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!