I cross town on my bike, through heavy traffic, over the bridge and up into the hills. Up and up and up. If I didn’t already know I was in Buda, I would have recognised it immediately from the introduction to the couchsurfing wiki about Budapest:
“If you walk uphill in a street flanked by harsh green trees and you haven’t encountered any means of public transport in the last 20 minutes, you are on the Buda side. If you walk on the same distance from sea level for a while in a street filled with cars, buses, trolleybuses and trams and haven’t encountered any kind of vegetation in the last 20 minutes, you are on the Pest side.”
I’m staying with a couchsurfer named Eva, possibly the only Hungarian anarcha-feminist in Budapest. I am very pleased to have found her and she is very nice, if a little shy. I am her first couchsurfer. The day after I arrive Eva takes me into the centre of Pest by tram. She had a cycling accident a while ago and can’t use her bike yet. Neither of us is used to paying for trams, so we don’t. Unfortunately, there is a controller onboard. Apparently this is impossible as it’s a weekend and Eva has never seen them on this line before, but still, here he is. Eva tries to get me off the tram unseen, but it’s no use. We are marched off and onto the platform. We also have the only ticket controller who can speak English, which is a shame as apparently they usually don’t bother with you if you are English. Eva tries to argue with him in Hungarian and I try to plead my case in English. He asks for my ID which I stupidly give him, then he wants 4,000 forinds to give it back. No way. He threatens to call the police. We look at each other for a long time. Eventually he gives it back and we leave quickly. Ha. We calm our shakey nerves in a tea shop.
Budapest used to be two (well, three, but nobody talks much about Obuda) cities: Buda and Pest, growing out of settlements on opposite sides of the bank of the Danube. At one time people crossed from one to the other via boat or a pontoon bridge, but after some Count had to wait a week to cross when the river froze, he pledged a whole year’s wages to build a permanent bridge. Now there are seven. Eva tells me Budapest is too big a city, too big for a country the size of Hungary. Hungary used to be a lot bigger, but it chose the wrong side during the second world war and lost a lot of land. This is what the Hungarian National History Museum says: “it chose the wrong side“. Makes it sound like whoops, could have happened to anyone, as opposed to admitting that the state sided with Hitler. The old Hungary on maps looks to me like a whale. You can see the whale on t-shirts sometimes, an easy way to spot a fascist. They have a taxi company too with the whale on the side of the cars.
On the Budapest Wiki page on couchsurfing.org it says the city is in the post-dogshit-everywhere and pre-starbucks-everywhere age, which sounds quite nice, but I saw an awful lot of dog shit on the pavements and it’s easy to see Starfucks aren’t far off. One thing I’m learning is that capital cities are all alike. They have differences too, of course, but still there are those same shops, big shiny office buildings, concrete slab apartments and blend of extravagance and luxury with absolute poverty.
It’s raining in Budapest. Rain doesn’t suit this city and it doesn’t suit my new-to-me panniers, bought from a girl from couchsurfing in Berlin. She said they were waterproof. They are not. Not at all. Good thing I only paid 15 Euros, not the 20 I was going to give before I saw them. I will have to take a lot of plastic bags with me when we go cycling.
I cross the city in all it’s sogginess, down from the top of Buda mountain and into the traffic chaos of Pest. Sam and I had a mile-a-minute-natter of a catch-up and went out to dinner at the frankly amazing vegan Hungarian restaurant two nights ago. Now her friend Helen has gone back to the UK after her two week holiday cycling here with Sam from Vienna and I am here for the shift-change.
I have moved to Pest, where the traffic is greater and the countryside less, but I don’t have to climb a mountain on my bike at the end of every day and am less likely to be hassled by ticket inspectors. I have left Eva behind, but fortunately the people in the new flat are amazing. Here Peter, Chonghee and Tomash live in a flat they share with a constant stream of couchsurfers. They are possibly the friendliest and most hospitable people alive. Peter is often telling us we are welcome back whenever we like – to visit, to stay for a while, or if we want a home in Eastern Europe. We don’t need to ask – just tell them we are coming and they will make sure there is space.
