But perhaps we had taken too long on the train?
We arrived in Budapest and it felt just like the closing moments of some huge overture – as pulling into a great city should really always feel. But stepping down from the panting Polish sleeper train into the vast Keleti station in the early morning light, there was no one about.
No one on the platforms, no one in the ticket halls. The huge concourse echoing in silence.
We tried the grand, old station bar with its high ceilings and dark wooden furniture. It was locked-up, closed. Through the windows I could see the chairs pushed back from the tables, as if a crowd had just that moment departed. Wine bottles and glasses sat half-finished on the tops. On the floor, lying in tattered ribbons, were coloured streamers and party hats. A New Year banner fluttered down from the wall.
No one was alive in Budapest at 8.30am on the 1st of January. The square outside the station was deserted of people and traffic. The air thin and cold. I looked back at the station’s grand façade: the Austro-Hungarian pomp mocking us.
The sleeper train ride from Poland into Hungary had been tough. Frost lay thick on the countryside outside our window. Inside the train the electricity had gone off. Our heating did nothing but make a hissing sound. The lights spluttered throughout the night.
We got a knock on the door to tell us we were soon pulling into Budapest, but then the train stopped. Creaking on the tracks for a good half hour. I went to see the guard of the train, and found him in his cabin, shivering under the covers in his full uniform, even in his large green peaked officer’s hat.
We had trouble finding anywhere to stay once in Budapest. The New Year celebrations had passed and everywhere was booked up or not open at all.
We finally found somewhere to stay in a far district on the Pest side of the river. We sat in a freezing tram taking us rattling out over the streets. At some point the driver got down out of his cab and hit at the points with a large metal stick as the icy air settled down on the whole city.
A Communist-era block. Each floor smelling of cabbage, each floor more strongly than the one below. We were shown our room and I reached to turn the switch to find a moving wall of cockroaches all racing to get out of the light.
There was little to do, stranded high, stories up, in the cold sky. Blocks and blocks outside, hunkering down, grey, above one small, ornate ancient church. The bells of the church rang sadly.
On this day, the first of the year, exactly 100 years since the Communist revolution took place, we decided to go out to see Momento Park. A sprawling ground full of statues that had once stood proud around Hungary during the Commuinst reign.
Now, no longer wanted, embarrassments to memory, they were collected together here in a wide, frosted park. The heroic looking Red Army guards, the memorials to workers’ power, a towering Lenin and Marx – pulled down and shunted to a forgotten edge of the city.
But rather than looking sad, they still seemed to me to have all the potency they were created with. Perhaps they glowered more having suffered their inglorious fate. Unlike the grand bar back in the train station, this didn’t have the melancholic feeling of something that had been snuffed out. These colossal statues didn’t seem bowed or beaten, more like powerful animals incongruously caged.
The evening we went to look for somewhere to eat in the centre of Pest. Darting in from the cold at one of the first places we saw as we got out of the metro. The dark classical buildings around us lit up from the closed shop lights.
It was an old dining room, lavishly decorated in greens and golds and painted scenes on the walls. A quartet played in the corner.
We sat and drank Hungarian wines and Passeparout, fortified by Hungarian wine, told the slick backed haired violinist in his fancy waistcoat he played classical music like a gypsy. It seemed to sting the man. Offended, he started to play traditional Hungarian gypsy music. He played with an excessive flourish and a diabolical leer on the side of his face, looking only at her as he played.
“And ..?” he said as he finished, whipping the violin out from under his chin, brandishing the bow. “What do you have to now say about THAT?”
Passepartout now slightly red faced, unsteady on her seat, guffawed at the man.
“You play gypsy music like you have a diploma!” she cried, please with herself. Then looked confused and put her hand to her mouth at sudden small burping hiccough.
The violinist motions for us to be moved on with a flick of his bow at the head waiter. The cold streets of Budapest waited for us again.
The Romans never made it over to Pest. The wide Danube here, threading through the jewelled bead of the Budapest now, too daunting a channel to cross then. They stood on the western banks and looked over at the barbarians.
