Early Morning Start

Early Morning Start The clock was set for 4:00 am, but we had requested a wake up call for additional security. If we were forced to take the next train, our trip time would increase by three hours. Our train was at 5:47 am, which would put us into Budapest at 6:47 pm. Thirteen hours on a train is not unreasonable when sitting in first class, but the thought of finding room for the luggage is intimidating. Luggage is not checked like the airlines do and you are responsible for it yourself. This type of adult responsibility, we would gladly share with some stranger in exchange for a few greenbacks or in the case of German marks, green, red, blue, any color that will prevent black and blue. At 1:30 this morning, I am still staring at the digital clock watching the minutes change from one minute to one minute later ad nauseum, waiting for sleep to follow. You would think that boredom alone would put me out, but it doesn’t. For once it is my own fault that I can’t sleep. I was writing up until 11:30, so my mind is still spinning and it just won’t shut down. Finally, I was in the middle of a luscious dream that feels familiar, like I am having a déjà vu experience in a dream state. I wake once, but I was able to fall asleep once again and enter the same dream where I left off. There is a sense of peace and comfort when that happens, but the phone rings and ends the night’s reverie. Ron jumps up to answer and heads to the bathroom, while I nod off once again, but this time, my somatic fantasy eludes me. Shortly thereafter, it was time to wash away the remnants of sleep in the shower’s spray and slink out of the hotel quietly so that none of the other guests are disturbed. The reception man seemed surprised to see us leave so early, which was surprising since he provided the wake up call. The Hotel Callas Am Dom (Am Dom means of the cathedral), was very conveniently located on the pedestrian mall within five minutes of the train station, so it was ideal for dragging our bags back there without a hassle. Setting them on fire has crossed our minds, but we were fearful of the German laws on arson. The staff were gracious and hospitable, the beds comfortable, and the pillows divine. We can only hope for the same elsewhere. The hotel elevator is so small, Ron and one carry-on suitcase go down first. When the elevator returns, I put one of the large pieces in and send it down. This continues until everything is downstairs and I am the last to arrive. At 5:00 am, the square is quiet and the only signs of the Christmas market are the secured booths resting until later in the morning when they will be plunged into action once more. The cathedral is majestically reaching into the sky with its two lacy towers allowing light to flow through them. At the train station, I found a money machine. It is so reassuring the way they spit out money, but if they don’t it is usually explained in some language you don’t understand and are left standing there wondering how the relationship eroded so quickly. The hotel in Budapest that we were finally able to book does not take credit cards and prefers being paid in U.S. dollars or German Marks when possible. We have stayed at this place in the past and the host is very gracious. He made us a traditional Christmas dinner and allowed Ron to have a small Christmas tree in our room. The whole thing perplexed me since we were here in May. Go figure! Actually now that I think about it, it was indeed Christmas. The Hungarian Fornit is still waiting to be included into the European Union at which time, it will transform into a Euro. Until then, it is not a stable currency. We had to call the booking agent since we were not getting a response to our e-mails and since we had stayed at this place in the past, the owner has started exclusively using a booking agent. We were going to stay at a hotel that our friend Myrtis recommended, but they insisted on our printing out their form and faxing it to them. No wonder their economy is not improving as fast as they would like with this inflexibility. Finding a fax machine for hire was more difficult than finding a hooker, illegal drugs, or talking dogs. It was more than I could handle mentally as we had only found two Internet cafés as it was. If there were a Rent-to-Own, we would probably have tried that too, but there weren’t any of those either. We tried calling the number they gave us and there was no answer. If they don’t answer the phone, how could we be sure they would have read our fax? If they had waved frequent flyer miles in front of my face, I would have walked the form there, but there was little incentive other than a bed for a couple of nights. Walking to the entrance to track six, our departure track, we stopped for a coffee and a pastry, at least that is what Ron said it was. If I were blindfolded, I would have guessed foam rubber. By 5:25 am, I was ready to find the elevator and get ready to board the train. I have an even more compulsive streak when it comes to travel. Why leave anything to chance. European