Staying Hungary

Posted by tobymuresianu on Aug 2, 2013 in Travel |

Sometimes when I am working in Europe, I get the chance to perform someplace where people don’t speak English. It’s better than it sounds. English is a close second to Love as the universal language, and there’s enough expats to fill a bar anywhere. This time I ended up doing a night in Budapest, Hungary.

Our first stop was the flat we were staying, which had been booked over an apartment share website (HungAirBnb?). I’d been fretting in my mind whether some material I’d written about the Huns would be relevant, so when the person showing us the apartment’s name was Attila I sighed in relief.

It turns out Hungarians are still proud of the Huns, though most of Europe remembers them for the whole massacring villagers thing, and genetic tests indicate modern Hungarians are less descended from the huns than from those villagers. It’s sort of similar to the relationship Romania has with the Romans – essentially forming your national identity via Stockholm Syndrome.

Attila the Hungarian seemed nice enough – he didn’t trample us under a war horse or anything – though he did try to convince the promoter that the two bedroom apartment the promoter had booked only included the use of one bedroom with two beds on it unless we paid extra. Eventually the promoter convinced him otherwise. Perhaps their time honored practice of extorting tribute has faded into a more gentle haggling.

In any case, the apartment was built during communist times, or at least I hope nobody was paid for making it. Some of the typical Eastern Bloc User Friendliness:

* A shower curtain that curved around a few feet in front of the shower, presumably to hide the view of all the water on the floor.

* A showerhead that did not reach the shower head holder combined with a water heater that didn’t work, so showering was done by holding a showerhead blasting cold water inches from your skin. Though this could have been by design in order to conserve water, or keep it off the floor after they realized where they’d put the shower curtain.

So close, yet so far

* In yet another effort to conserve water, the toilet did not have a bowl full of water and is shaped somewhat like a waterfall. Basically, the way it works is (WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES AHEAD) your turds drop down onto a flat piece of plastic, where they sit as though on an examination table, instantly filling the adjacent rooms with the unmistakable odor of dry feces. After finishing your business and attempting to flush, a pitiful sound emerges from the device and you are left to stare at your handiwork as it lies like a beached whale with water gently lapping by it like the receding tide. You are then forced to flush dozens of times until the forces of erosion eventually carry the log down the hole like the worlds most disgusting water slide, or use the cleaning brush to speed nature along. Is this too gross for a blog? It was too gross for my life, but it still happened.

The only other noteworthy aspect to the apartment was that like many buildings in Budapest, it was built around a courtyard, though there was only cement at the bottom. It was hard not to imagine people being held over the edge and interrogated Goodfellas-style.

Now do we get to use both bedrooms in the apartment?

After dropping our bags, I headed into town with the opening comedian, Neil Morgan, an Irishman who lives in Brno, Czech Republic. One of the interesting parts of Euro integration is that in addition to Polish people moving to Britain, a lot of Irish and English have moved to places like Brno where multinational tech companies have set up offices and call centers, so that customers in Britain think they are getting local phone support.

Budapest has many attractions, including the largest Synagogue outside of New York:

1% of the Budapest Synagogue

Where to get the chosen information

As well as statues of people on razor scooters being ridden by kids like razor scooters:

Lenin’s first razor scooter

and, of course, Mary Poppins:

Apparently the umbrella took her here.

Budapest has a very familiar, cinematic feel, and for good reason – it has been filmed more than any other city, though typically as a “stand-in” city for others: Paris, Rome, etc. As you walk through the boulevards you almost expect to see flashy car-chases screeching through them, or hear those bank alarms and European police sirens go off right before Jason Statham knocks over your fruit stand. No such luck on our trip, though.

On a previous tour of central Europe, I’d met Dave Thompson, a wonderful British comedian who played Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies and wrote a book called “The Sex Life of a Comedian,” presumably because it was a less creepy title than “The Sex Life of a Teletubby.” He had settled in Budapest because he claimed that Hungarian women were the most beautiful in the world. While usually this is just local pride in this case I couldn’t help but notice (I’m not made of stone) that women were consistently extremely beautiful; I would place it as city with the fifth most beautiful women I’ve seen, after New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and if you are a girl, whatever city you live in (so smooth).

Even more than the architecture or the women, though, I found myself most attracted to the beauty of the exchange rates (I am made of Jew). An overstuffed falafel sandwich will run you the equivalent of $2 including tax. On the other hand, all the food I had was pretty bad, but that may be more a result of me frequenting $2 kebab places than anything.

After about two hours of walking around, it was time for the show. In the upstairs showroom, we played to a mostly full crowd of about 50 people; summers tend to dent comedy turnouts in any language. Unlike other shows I’ve done in Europe, they were mostly locals, with a few expats and a couple Romanians who came out because they recognized my name as Romanian. Someday I hope people will recognize my name as my name rather than simply belonging to my ethnicity, but since it’s more common for people to recognize my name as simply a jumble of vowels that they have no idea how to pronounce I’ll take whatever I can get.

The show was very fun, and unusual in that there was a guest set before my performance by an opera singer, who ended up being a bit late to the show as he had just won a chess tournament down the road. It was also the first time I shared the stage with someone’s puppy who wandered across the stage; her lack of stage fright at such a young age was pretty remarkable and I see stardom in her future. It was the happiest I’ve ever been to have someone come up on stage, and it didn’t distract from the show at all; if YouTube has taught us anything, it’s that people pay more attention to anything there are puppies involved in.

After the show, we went out to a “ruin pub”, a phenomenon unique to Budapest. After the fall of the socialist state, there were a bunch of buildings with courtyards that were derelict and owned by the state. The fall of the socialism coinciding with strong demand for alcohol, a few entrepreneurs starting putting bars in abandoned courtyards, graffitiing them up, and staying one step ahead of the police until they made enough money to buy the buildings outright. Tragically, after feeling like very saavy authentic tourists it turned out we were in a faux-ruin-pub just built to look like one – the Hungarian club equivalent of buying pre-distressed jeans. You can’t win em all, but on the plus side, their bathroom was light years better than I (shudder to) imagine authentic ones would be.

After many shots of Palinka (Hungary’s local hard liquor or cough syrup, I wasn’t sure) it was time to pass out in our pleasantly separate bedrooms, though only after setting our alarms for a horribly early hour to take the train to Neil’s adopted hometown of Brno. Would have liked to spend more time in Budapest and have my fingers crossed I’ll return there to do a show (or open for an opera singer) soon.

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