I liked being here on the uncivil side. Though now, of course, it has all the entertainments, the grand halls, the shops and the ridiculous, fantastic, prodigious pile of the Hungarian Parliament.
In the new day, a thick orange sun lit the city. The freezing air had warmed and we crossed over the chain bridge to the west of the city, into Buda.
We climbed to Castle Hill and walked the steep streets. Few people were around.
We stood under Matthias Church with its impressive lizard roof and tall, gaunt tower and looked back down on the domed and gothic spired parliament and the bridges looping over the river. The key link, the Chain Bridge: designed by an Englishman called Clark, built by a Scotsman called Clark, sweeping with cast iron elegance over the Danube.
Picking our way through the narrow old streets, back down the hill, we stumbled into a park dedicated to the cities of Europe. Each tree with a small stone plaque underneath, naming the cities we’d been through, and the ones to come: London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna…Bucharest, Sofia…
We rumbled through the city on the metro – clean, efficient, a hundred ticket collectors at the top of every station escalator, all residuums of communism’s old life I guessed.
And on the trams rattling over the streets. Past the steaming baths, back and forth over the river, past Liberty Square.
Here we looked on a large, tacky, over-blown memorial to the Hungarian dead at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War. Put up by Hungary’s rather Nazi-ish current leader, Viktor Orbán.
Some sort of attempt to eradicate guilt at Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis in the Second World War? A way to forget their complicity in the transportation of more than half a million Jews to Auschwitz? Either way, it seemed a tasteless, ugly, monument. Why the German eagle? What to be drawn from this eagle landing on the Archangel Gabriel?
Much more moving were the suitcases and possessions and photos left by the family members of those that were taken away to Auschwitz – on the tracks that we had come down just a few days before. They sat, lined on the side of the street, facing down the memorial, as if in challenge.
There were posters dotted around Budapest. A large picture of a line of refugees crossing Balkan ground, heading up through Europe – up towards Hungary it was to be supposed. No words other than a thick, red, ‘STOP’ printed over the image.
The country seemed troubled.
We took a few stops on another tram. Then a metro to Heroes Square. A train out past the bizarre national theatre, onto Csepel Island with its factories and bicycling old men. Days were spent this way, idling around Budapest. We seemed to be in no hurry at all.
We would never get to Thessaloniki like this.
Getting off one tram I look down and saw Passepartout was without her usual leather bag, slung round her shoulder since we left east London.
“Where’s your bag?” I said to her, and before I’ve even finished her eyes had widened in horror and her head swivelled back towards the old white wood tram closing its concertina doors, creaking on the rails and moving off.
Our passports, our money, our tickets whirred away down the rails. I took off after them.
Haring down the streets of Budapest. My thick winter coat flailing in the air like two windbreakers slowing me up, my shoes clacking on the uneven stones.
My legs pounded up and down, I shouted hoarsely in the freezing air, an arm thrown out forward to the departing trolley car.
Every time the tram pulled to a stop and I got closer, it would take off again. I could see the jowly faced driver’s reflection in his big wing mirrors. He could see me.
Down the streets we raced. Eventually a large crowd at one stop prevented the driver from moving off for long enough for me to collapse into the carriage, snatch the bag from a peaking bearded man in a beret who had started to look into the open flap. I fell back off the tram, staggering, hocking up great ropes of spit onto the cold pavement.
The driver looked angry to have been caught. His alcoholic eyes glared at me as he shut the doors and moved away.
I had run streets and streets away from Passepartout.
I had run along long avenues, through non-descript commercial districts, and past wide, open, green squares in front of towering communist housing blocks. The Soviet ideals right here – the project as real, in massive, unavoidable tenements.
The size of the blocks took the breath I was desperately trying to catch. I backed away from them, slightly in awe. And fell backwards into a square.
A museum piece.
A small courtyard – Fő tér, Óbuda, the sign said – baroque buildings, small 18th century palaces, looked over on all sides from behind by the benevolent beasts of the communist blocks.
It was suddenly strange to find myself here. The tranquillity was disconcerting. Old women pulled shopping trolleys with a struggle over the cobblestones. An angle of kind, warming sun hit the square, glaring off the white palace fronts, jutting windows and arched doorways.