Round the corner from the flat is Tuzrakter – the closest thing in Budapest to a social centre and also home to the Infoshop, which sadly isn’t really functioning at the moment. What they do have though is a once a month event in Tuzrakter by the Infoshop people. This Thursday it will be about squatting and Peter wastes no time in roping his couchsurfers in on the action. Sam and I will lead a discussion about land squatting and tree-sitting and another CSer, steph who is living in Copenhagen, will answer questions after the film, which happens to be about Ungdomshuset.
Sam and I manage to coble together a workshop, which seems well received with lots and lots of questions from people who can’t believe you can really live in trees and are amazed at some of our stories. Unfortunately when it comes to Hungarian law, we don’t have a clue and can only advise people to find out for themselves. Suddenly I am feeling very blessed for things like the ASS in England; activists who have created a real tradition in the UK during the road protest movement and all of those land-rights geeks. The people here are really starting from scratch.
We have a drink to celebrate, which is a bit of a rarity for both me and Sam these days. We both used to be real drinkers, but have been on and off the wagon in tandem these past couple of years. In general, we both prefer to feel healthy and not drink, but somehow tonight we are up for it. Sam spends the entire next day paying for it, being sick every five to ten minutes in a bucket up by our mezzanine bed throughout the day. Finally she can stand it no more. With no reply on the phone to the supposedly 24 hour doctors, Tomash and I go out to find her a doctor. Tonight is the Night of Tat. It’s probably not called that, but that’s what I prefer to call it. On every street in every direction, people are throwing out huge piles of everything they have been hoarding up for the past year and have now decided to throw away. There are sofas, beds, table and chairs. There are blankets and cushions, pots and pans, lamps and suitcases. There are clothes and coats, scrap metal, bits of wood.. The first time I go out I pick up a rug and a washing-up bowel for the flat. The second time I find a toaster, but am busy getting Sam the cola she thinks will make her feel better and it’s gone by the time I return. When Tomash and I go out to find the doctor, I return with the most beautiful jumper in the world and he gets himself a bed, but later abandons it because he says it smells funny.
The doctors surgery looks completely closed, until we ring the doorbell. Then the lights come on and suddenly people are there. Hmm.. strange. They tell us the doctor will be there in half an hour, which she is. She thinks it’s a virus, not alcohol poisoning. Apparently a lot of people have it. Sam gets a jab in the bum from a middle-aged male nurse who speaks to her like she’s a pig and I feel very sorry for her. Poor poorly Sam.
We have to stay even longer for Sam to recover. Peter already tempted us into staying longer than planned for a “feminist bike workshop”, which later turned out to be a “woman’s bike workshop” – an altogether and entirely different thing, held in a museum as part of an exhibition. We also stayed longer to see the exhibition by three more couchsurfers staying in the flat. They all flew here from Finland and have friends flying in from all over Europe to come too. Sam and I both find this difficult. We have both done anti-aviation activism and are trying our best not to blurt out our feelings about it. Things are made worse when we see the exhibition, which consists of the three girls wearing black dresses, twirling black ribbon around the “audience” and then drawing on a big piece of paper on the wall in lipstick.
Fortunately an earthquake in Iceland sparks up some more open conversations about the flying issue and everyone ends up having to find alternative means of getting home. The revenge of Gaia. We are thrilled. Even the Finnish girls are happy in the end.
Before we leave, Peter has something else to ask me. He has found my blog and asks if I would consider blogging for a new English-speaking Hungarian Indymedia which is just starting up. As far as I know the site isn’t live yet and I’m a little unsure of myself in this territory, but I’m definitely up for it and very flattered at being asked
Unfortunately I never got to see the squat that is currenlty being worked on, but we did leave a small pile of things for the Free Shop. Chonghee showed us some photos and it looks like it will be a good place. They have been collecting food from markets for the opening party next week. Dumpster diving is hard here, but the people in the flat have an arrangement with people in at least one market and can go there for unsold food. I’m realising that though Eastern Europe is cheaper than, you do have to actually pay for things, making it more expensive for people like us – especially when you have to buy your new shiny white women’s touring saddle twice because some arsehole nicks it when you forget to take your bike inside for the night!