trains are efficient in that they tell you what letter to stand by for your car and they are marked along the gate. Ron was sipping his coffee and I said we had better get moving toward the elevator. When it comes to getting seats, I turn into a guerrilla terrorist so that I find a place for my luggage. I still feel guilty about the elderly nun that I had to push off out of the boarding gate once, since she was blocking my way and had more carry-ons than I did. She would have hogged the bins, I was sure of it. I did send flowers to her hospital room, but even now I wonder if her hip replacement was a total success. Seconds after I told Ron we had to move, he reaches into his pocket for a cigarette, which I knew he was not going to smoke while carting the suitcases. Then life turned into s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n, like watching a movie at one frame per minute. He lights his cigarette and continues sipping he coffee as if he were still on a farm in Iowa watching the corn grow. Without a word, really, without a word and don’t think it took all of the energy I had to restrain myself, I waited to see how long this was going to take. Finally he started moving in the direction of the elevator after me. I could have been at the gate in our designated space by the time he reached the elevator, but if I let him out of my sight, it is more stress wondering what country he will turn up in next. Just as we reached the platform and I went to check the location of the first class cars, the train pulled in. First class was E and F. I found the luggage compartment in the car next to ours and secured it with a lock. This was too easy, there has to be a catch somewhere. I double checked the sign on the car where the luggage was to make sure it did not end at Vienna while we continued on to Budapest. We found a compartment in the next car that was empty. We had six seats to ourselves if we put some of our things on each of the other four seats to make them look occupied. First class is usually not that full anyway. Our luggage cord was not nearly as thick and secure as many that we saw in Amsterdam that had been snipped through to steal a bicycle, so I did have some concerns when we stopped at different stations. The one bit of satisfaction was that if someone did try to steal one of the pieces of baggage, they would have fractured vertebrae before getting off the train and the screams of agony would surely alert us to check what was happening. It would be a little different than a car alarm going off where everyone just continues on with their business and just act annoyed at the harsh decibel disturbance. At 5:47 and thirty seconds, the train left Cologne station. The printout that we had received the night before from train information, it showed the train going from Cologne to Budapest without any stops. We thought that was strange, but the later trains on the same sheet showed a number of stops. On the train, there is a flyer giving the details of the amenities of the train and a schedule. There were twenty-six stops in between our departure and our destination. That is a lot of territorial behavior to maintain our compartment for the duration. With Europe being borderless for the most part, we have not had our passports stamped all that often. Of course it was stamped when we entered London, then when we went to Ireland. Returning to London, they did not even bother looking at it and the same was true for Holland and Germany. The train chugged from Cologne to Bonn, the former capital of Germany, but it is now Berlin. It was my anticipation that I would catch up on my sleep on the train. I couldn’t I was wired. Budapest is a wonderful city and I was filled with fantasies about renting an apartment. Next stops were Remagen, then Andernach, followed by Koblenz. I thought I would start doing some typing, but with the movement of the train, it looked like fjqojef qoerfvmvpofq. It could have been the next contest, but it did not seem likely anyone would be able to break the code, so the computer went back in my backpack and I started reading Ian Rankin’s Witch Hunt. I had never heard of him before, but it seems that he is very popular in the States, though he is British, and has earned numerous literary awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Miss Stewardess conductor came around and sold coffee, but Ron wanted tea. She left and came back with tea, then returned once again to check our tickets. At Mainz, the next stop, there was a change or crew and we had to show our tickets once again to Mr. Stern conductor who was all business and did not smile. Frankfurt airport was the dangerous stop. For a moment, we thought there would be intruders into our little glass cage, so we had feigned sleep with our stocking feet up on the seat across from us. Only sadists find it enjoyable to disturb sleeping travels for a seat if there are other spaces. By Frankfurt main, we started changing crew about every three stops. Being paranoid about losing important travel documents, I keep