I edged out of this small square, unsure if it was real. Perhaps the heaving for air, the gasping of my burning lungs, the lack of oxygen to the brain had conjured it all up in my mind?
Slowly I walked my way back into the centre of Budapest. How would I ever find Passepartout in the city?
We had decided on a favourite restaurant over the past few days, a few hundred yards from the neo-Gothic market hall. I guessed, of all places, she might have gone there.
Walking down the pedestrian road to the restaurant, down Kalvin Ter, head down, feet aching, unhappy, lonely, hands shoved deep in my coat pockets, I looked up.
And there she was.
Passepartout waiting on the road. Smiling amongst the Hungarian shoppers filing past.
In a city of 3 million she was just there. Stood with a lopsided grin that seemed to know something I didn’t. I quickened my pace to reach her, and just as my arms came out from my coat to envelope her, four black cloaked priests crossed our path.
Right between us, the priests bobbed. Like dark rooks.
We stood and talked with the priests a while. Confused as to what they were doing here, in such numbers.
At the end of Kalvin Ter, resting next to the Danube, a mighty church with grand white facade, two black steeples reaching into the sky. One of the Priests nodded towards it.
“Greek Orthodox church… Very good, yes? Very beautiful. You should see inside!”
“Ah yes! Would you like to see inside our church?” said one of the other priests, a small portly man, with an eager rabbity faced poking through his thick curly beard.
“Yes, ok. Why not?” I replied.
“Kala, kala. Good, good…” said the priest, getting out and wrestling with a large jangling bunch of keys and opening up a small door between two shops.
“Where are we going?” I asked as he led us like a long chain into the cramped stone dark grimy hall of a residential block.
“Our church…” he said, clattering the reluctant gate of an ancient lift.
We rode up. The throng of black robed priests and me and Passpartout packed tight in the lift.
The Greek Orthodox church of Budapest now resides in a flat on the third floor above a shopping street.
“What about the grand church down by the river?” I asked.
“Oh the Russians took that from us. After the war,” the priest said, fixing a gold cross around his neck and kissing three times at it. “Please. Take a seat…”
I sat on one of the sofas, Passepartout on an easy chair as the shutters were closed, the candles lit on tall heavy ornate iron holders. A huge ancient dark wooden altar with fantastic painted icons decorating it was built in the corner.
The head father of the church arrived and the other priests prostrate themselves down onto their knees and kissed at the father’s hand and his rings as he smugly walked through the apartment’s hall, his fat jewelled cross hanging heavily from his neck.
He seemed a little taken aback to see us sat there.
The service went on for a long time. Deep heavy monotonous chanting in ancient Greek. Byzantine sung notes wavering in the air. A smoking thymiateria swung cloaking us all in perfumed dust in the dark flickering candle light.
Somewhere else in the block I could hear a phone ringing, a tv playing, a mother shouting down the stairwell at a departing child.
The low bible reciting, the intoning, the archaic descanting continued here.
After the service I talked to the priests. I asked them if they were all Greeks. Some weren’t. Some were Hungarians who had originally been Greek Catholics, a religion I had never heard of before which they told me was similar in most ways to Greek Orthodox, but believing the Pope as the head of the church. They had converted to Orthodoxy but couldn’t or didn’t want to tell me why.
Others had had no religion, they’d had religion denied to them under Communism but were now embracing the Greek Orthodox church. I couldn’t understand why.
I talked to the head father, a long grey-bearded Greek from Crete.
“Are there many Greeks here in Hungary?” I asked “People of Greek origin?”
“Yes, yes. Many of us. About 3,000.”
“And they’re Orthodox? I mean, they wouldn’t have been able to be any religion here 30 years ago or so would they?”
“Yes, they want to be. They want to be Greeks. They want to feel in touch with the religion they had taken away from them.”
“Are they good Orthodox Christians?”
“Ah,” he pulled dismissively at his beard “They try, they try. They are learning…”
I looked around the cold, stone walled flat. There were no parishioners here at all. Greek or not. Just us, the crowded priests and one young woman in hopelessly unfashionable clothes, clumpy shoes, large prominent ears and square glasses.