We take Jim with us as far as Magdeburg and say goodbye to him for the fourth time since starting this adventure. This could well be the last in a long time, but who knows what might happen? Jim is hitching West to Amsterdam where he will stay in Casa Robino, one of the Nomad Bases I keep hearing about. I await news of this on his blog in eager anticipation…
Pete and I drive North to Salzwedel and, as is the norm with us, take twice the estimated journey time getting there. Not only that, but google maps has directed us to the wrong village, to a road that doesn’t exist. A man in something like an AA office (the car repair people, not the alcoholics) doesn’t speak any English, but he does draw me a very neat map in biro, scrunching up a whole sheet of A4 when he makes a mistake and being sure to put in landmarks like churches and a glass house. This we follow to Riebau, a tiny village right on the old East-West border that doesn’t appear on any of our maps. The most interesting things always happen off the map.
When we finally find the place it’s almost dark. We are welcomed by a friendly man and four sullen teenagers and told dinner will be in half an hour – excellent news! On the way in I introduce myself to someone who says she knows who I am and thought I would be coming. It turns out she’s friends with Jim, but he didn’t know she was coming and she didn’t know we were just with him. She agrees to show us around, although actually she doesn’t know where anything is either and it’s more like exploring together.
The main building is a huge concrete slab of three stories that used to serve as a barracks for border guards. It has approximately 50 rooms, which have somehow become filled up with the biggest collection of tat (stuff) I have ever seen.
It’s like this: Outside the front door is a giant pile of everything from clothes to cushions to rugs to frying pans. On entering the building, to your left is a room with a giant wall chart where people can write workshop suggestions and add names with a “!” if they can teach it or a “?” if they want to learn. Also on the ground floor is the kitchen, a room that is being cleared out to make a dining room, two bike workshops, a room full of computer parts, another full of windows and another full of bags of clothes. At the far end of the hallway are some sofas, rugs and cushions piled up in front of a big curtain. What’s behind the curtain? We’ll have a look there later…
Up the stairs and down the hall is the tea room – later referred to by us as the smoking room, an office with several computers, a creative room with paints, stencils and craft items, a kids room with a very creative bunk bed, an out of date info-shop and a small library. In the other direction is a meeting room which is never used, a sport room with lots of mats, a sewing-machine room and some sleeping rooms with beds or mattresses and occasional furniture.
On the top floor is a lot more sleeping rooms and some rooms which have been closed off because a fire that happened a while ago may have damaged the floor. The hallway runs from one end of the building to the other. It is full of sofas.
Oh yes, the cellar: one of the few parts of the building with electricity – a fortunate thing or you might stumble in total blackness into the Lighting Department, my name for the room filled with light-fittings and lampshades. This leads into the Kitchen Department, with everything you could possibly need for baking, cooking or eating. Further down the hall is a room of retro electrical equipment, including short wave radios, hi-fis and a floor-to-ceiling stack of 1950′s turntables. There is also another cellar entrance, but I expect you are bored of this by now…
Outside are several wagons, one of which is a workshop, a big old yellow hippy bus with “info bus” painted on the side, a garage filled with more workshop equipment and cushions, some sheds, oh and let’s not forget the big old spooky ghost house and abandoned railway line!
Part of the house was the train station. It has three stories too and is filled with such wonders as another room of windows and a stack of beehives, one of which appears to be occupied.
