Saturday, June 7, 2008

Smokey Business in Budapest

Well, I left Budapest and I just lost my whole blog of it. The WordPad program I use asked if I wanted to save it when I opened it, so of course I clicked "yes", and it saved a blank page. Nice going, Bill Gates. What genius employee of yours thought up that neat trick?
Anyway I had a fairly good time there in Hungary's capital. It's not a bad city to visit: good Hungarian food (especially if you like meat!), some impressive architecture (the castle and palace on the Buda side are very nice, with great views of Parliament and the rest of Pest), and other interesting differences, like the language, etc. Although I couldn't understand a word--it's funny, but in Romania, which is further east, I could make out a bit of it, written or verbal, but Hungarian is total gibberish to me. It seems to have no roots in latin or greek that I can figure, just Slavik, I suppose. I gave up trying to say anything in it and just relied on good old English, hoping, like a true tourist, that the rest of the world cared enough to learn it too (not always).
And in some ways it really is the "Paris of the East" or something like that. Some of its buildings have an elegance and charm of (almost) old Paree, yet they're often dirty and darker, and a lot of infrastructure needs work. Maybe not quite as much as Bucharest, but you can see the after-effects of communism even today; the big, ugly concrete apartment blocks, the "modern" '60's buildings that clash with the surrounding historic structures, and the general shoddiness of things like decaying park benches, old subway cars, pretty cool but eroding statues (one kinda reminds me of Wayne--photo below), creepy beggars using caged kittens to make money, and the like. And, like many other cities, they made the mistake of building a highway right along the riverside, ruining the atmosphere of anyone who has to walk under the tunnel to enjoy it. As if that wasn't enough, they (probably the communists) also built a railroad, for God's sake, also along it. See how it ruins the view of the Danube in the photo.
Not to say that the whole city is like that; some places are quite nice. I walked down some leafy neighborhood streets that reminded me of old Georgetown, complete with embassy-type mansions and beautifully wrought iron gates. Another good thing: NO stray dogs, just plenty of them on leashes. Nice change from Romania.

Yet I was disappointed. I don't know if it was the crabby people I happened to meet, the many shops that were always closed whenever I tried to go in, or just the fact that my throat and sinuses were bothered by all the smokers. Ahh, the smokers! They are everywhere, just like in Romania. Just once I wanted to have a smoke-free dinner, but was foiled every time during my three nights there. The first two, I sat outside, naively thinking that the breeze would blow any smoke away (I should know better by now), but both times, no matter where I sat, someone would light up next to me and puff away, causing me to get up and move to another table, where yet another wisp of smoke would always reach me, as if to taunt me.
I suggested to one manager that they have a "no smoking" section outside, and it seemed a new concept to her, but one that she promised to pass on. Perhaps if enough customers request this they'll someday start to actually do it.
The third night it was too cold and windy to eat outside, so I went in my (by now) favorite Hungarian restaurant and the waiter said there were no seats in the non-smoking section but nobody was lighting up in the smoking room. He showed me in and sure enough it was clear. But I know my luck-- people who know me know that I have the luck of a dog born in China-- and I knew that sure as apple pie and daisys, someone would sit at that last table behind me and fire one up. But with visions of fried mushroom caps and cream of garlic soup swimming before me I hungrily sat down (I had walked all day with only an apple for lunch) and ordered. Sure enough, before my food even showed up, a party sat at the last table and some moron lit a--no, not a cigarette-- a big, stinky cigar! Talk about the epitome of thoughtlessness: he could have smoked on the way to the place, but waits until he gets inside a small, closed room, assuming that all the other diners will WANT to smell the noxious fumes emanating from his stogie while they're eating. Luckily by then a table in non-smoking had opened up and I quickly moved. Another party sat at my table but must have also disagreed with the concept of sharing tobacco vapors with obnoxious puffers and immediately switched tables as well.
I remembered asking one Romanian about it, who he said he thought it was because "during the communist years, they had so few choices in life, this was one choice they could make." I remember thinking, yes, but too bad they didn't make the right choice. So now a huge percentage of the two countries (and probably the other former Soviet bloc nations as well) smoke, and I never saw a single tiny effort to ease it, no posters or ads or public announcements of any kind warning of the dangers of cigarette smoke. In fact they seemed to almost encourage it, allowing smoking in every building I was ever in, public or private, including the train stations. This is sad, because not only are they wasting their money on such a revolting habit, but they're saddling their own countries with massive future debts in health care, lost work, wasted resources, and lessening of tourism due to it. It's just one of the many examples of how the communist damage will last in those poor countries far beyond their regimes. Like I said, sad. And let's not forget to thanks, Big Tobbacco. You really did your part to help out there.
One good thing: I never saw a single stray dog or cat on the streets. There were people walking dogs everywhere, unlike in Romania, so there seems to be a fundamental difference in how they are thought of here. And the beer is very good; it seems to get a little better each time I get further West... so Czech beer should be fantastic!
So now I'm in the small Hungarian town of Gyor (pronounced, strangely enough, jyeur). I was hoping the fresh country air would help my sore throat and give me a break for a while from the smoke, but it was not to be. Remember how I said I had bad luck? The little cafes here were almost empty, so I sat down to enjoy a bite to eat and a smoke-free Hungarian beer. I should have noticed the ominous black clouds gathering. The rain didn't spoil my meal at all (I was under an awning, and I DO have good luck weather-wise) but it made people run under the awning and, of course, light up, which did rather spoil it! Then back at the hotel I was told the free internet is only available in the restaurant, not in the rooms. Ok, no problem, I'll go in, have a beer and relax, right? Dave, Dave! How naive and foolish you are! No sooner did I sit down and start typing than the old, familiar stench started irritating my throat again. I realized I must me in the smoking section. Only it gets worse: I asked the staff if there was a non-smoking area and was told yes, there is, but it's all reserved! This was the last straw. I got angry with the manager and told him that he was required by law to provide a non-smoking area for customers (I don't know if it's true or not, but it sounded good) so he said I could sit at only one table into the section-- right next to the one I was already at! Furious I paid for my beer and left, slamming the door behind me, louder than I meant to.
Then up in my room I found that it was facing the loudest speakers this side of the Nissan Pavillion right outside my room, with some idiots rapping in Hungarian! (I made a short video of it that I'll attach soon.) So I asked to move to the back of the hotel, and surprisingly enough they actually let me. Now I'm in the lobby on the internet again-- where they allow smoking too, by the way. And someone on the next sofa over is kind enough to share his with me. I would go into the restaurant for another beer but I just can't face them again.
I am so sick of cigarette smoke I think I'm gonna kiss the next NO SMOKING sign I see in Ireland or wherever it is.
Next: Small towns & big cities (and hopefully a less cranky Dave!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

I was in Budapest from about the 10th July until the 18th. You should have gone to the TERROR MUSEUM. Old prison used by Nazis and KGB with lots of history. The Fish soup festival in the south was tons of fun.


Ed Ardery