the Europasses locked in my backpack. It was a number of times we showed them to Mr. Apologetic conductor, Mr. I Could Care Less conductor, Mr. Oh, You Are Two Of Those conductor, Mr. I Am The Boss And Don’t Forget It conductor, Mr. I Would Rather Be Retired conductor, Mr. I Am Not Sure What I Am Looking At conductor, and Mr. I Am Too Pretty for This Train conductor. Over and over they had to make their appearance for the scrutiny of this diverse group to make sure we were not stowaways. If we were stowaways, we would certainly be less obvious about marking our territory in the glass cage, we would be locked in Water Closets. I have another theory that the conductor from that fateful trip to The Hague alerted other train staff with an all points bulletin that there are two Americans that don’t know when to get off of the train, so be aware and kick them off at their correct stop. Our stop was the end of the line, so there was no confusion of going further this time. We traveled the rails through Aschaffenburg, Wurzburg, Nurnberg, Regensburg, Platting, Passau, Scharding, Neumarkt-Kallham, Weis, and all of the stations look similar. One station looks like another and you become so involved in your book, nap, or paper, or whatever that you forget to look out the window. When you do, there is nothing absorbing to distract you from your book, nap, or paper. What country are we in? When do we change borders? How many years have we been on this train? Are we going in the correct direction? Why do the signs look Finnish? At Weis, a group of six boarded the train. They were twenty-somethings. They wanted our compartment since they reasoned they had reserved it. There was nothing in the reservation area to verify that the seats were reserved and the first conductor of the morning told us the seats were vacant. Ron became testy and refused to move. I on the other hand don’t like confrontations in languages I don’t understand, but Ron insisted they call the conductor to settle the argument. After all, we had our shoes off, our cookies spread out, our neatly spread open to the last page we were reading before the rude disruption, and most importantly, our butts had formed the comfortable indentations in the seat. This was just too much to start over at this point. Mr. I Hate Conflict conductor arrived, made apologies to us and asked us if we would mind moving since the reservation for this group of over aged brats was screwed up. We moved. Later Mr. IHC conductor came to apologize again and said they told him they were heavy smokers and could not go two hours without smoking. If we knew that was all it took, we could hold five cigarettes in each hand too. Would that have won us the seats? Next time we will try that trick. When they departed two hours later, we were going to return to our little haven that had now been polluted with an unhappy memory. A few chants and a stick of incense would have released the past, but there were dozens of beer cans flowing from the garbage can onto the floor. It seems that all of that smoking also severely dehydrated them. At some point after Linz, St. Polten, or Vienna Huttledorf, the passport control militia came through and checked out passports. Some of these guys come through looking like SWAT members and you are the terrorist that was on the loose. Someone should tell these guys, the walls have come down all over the place. We lost track of the stations by that time. The Austrian control looked at them and gave them back without stamping them. We wanted that stamp for our collection, but we couldn’t even beg for one, he had nothing to stamp them with. Vienna West, Bruck an d. Leitha, Hegyeshalom, cat naps were fit in between interruptions for ticket checks by changing staff. At Gyor, the Hungarian passport control came through and stamped the passports after gliding them through a little machine slung over his shoulder. After each swipe, the machine gave an approving bleep presumably meaning that we were not dissidents that should not enter the country. It really is shocking how many people are trying to escape to Hungary. My concern was that now some computer in the Hungarian government now has a record of us being there. With that knowledge, we will have to leave the country and get our passports stamped again at the end of our allowed time. We are still not sure if it is thirty, sixty days, ninety days, or until they find you and kick you out. Reminds me of a commercial from my childhood for a children’s laxative, “How many prunes should we give him? Are two enough or are six too many?” Are thirty days enough, are ninety days too many? Two more stops and we are here, Budapest Kelenfold and Budapest Deli-pu, our final destination. This was not the station that we came into the last time, but it was the station we left from on our way to Prague, so it was not totally unfamiliar. As you exit the train, straining with luggage, there are dozens of people that are offering taxis, hotels, apartments, their first-born child, coffee, tea or a nighttime snack, which does not