It took a couple of days for me to get around to looking behind that curtain. My god. How can I explain this? If you can squeeze yourself between the rolls of carpet, old suitcases, cycle helmets and pile of sleighs, I invite you to peer inside the first door on your right. This room is half full – not wall to wall or door to window, but halfway UP with toys. Entering this room would not be possible. The next room to your right is completely filled wall to wall and door to window with household furniture – mostly wardrobes and sideboards. The rooms further on from this are not at all easy to get to, but I did manage to clamber my way into the first room on the left, in which I found not only a real fur coat (urgh!), and a medieval dress (which I wore for a day), but also another room partially concealed by the piles of clothes, and yet another room leading from that one, a labyrinth of tat…
It seems this is a new collective. The old collective had problems – a lot of arguments, mostly centering around one person. This collective have been here for three months. But where did all of the tat come from? Most common answer: from one man. He collected this. He brought it here. But why? How? Where is he now? Nobody knows, or at least they don’t say. Some people think he’s coming back. Nobody knows when. I could have guessed the history of a place called Tramschule would be elusive. Tramschule is German for “Dreamschool”. Why shouldn’t it’s history sound like a dream, fragmented and discontinuous? Why shouldn’t it’s rooms be labyrinthine and filled with improbable items?
What would people learn at a Dreamschool? We have come here – an assortment of travelers, nomads, anarchists, hippies, punks, rainbow people and permaculturists - mostly in response to a message posted on various different couchsurfing groups.
The first thing I learn, and the first I teach others who arrive after me: there is no system here. Not for anything. If you want to wash up, first you must find washing-up liquid, a sponge, a place to put clean things… Unsurprisingly, few people wash up. There is no rota for cooking. Workshops are suggested on that chart in the first room, few materialise. In the seven days I spend at Tramschule, the only workshops happening are two yoga workshops (led by me), a discussion and idea share on living and traveling without money (led by me), a herbal medicine workshop (cancelled), a permaculture planning session for the community, which may or may not have happened and an ongoing project to build a solar-shower which, to be fair, is rather good.
Pete and I, fed up with the smoke in the tea room, take a day to clear out a room on the top floor and create a “smoke-free chill-space”. Daniel of solar shower fame laughs at us and says nobody will go there, but he’s wrong. Soon there is a pregnant woman sleeping there, people reading books, Laure uses it when she falls sick and the collective have their meetings there. We bring them vegan chocolate cake baked during a particularly long meeting and delight them all.
Ok, so there are other people doing things. There are a few very sorted people spending a lot of time clearing through all of the junk in the house. It’s a thankless task. Then there are the kids – five teenagers brought here from “bad homes” for two weeks holiday by their social worker (an anarchist) to experience a different way of living – are often seen helping out in the kitchen. They also take it upon themselves to clear out a room and make a cinema just before I leave, so we can all watch films now!
Some things have an order of degrees. There is a storage room with lots of organic wholefoods. People go out skipping regularly, but I can never find out who or when and so I never go with them. There is a kitchen, an office, a sport room. There are noticeable patterns emerging, like who is uaually in the kitchen cooking and who is usually in the tea room smoking.
I surprise Pete by saying that if I didn’t have other plans I would like to stay here for quite a while. It’s not so much the project itself. I’m not even sure what the project is really. It’s more that I like who I am here, what it brings out in me. It’s like the raw potential of the place, all of the space, all of the stuff, the ingredients to create anything mixed with an absolute lack of obligation or expectation brings out my most motivated creative self. Ideas are spewing out of me faster than I can write them, everything I could ever possibly need materially to start just about any project can probably be found in a box in the basement or one of the numerous piles in the garden.
But I have plans. My train leaves Berlin at 10:36 Friday morning and I am meeting Samantha in Budapest on Monday. Seven days of dreaming and we are back on the road again. Pete will come back in a few days without me and I will start a new part of my adventure: a cycle tour to Belgrade.
It was a very long time ago that I was in Copenhagen and took part in this workshop, but due to a request I am posting this recipe here.
Ingredients: washing machine, bicycle, some stuff to make a stand.
Tools: angle-grinder, screwdriver, tire-levers
Ok, so this experiment actually failed. Why? Well, the drive belt didn’t work for a start. It kept slipping off. Perhaps a bike inner tube might work better – maybe even the one you removed from the bike, made smaller. Much experimenting is needed. Also, rigging up a way of securing the belt to the washing machine, without impeding on its turning would help.
If anyone manages to sort this out, please leave a comment.