8?'
'M-hmm, m-hmm'. She had her mouth full with some kind of snack, if I were to judge her based on what I saw her eating in that cabin, I would say she liked her comfort food.
We sat in silence for a while and she spoke again, 'So are you....going to be....playing, some kind of....concert?' The hint of a smile at the beginning of her sentence had grown to a full crescendo by the end of it. She pointed at my guitar on the luggage rack above our heads. 'Oh no, I just travel with it, if I get lonely then at least I can play-- it's my travel companion' I said, goading a small dose of sympathetic laughter, I got a smile instead. 'So are you coming from Budapest?' she asked. I listed the other places I has passed though in Hungary, each one bringing a smile of appreciation that I had ventured outside of Budapest. 'Oh Kőszeg, yes it is nice, I come from a place close to there.'
'Oh really? I liked Kőszeg very much' I said with genuine tones, I did like that town, it was a good size to explore, it had a charming centre with preserved history and the people were pleasant and civilised. Every place you go to has a picture attached to it, maybe it was something you did, or something you saw, and it didn't have to be anything significant, this was always something that fascinated me about the mind and how it grabbed one mental image and put that at the front of the pack like a joker in a fresh deck of cards. If you were to say the name Kőszeg to me, my memory would recall the night I had I spent walking the town square and around the bastion. It was dark and foreboding, but I fell for its night lighting and tranquillity. The lucid image of the street-lit tower reflecting from the still puddles on the pathway and the spindly tree branches backed by white moonlight play like a slide show in the theatre of my mind.
'So you're not actually going to Zagreb?' she asked. 'No, I'm passing through and taking a connecting train to Sarajevo.'
'Are you visiting someone in Zagreb?'
'Yes, I'm visiting a friend there' she said. I thought it polite not to probe.
We spoke for a while about culture and Europe, Sophie was sharp. Delivering her verdict on the things we spoke of with considered poise and all the while staring at the seat opposite. She spoke to the other side of the cabin while she searched her mind for the cognitive flavour that made her persona so intriguing. When I spoke she turned and looked me in the eye with a radiant open stare that said give me your best, and upon her reply she gave me her side profile time after time, plucking advanced English from her learned background, and with deft conclusion.
'How do people in continental Europe see the British? Do you see us part of Europe, or not really?' I asked.
'Well, you are part of Europe yes, of course. How do British people feel about it?'
'I feel like a part of the whole, there are some people feel segregated from the continent in a way, but then others....well, I think that Europeans.....' her eyebrows raised and her head cocked back, she gave a knowing smile and retorted with a Sherlock Holmes level of investigative wit. 'Ah, so.....now, you see, it is interesting what you just said...you said...' her head tilted to the side a little and her lips curved, 'you think that Europeans', so it is clear how you feel, you don't associate yourself with the rest of Europe as you might think.' My mind kicked into survival mode. 'Well...you, I think...' I had no real answer, I had to acknowledge her point and I conceded. 'OK, you may be right, well spotted. I do think though that the language barrier is one that could contribute, if you look on the map Britain is here...' I raised one finger, 'and to the East you have several languages that we don't really understand' my hand swayed to the right. 'Then to the West, you have Ireland and then the U.S' my left hand gestured a brisk transatlantic crossing. 'And well, they all speak English.' I knew my point was weak.
'So do you relate more closely with the Americans?'
'Actually, not really, I think we are more European in behaviour, but...' I struggled to follow-on and my argument died. I now knew she was a fox, positively cunning and aware of implications in philosophy.
We talked about artistry, creativity, her background as a sculptor. I could feel the level of conversation delve to a sub-colloquial layer, and I became the snake to her waving flute, her charms embedded in the caves of her esoteric intellect.
'I hope I don't miss my connection, this train is running a little late.' I said. She pondered for a moment to find the right words. 'If we were in Hungary I would...let you stay at mine, but...it's, difficult, this is my friend's place, here...you know.' I thanked her for the offer, thinking to myself how different people were here, and that as British citizens maybe we do have a lot of catching up to do in social openness. For the first time I remember thinking quite clearly that I didn't want to go home, I longed for this kind of altruism. A magnanimity that connects like glue every like-minded individual to a web of acceptance.