She was introduced to us as Andra. She would disappear frequently into the little kitchen to bring trays of sweets and drinks for the head father, which she would hand to him lowering herself with her head bowed.
Andra was Romanian but could speak Greek, English, Hungarian. She had chosen to become a Greek Orthodox follower, but she couldn’t tell us why. Another mystery. The religion had just attracted her. She was now studying for a theology PhD here in the city
Passepartout chatted to her a while. Feeling sorry for her really.
Andra brighten visibly. Her nervous twittering of her hand, playing at the strands of hair stopped. She was excited as Passepartout told her of our continuing journey down through Romania.
When the head father left, grandly through the flat’s front door, leaving behind a group of genuflecting priests stooping and bowing behind him, he instructed Andra to look after us.
She bit at her bottom lip and nodded rapidly, earnestly.
I looked round and was shocked to suddenly find a very tall priest at my shoulder.
He had glided soundlessly by my side.
I tried a few words. He smiled but made no response. He carried on smiling, smiling. Then he turned to Andra and spoke some Hungarian to her. She translated.
“Brother Robert would like to take you around Budapest. To show you some of his favourite places. Would that be good for you?”
I looked up at Brother Robert. Long wispy beard, balding, kind blank eyes. He was still smiling, smiling. Like a dumb animal.
I said it would be fine.
So we found ourselves the next day in pale cold sunshine walking through Margaret Island, the 2 kilometer eye-shaped islet in the middle of the Danube, with the totally silent priest.
Even his feet made no sound on the path as we passed the landscaped parks and the medieval ruins and broken cloisters and nunneries and the dishevelled attempt at a zoo.
We passed the 100 year old musical fountain that during the summer months plays snatches of Hungarian songs, with its statue of Poseidon stood up on top of the fountain’s dome, revolving on his plinth fully once every 24 hours.
The fountain in the cold January light was as silent now as our priest.
We must leave.
We told Brother Robert that we must go. A train had been waiting to take us away from Hungary for almost a week now. To travel south, to continue our way down towards Greece. A journey on which we were so late that it didn’t really seem to matter much any longer.
Although there was still, always, Passepartout’s appointment to keep in Thessaloniki. We must go.
I thanked Brother Robert, I told him we were sorry that we couldn’t follow him any longer through his favourite parts of Budapest. He stood and gently smiled. I told him we must go now. He continued to smile at us.
We walked away, back toward the centre of the city.
I looked round. Brother Robert stood in his long black robe, his arms by his side, his thin hair clinging to his head, watching us leave. He was smiling.
We had a final drink in one of the ruined bars in the old Jewish area.
Young Hungarians all around us with their peculiar Oriental look I had seen so many Hungarians seem to have.
In one bar we found an old man playing the cimbalom – the large box case of metal strings that is struck with sticks to echo with haunting tunes.
The tunes followed us away as we made for the sleeper train back at Budapest Keleti.
The train – ‘The Dacia’ – was there for us, as the clock ticked to ten to eleven.
Again the carriages were empty. Nobody on our train as we left, just as there no one was there when we arrived.
The conductor clattered into our sleeper cabin.
“Where are you from?” he asked, looking down at our tickets.
“England,” I said. “Well me anyway. She’s a Grecian… A Gorog.”
He seemed unimpressed.
“And you?” I added.
The conductor mumbled something inaudible, still looking down at our tickets.
“Sorry?” I screwed my face and craned my neck forward “Where did you say you’re from?”
The conductor mumbled again. I thought I half-heard.
“No!” he shouted, suddenly looking up for the tickets, pushing me hard on the shoulder so I sat down heavily onto the bed and bounced back up again.
“I’m Hungarian!” he tapped at his chest.
Hungary and Romania. Of course… We were heading to that most resented of borders.
The guard seemed clueless with our tickets. Eventually he handed them back as if they made no sense at all to him. He made no effort to tell us anything about the journey, whether there will be a border check during the night.
He did promise a dining car though.
But not until 4am.
The toilets at the end of the carriage smelt terribly of piss.