resemble a nutritious snack to me. One giant, “No Thanks!” cleared a way in the mob so that we could get our bearings. Waiting in line fruitlessly at the information office, I realize that this is for train information only. There is not a Tourist office anywhere to be found. Bank machines were not scattered all over the station either. We did not have any Hungarian Forits, therefore a taxi was out of the question until we were able to withdraw some. A very good-looking young man came up to me with an official looking taxi cab driver ID. Not having a clue whether he just printed it on a laptop at the local Internet café or not, I said, “Yes, we wanted a taxi, but needed money first.” He led me to the bank machine, then I led him to Ron and the albatrosses. He quickly grabbed the large suitcases and took off with us in tow. He LIFTED the suitcases and took them down the flight of stairs. Left on our own, we would have thrown them over the wall and hoped that we did not kill an innocent bystander. Watching him lift the suitcases was enough to convince us that he was our man. Our man took us for a ride, both figuratively and literally. After we reached the area that we recognized, he went a couple of miles farther. We told him he passed the turn, but he said he needed to go farther due to all of the one-way streets. Telling him we had been here before and knew the area, did not deter his determination to make a better night for himself. The fare was four thousand three hundred forits, about twelve dollars with the tip and eight dollars more than it should have been. Yes, I tipped him regardless. Anyone who could manage to carry this luggage up in the air and down a flight of stairs deserved to have tickets sold and share in the profit. We found the host of the pension as friendly and accommodating as we had remembered. The room is comfortable and the bed is queen size. We have a private bath and all for forty-four dollars a night for both of us. If we want breakfast in the morning, it is two dollars, but coffee and beer are free and we are to help ourselves. Tom, our host is Hungarian, but was married to an American, so he lived in Connecticut for over twenty years. He has a Masters degree in International Finance and returns to the States every February and March to get his taxes in order. Why, we never found out. Having finished a beer he provided and some remembrances of our last visit, we put our things in the room and went out to refresh our memories of the area. The restaurant that we enjoyed the most was still where we left if, but it seems it became the favorite of others too since we had been here. We could not find a table, so we moved on to another. If we had been smart, we would have sent them a “Reserved” sign to hang on the front door with a note claiming it said “Happy Holidays” and was the rage in America. We both remembered the area surrounding the pension like we were just here yesterday. However, all of the restaurants in the area were hopping, even the ones that sprang up since we had visited last. The monthly income of the average person in Budapest is $180.00 a month, where do they find the money to eat out and drink? Eventually, we went to the one that we had only eaten in twice. The walls are decorated with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis. Assorted signs show Route 66 and other stateside memorabilia. Not exactly Hungarian, but the food is and we were hungry (pardon the pun) for goulash. Since we had been here, the staff changed and currently, they are all wearing bow ties, white shirts, and black suits. This is not a good sign in the budget traveler’s guidebook and should be avoided at all costs. The menu which was posted outside, showed the prices had risen over the years, but it was getting late, we were running on empty only having rolls on the train. There was a thick stew with lots of paprika, onions, in a rich brown sauce served with potato noodles that sounded more than appealing. It came garnished with some lettuce, cabbage, and tomato. Two tall dark beers were the only other accompaniment that was needed to wash it down. The bill came to an astonishing twelve dollars for both of us. We won’t be seeing these highway robbers again soon, not that it wasn’t expected since we did see the prices on the menu, but it was still highly extravagant for Budapest. Tomorrow was the big event. I was so excited, I felt like I was five years old again and believed in Santa Claus. We were meeting with the rental agent to look at apartments. It seemed wise to get back to the pension in anticipation. Somehow, it seemed that an early evening in would make the night go by faster. In reality, it did. When we came back, I was able to finish reading Ian Rankin’s Witch Hunt, which took my mind off of coming events and let me slip into the fantasy of the book. Unfortunately, at the rate I am reading, we will not have any more books to read within the next two weeks. The sign around our necks now reads, “Two unemployed over aged waifs in Europe need books, support literacy.”