I remember watching Zsófia as she embraced her male friend on the platform, the diffusive sentiments radiated from their warm greeting, and with eyes of tender assurances she wished me safe travels.
I stepped off the train at my destination. I had no Bosnian money and no bearings. I was in Sarajevo, an Olympic city that struggled through bloody massacre and bore the pock-marked holes to prove it. In the darkness the mountains peered over the city like a rising beast from an urban sea. The glint of rural life sparkling from the hills, each one a beacon of defiance against the bitter cold and hostility of days gone by.
So, taxi it was then. My wits awoke from their lazy haze on the night train and rammed the forefront of my brain like a challenged street dog. 'Do you have a meter?' I asked the middle-aged driver. He pointed to the centre-console, and drove on towards my destination. A battered red VW pulled out in front of us and forced the driver to stamp on the brakes. I checked my seatbelt and joked 'well...his car is old, he doesn't care'.
'Crazy...old driver' he said repeating the word in the wrong context. His words spoken with a local tint that sounded more Russian than anything else. I stepped out of the car and approached the ATM, my concerns now surrounding my bag in his boot. I looked over my shoulder ready to spot the first sign of him moving off into the darkness of unfamiliar streets with my belongings in tow. With every second my ears pinned closer to the few sounds around me, searching for the screech of tyres. But steadfastly he waited and I returned with new trust as well as crisp banknotes. The taxi climbed a steep road that passed through a cemetery of white obelisk gravestones and the arch of a gateway into the altitude beyond. Haris Youth Hostel stood raised above the city on a small local road. He plucked my bag from the boot and then placed an apple in my hand that he took from a shallow box of fruit in his car. 'Thank you, thank you very much, hvala.' I said in surprise, he smiled as he reached to close the boot. I had arrived in my first unplanned destination and felt good about the decision already, an apple given in kindness, a gesture of simplicity that said Welcome to Sarajevo.
'I know a place, that sells cake...it's right around here somewhere,' I followed Pat's footsteps with the promise of more delectable Balkan cake selections. Pat was an Australian from the hostel who checked-in on the same day as me. He had taken a lift from an Englishman by the name of Andrew who had driven his Land Rover from Budapest and was also staying in the same dorm. 'Yeah it's just down this way, I was recommended it by a friend of mine'.
'Are you sure they sell cake?' I asked. 'Yeah' he said with rising intonation. 'They almost definitely sell cake.' Following behind me was Clark, an English RAF trainee helicopter pilot from North London. He was the only person staying at the hostel on the early morning of my arrival the day before. Clark kept his hands in the pockets of his black thermal kag, and his head down, but always contributing to the conversation with light humour and a high level of manners and politeness. The mercury was on the negative side of zero and snow was lining most horizontal surfaces in a light dusting, but of course my Thai thermometer/compass still showed 12 °C, incapable of detecting anything less than a brisk Thai winter. Having eaten dinner we'd quickly gotten into a habit of seeking out the speciality of Bosnian cuisine, desert. In the well-lit glass-fronted shops on every street sat cake shops that sold all the things the stomach could desire, but with unknown flavours that left you looking hard before making your selection. None of us had learned any Bosnian and so the labels meant nothing, however the light cream, deep browns and bright fruit colours that spread across the counter in edible format meant everything.
'Do you actually know where this place is Pat?'
'Yep, it's not far, I think I know where it is, and they might sell cake. I would have said his conviction weakened but for the fact his face gave away a cheeky scheme. 'So now it might sell cake?' I replied, feeling my stomach complain. 'Yeah, this place, it might sell cake.' His plan detectably approaching fruition based upon the aloofness of his replies. Clark and I diverted off into a sport shop to look for some carabiners. As we left again, Pat walked towards us. 'Did you find it?' asked Clark. 'Yeah, it just around there.' The air of suspicion rose to levels of mystery. 'Here it is' he said. 'Wow, look at that' I said either aloud or in my head, I can't remember I was so charmed by the unique exterior and by what I could make out on the other side of the glass.
