I had written four Hungarian phrases into the first page of my notebook in order to help me get along in Budapest. The variants of good morning/afternoon/evening, the word for ‘thank you’, how to ask someone whether they can speak English, and in the event that they couldn’t, “kaphatnék egy sört.”
It took me until eleven o’clock on my first night, and my second drink in Budapest, to find a pint of beer which worked out at the equivalent of £1.51 and was, therefore, better value than the £1.69 I had paid for a bottle of water at the branch of WH Smith in Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow earlier in the day. The pub was on the next street from my hotel, and the first thing I could see when I walked in was a popcorn machine sitting on the bar facing the open doors. Inside, the barman was sweeping the floor with a hard-bristled brush. He looked as though he had been working there, brushing the same floor, since the Stalin era. His complexion was cement-like, grey and brooding, while his olive coloured apron was the most colourful item in the place.
The dusty old bartender was the fourth person I had encountered in Hungary, after the woman at the BKK ticket desk in the airport, the man on reception at my hotel when I checked in and the waiter at Gettó Gulyás, where I was served my first – and best – bowl of traditional Hungarian goulash, and he was the first who didn’t speak any English. I tried out my version of good evening, which by now was already beginning to sound like I was trying to get the attention of a Spanish Steven. Yaw aeshtayt was how I had, phonetically, written the phrase in my notebook, but even I could hear that it was coming out of my mouth more like a “yo a Stevie.” A smile cracked across the features of the barman. I imagined that it was his first experience of smiling since around 1991, and it was warming to see.
Almost all of the local people I encountered in Budapest had a very good knowledge of the English language, and often my trouble was more with understanding them than the Hungarians understanding me. On the first morning of my trip, I walked across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to see the Buda side of the city. Originally Budapest was three different cities – Buda, Óbuda and Pest – until they were unified in 1873. While linked by several different bridges across the Danube River, the Buda and Pest sides of the city have very distinctive features. Buda is more residential, quieter and is set upon rolling hills, where Buda Castle and Matthias Church are found.
The chalk-white Neo-Romanesque towers of Fisherman’s Bastion is where I spent a large part of my first day. On my way up the winding stairways, my progress was often stopped by the couple ahead of me. The woman was dressed entirely in black and seemed to be her partner’s photoshoot project, her red hair bleeding against the white stone. While I could see the attraction, the panoramic views of Budapest from the lookout terrace were much more appealing.
It was when I returned to the area which I had been gazing down on from up high that I experienced my first real difficulty with language. I had ventured on to Három Holló, a speakeasy bar which had attracted my attention whilst researching my trip online when it was described as being a hub for Budapest’s “socially sensitive, musically-inclined, left-wing intellectuals.” I had aspirations of being at least one of those and turned up just as the seating was being arranged for what looked to be some kind of performance. The pint of American Pale Ale I ordered was almost twice the price of the Borsodi I had enjoyed the previous night, but as a socially sensitive intellectual, I couldn’t be seen to be complaining.
I took a seat in the corner of the room with my notebook, and it wasn’t long before the place filled up and a woman was reading to an audience at the front of the bar area. The performance was entirely in Hungarian, and I couldn’t be sure if it was poetry, drama or spoken word, though the absence of laughter from the group was leading me to think that it might have been a Hungarian female version of one of my Diaries of a single man readings. The more I was drinking from my beer, and the longer the performance was going on, the more awkward and uncomfortable I was beginning to feel. There was an attentive silence in the bar, no-one was going to order drinks and nobody was leaving. How sensitive would it look if I got up and waded through the entire audience to leave, or if I was to make one of my efforts to attract the attention of a Spanish Steven at the bar?
It was impossible to even judge from the tone if the performance was anywhere close to being finished. I was nursing my beer, trying to make it last as long as possible, when two young females entered the bar and sat at the only available seats left, which happened to be at my table in the corner. I could scarcely believe that such a situation would arise where two beautiful young women would sit at my table in a hipster bar. They were obviously reluctant to potentially interrupt the live reading by ordering drinks for themselves, and then it occurred to me that I couldn’t talk to them, or at least attempt to talk to them, even if I was feeling brave enough to try. It was a scenario where the only red face I had was from the heat of the sun I had been walking in all day.
After twenty-four hours in the city, I had picked up a habit of trying bad Hungarian on barmaids who ended up having perfectly good English. This manner made itself most known when I visited Szimpla Kert, which is Budapest’s most iconic ruin pub. When I first became aware of the term ruin pub, I thought of the condition I have been in when leaving Aulay’s on any given Friday, where I have been ruined by Jameson. In actuality, a ruin pub is a bar which has been created in an old derelict building, where the furniture is second-hand and everything has utilised as little renovation as possible. They were popularised in the early 2000s when more and more buildings in Budapest were falling into a state of disrepair after the end of Communism a decade or so earlier.
Szimpla Kert had numerous bars spread out over three or four different floors, many of them having different themes or atmospheres. It was at one of those bars that I thought I was being smart when I tried to impress the barmaid by asking for “a sört of beer.” Apart from my phrase literally translating as me asking for “a beer of beer,” the Hungarian word sört is supposed to sound similar to the English word sure. The barmaid looked at me with incredulity. “You want a shot of beer?” She questioned. I thought it better to offer my apology in my native tongue and accepted a full pint of beer instead.
Although Szimpla Kert was a stunning sight to behold, it felt a lot like being in one of the “Irish” pubs that every city seems to have, where they are crowded with English stag parties and everyone is at an incredibly high volume of drunkenness. After exploring the multiple layers of the ruin pub, I returned to the area around my hotel, which was less populated with tourists. Across the square, I found Imperial Pub, which like the place with the dusty barman the previous night, was a quiet watering hole for locals. Three men were sitting at the bar as I entered, and the woman who was pouring their pints spoke nothing but Hungarian. I was able to make it clear this time that I was hoping for an entire glass of beer, and upon hearing my voice the youngest of the men spoke to me in English which was almost although not quite as broken as my Hungarian was. He told me that he had spent the previous summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke, which was one of those places that I always knew existed, but I was never entirely sure where it was or had met anyone who had ever been there.
To emphasise that his story was true, as if my reaction had somehow suggested to him that I didn’t quite believe that he had once worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, he extended his right arm across my chest, where he pointed out a gruesome burn which was across the bone of his wrist and was the colour of modestly milky coffee. I presumed that it was healing. In an effort to make conversation I asked the Hungarian with the burn scar how he had enjoyed his time in the United Kingdom, but it turned out that his grasp of the English vocabulary extended as far as to literally tell me that he worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, and our exchange fell flat.
Regardless of there being only one common strand between us, that being that the Hungarian had briefly lived in Basingstoke and I had heard of it, he offered to buy me a shot of his liquor of choice, which was Jim Beam apple flavoured whiskey. I hadn’t learned the phrase for “no thank you, I don’t enjoy apple flavoured alcohol” and so over time I ended up with two of the things. I bought him a beer in return, by which point I had become a sort of musical carousel, an object which nobody really quite understands, but that they take an interest in any way because it is new and emits a peculiar sound.
A second member of the party shuffled closer to me. He had asked the barmaid to play some songs by the rock band Guns N’ Roses through her YouTube screen, which had been linked to the bar’s speaker system. I found it fascinating that even though he didn’t speak a word of English, this man was delighted to hear Axl Rose’s voice, while I too was thrilled to be able to listen to the music. He was speaking at me with emphatic Hungarian, and I was talking back to him in English. We didn’t understand a word that the other was saying, yet when it came to the guitar solos and he was wildly strumming his hand down the imaginary guitar on his torso, we both knew exactly what it meant.