The train clanked away out of the station. It was good to be travelling again. Back in the belly of the whale. Heading down the line. Over the great Hungarian Plains.
The window showed only a black night outside. A blur of flurescent lights as we passed through a station.
We stopped on the Hungarian side of the border. Here I could see the homes set back from the tracks. The looked like suburban Essex semi-detached homes. Strangely dull.
At Lokoshaza at 1.35am, the Hungarian police came on board. Checked our passports. Slowly checking every page. Every blank page. Looking up into our eyes as he flicked each page over.
The policeman made a great show of handing the passport back to me. Brusquely and officially. He snapped his heals together and went to leave our sleeping compartment. Ruining the performance with shoddy English as he went.
“Your papers were in order… That is all…” he said gravelly. “Hello,” he said with an unfriendly sneer as he passed out through the small cabin door.
The heating was stuck.
The plump guard, his face like an egg in wire glasses, was following, cravenly and obsequiously, the police as they made their checks down the corridor.
I took the chance to ask him to look at the heating.
With sweat pouring down his red face, his glasses slipping down his nose he fiddled and thumped at the controls. Finally giving up and turning to go, to follow the policemen down the carriage.
“It’s fine, it’s fine!” he said.
I complained after him down the corridor.
“Well, we’re all the same!” he shouted back, flapping his hands at the end of his white podgy arms, his sleeves rolled up high and tight.
I had thought there was no one on the train, it had been so quiet. But as the police knocked on each door, previously unseen people peered out and started to emerge.
An old man with his grandson. An unsmiling blonde woman.
I ask the blonde woman if her compartment was hot too.
“Mit?” she said, angrily.
“Your compartment. Is it hot?”
She had clearly misunderstood what I was trying to say. Taken great offence. She shouted some cursed words at me. And then some more over my shoulder at Passepartout who was folding up her clothes behind me in our small little train cell.
The stout blonde lady then stomped off down towards the toilet. She turned to glare at me one last time before opening the door. She recoiled at the smell. Coming back past me again, glaring, to her cabin.
A sleeper train on the other side, heading towards Budapest pulled up. I looked out of the window as just one person got off – a little old lady with her shopping bags. Ridiculously small against the huge train.
The whole process of border control had taken almost an hour. And 2.35 had become 3.35 as we finally crossed the border into Romania.
About 10 minutes later we pulled up at the first station in Romania. A colossal Romanian emblem lit up outside the train window. And a huge fluttering EU flag.
We were trying to sleep. The Romanian control now burst straight into our cabin.
I complained that they didn’t even knock. The tall severe Romanian border guard looked around him and shrugged.
“This is train…” he said, matter of fact.
We seemed to have got off on the wrong foot. He took my passport, but without even looking at it he leaned close to me.
“Why you transit Romania?” he prodded. I could smell his breath. It was stale.
I told him we were travelling down from London to Greece.
“Why you not go straight to Greece?” he asked, not wanting on answer.
He looked through the passport. Taking even longer than the Hungarian guard on the other side of the border. He seemed desperate to find something, anything, wrong.
“This passport runs out in October.” He flapped it accusingly in his hand.
It was January. Early January.
He flung the passport down, said something insulting in Romanian. He then checked all of our cupboards, taking off his large peaked military hat to look inside and all around the small wardrobe.
I watched him going down the corridor, going straight through everyone’s door. Silencing the complaining blonde lady. Raking through everyone’s belongings.
He thought about checking in the toilets, opening the door a crack. He changed mind. “Da, da,da,” he motioned at his young colleague, indicating there was actually no real reason to check in there.
We started moving again. The land outside was very flat and wide in the blackness.
The heating woke me at dawn. I pulled the thin curtains to see purple Carpathian mountains, up and down, zig zagging on a violet sky.
Old buildings, medieval looking barns. Ploughed fields. Men were standing in fields, staring at the train as it went by.
I fell asleep again. Waking 2 hours later to deep snow outside the window.
I walked to the dining car. A man in a filthy white apron hung over his filthy white vest was frying eggs in a saucepan for boiling milk. The only other people sat around were old women in headscarves, farmers.
There were no tourists riding this train for fun.