The three of us walked inside and with smiles and open mouths headed towards the back of the narrow café. If there was one place in the world you could go to as a show home for the applications of woodwork, then this was it. The mosaic tiles graced the floor and led you inside, up one step to where the wood took over and covered a large percentage of the perceivable area. Every chair unique from the next and padded with old leather held down by brass studs. The solid wood table held a plethora of items beneath its glass top, a burgundy velvet place mat laced with gold stitching, banknotes and coins from around the world and a fake $1,000,000 bill with Barack Obama's grinning face in the middle of it. The next table was supported by an original Singer sewing machine. The walls were backed by huge arcing mirrors with a simple delicate design around the outer rim lit from behind in gold. The waitress moved about with a stereotypical French straight-faced arrogance that I myself had never seen in our European neighbours. It was both rude and seductive. She wore a mauve apron from the waist down and a red beret on top of her straight shoulder-length brunette hair.
'Do you do food here?' asked Pat. She waved her finger at him the way I imagine his Mother might have done in his childhood. I still don't know if Pat already knew what the answer to that question would be before he led us here, but we were staying. This place was very special.
We sipped beer and spirits, Pat rolled his tobacco, a distasteful brand he'd picked up locally and that which his nicotine craving had led him to begrudgingly smoke. Clark sat in wonder at the décor, as we all did. I looked down into my whisky at the remnants of something gritty beneath the last ice cube, 'don't look into the drink' said Pat, as if spouting a metaphor for life.
Every ledge, sill and shelf displayed ornaments of all tastes. A wood carved deer, a glossy Spanish matador, a running metal tap, permanently on, poured water into a brass jug placed in a decorative metal basin on the wall. The paintings had carved frames, even the till monitor and TV screens hid their modern lines with decorated outer edges. An orb glass container held sugar cubes, a pearlescent oyster shell for cigarette ash, a goldfish swam in a high-ball plain glass tank, he was the name sake of this wonderful place The Goldfish or in Bosnian Zlatna Ribica.
Staff changeover came and the blue sight of distant eyes under a red cashmere beret gave way to a young figure of womanly stature. We later came to know her as Nermina. She was, in all our eyes- a living oil painting, the lady in the café, an Edward Hopper masterpiece. Her flowing brown gypsy skirt to'd and fro'd like waves on a lake shore, her pale-blue classic soft cardigan the sky, and the silk of her perfect pale skin above the neckline the heavens. Her gentle features outlined the curves of a face that is impossible to forget, for millennia you could stare and not grow tired, her smoky eyes were the jewels set in the beauty of her subtle smile, teeth like perfectly carved ivory charms and lips of sweet rose honey. She wore a black open-top hat with a delicate wide lace brim, her brown-auburn hair brushed against her cheek in a fine motion accenting the subtleties of her royal grade satin skin. And in her poise she sold the image, she was the original painting displayed for all to admire but only one to own.
Seven and a half hours later we left Vlatna Ribica, it was a window through time which kept us drawn-in. During our many hours in that café we'd talked about film, music, literature and a Hungarian song called 'Gloomy Sunday' which had caused many people to commit suicide and was still banned by the BBC to this day. The writer of the song committed suicide, as did his wife, people leapt into the Danube holding the sheet music. One young boy heard a man humming the song in the street, then gave him all his money and jumped into the river, killing himself. Still it wasn't all gloomy, we'd spoken to a pretty Swiss banker, a Swedish-speaking Fin and a Spaniard called Emilio with Lennon spectacles and a magician's goatee who dressed as a fruit-man in the local mall. Nermina displayed a vivacious tenacity and personable playfulness. But I'm not sure this would have been everyone's scene, and as a certain Australian once said 'the difference between a shitty picture and a work of art is what's going on outside the frame.' That night, I never did get any cake.