I took a bus from Ljubljana to Budapest, Hungary and got to my airbnb late. My host was from Shanghai and she lost her shit when I spoke to her in Chinese. I went to bed without a drink and woke up at 7 because of the light coming through the window and my anxiety about getting up to Krakow in time. So I spent the morning trying to buy yogurt. I remembered being in Yangshuo with the Argentine dancers and how they ate bananas and yogurt every morning and I got a huge craving for it. So I went to a local grocery but mistook sour cream for yogurt which, when combined with cut-up banana, is a pretty weird tasting breakfast.
I took a walking tour and met Alex, a guy from Syracuse, NY and we chatted for most of the day. The tour was good, and the guide was a tall, gay Hungarian with dark hair, dark skin, and beautiful bright blue eyes. He was definitely Jewish and he delicately walked the line while talking about how Hungary was with the Nazis in the beginning of the war.
Budapest is such an impressive city. I always heard it was one of the most beautiful cities in the world. From the mountains that encircle the city it looks like a powerful paradise, like the original concrete jungle.
Throughout the tour I noticed that I smelled bad and while the guide was explaining the details of the Hungarian language (my favorite part!) I kept nonchalantly trying to smell different parts of my body to see what was up. Finally after bending over to “pick up something I dropped” I realized it was my newly washed jeans. The damp, misty, Slovenian atmosphere didn’t dry my pants even though they were hanging for five days. Now there was a coat of mold on them. I only had one pair of jeans without gaping holes in the crotch, and so I’d have to deal with it when the time was right.
After the tour I walked back to the apartment and went out for Hungarian food. It was a dark restaurant on the basement floor of a building. The walls were stone and beautifully decorated. I got the fried stuffed turkey with vegetables on the side which was delicious. There were two women sitting at the table next to me and I think they were from Long Island. Their accents didn’t sound too Long–Island-ish but everything they said did. Lot’s of New York talk. I spent the first half of the meal reading more of Tropic of Cancer and read his passage about how much the main character hates New York.
New York makes even a rich man feel his unimportance. New York is cold, glittering, malign. The buildings dominate. There is a sort of atomic frenzy to the activity going on; the more furious the pace, the more diminished the spirit. A constant ferment, but it might just as well be going on in a test tube.
With my head down in the book I put a piece of Turkey in my mouth and started choking. It was a slow realization. I tried swallowing harder, and then harder, and then again, but it wouldn’t go down. Adrenaline flushed my body as I started to stand and look around, swallowing as hard as I could. This is it. Here we go. Either the heimlich or I’m a dead man. With a glass of water it finally un-wedged and slowly made it’s way down my throat. I felt it all the way. I reached out for my glass of white wine and saw my hands were shaking and continued to shake for the rest of the meal as I contemplated what it means to die alone in Budapest while listening to two maybe-long islanders talk about their neighbors.
I mentally recovered and went back to the airbnb. My Chinese host was celebrating her birthday with another guest, a Hungarian student, and I played Happy Birthday for them on my banjo.
The next morning I took a train towards Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia. It was only a 2 hour trip. From the highest point in the city you can easily see Vienna. Once we got to the station I was stranded in the rain underneath an overpass. There was a Peruvian girl there who was lost and we bonded over the rain and the Spanish.
My friend John was on his way to pick me up. I met John 10 years ago when I worked as a line cook at a seafood restaurant while living at Ocean City, NJ for a summer. Ohhhhhhhh what a summer it was! There was a Slovakian man who cooked with me and he took me to parties at the house where all the Slovaks lived. John was among them. These guys knew how to party. I hadn’t seen or talked to John in probably eight years but he jumped at the idea of hanging out. He drove up to the station in a nice BMW and the Peruvian girl and I hopped in. There was trash all over the floor and it seemed that he lived out of it. Well, I’m living out of a backpack so who am I to judge? We dropped the Peruvian at the bus station and John took me back to his apartment.
He opened the door and brought me into what seemed like a dorm room. There was no kitchen and in the one room there were two twin beds next to each other. Jerseys and pictures of athletes covered the walls. There was a bathroom. I became self conscious about my moldy jeans but and tried to avoid getting too close. Maybe he would understand my traveling ways. I sat on a swiveling office chair for a moment and he pulled out a tin can full of weed. At least 10 grams. He rolled a joint and I played the banjo. I was still stuck on everything I experienced in Slovenia and I couldn’t get the picture of bald Syd Barret out of my head. Shine On You Crazy Diamond was on repeat in my mind for the next 24 hours. I was trying to figure out the melody in thumb lead when I drifted into a fog and John talked about America. “I had money there,” he said. “And I felt free because of that.”
Remember when you were young
You shone like the sun
He took me to a small market next to his place. There was a Thai restaurant with all locals so I knew it was good. I housed a noodle soup and then we went back to his place to regroup. I had showered that morning in Budapest but he kept insisting that I shower before I go out so I assumed I reeked of mold.
I had a bus to Krakow at 11pm that night so I only wanted to stay in Bratislava for the day. The next day I was going to visit friends for one night before hanging out with Tom. John wasn’t having it. He insisted that I spend the night there and the next morning he would drive me to the center of the country so I could see the scenery and he’d arrange to have a driver take me from Presov, Slovakia to Krakow. I was in no state to argue.
He rolled another joint (massive) and we went to a bar. He ordered us two beers and launched into a tirade about American politics and the state of the world. American arrogance was the topic of affairs. He edged on 9/11 conspiracy theories and I gave him an earful and we moved into more solid ground – Syria. More specifically – the flow of Syrian immigrants. “The immigrants that are flocking to the states do not like the states. They bring that hatred with them. That’s what I think,” he said.
He called one of the other Slovakian guys I knew from the beach and he invited us to his girlfriend’s sister’s birthday party. John rolled another enormous joint for the car ride. The party was at a preschool. Yup, that’s right, a preschool. I guess the birthday girl who worked there also lived there so . . . that was that. In my post-smoke state I prepared myself to be surrounded by tiny person things.
I wanted to pay for the cab so I grabbed the coins out of my back pocket and after I payed the driver I put the rest in my front pocket. But I wasn’t wearing the moldy jeans – I had put on my old jeans with a whole in the pockets just big enough to let coins through. Damnit, Jim! So I walked into the preschool with a bunch of 22 year olds kissing me on the cheek and I felt 15 coins slowly fall down my leg. “Please take your shoes,” they said and pointed to a shoe pile. Oh dear. I took off my boots and a bronze coin clanked on the tile. Whoops. I played it off like it fell out of my hand. I was quickly ushered into the main room with a table and chairs designed for 4 year olds and they were all toasting with Jameson. I was trying to keep focus on what people were asking me as a few more coins drifted down my thigh. It felt cold and thrilling. Then the birthday girl did a big toast and her friend popped a confetti bomb all over the place. Yessss!!!!!!!! The confetti was circular and dark and shiny. Success! I can shed coins all night and no one will know. I didn’t want to lose too many euro so I spent a good amount of time wandering around picking up coins. What must I have looked like? The smoking had taken me to a new level and I saw there were pretzels on the table so I focused on taking them all while appearing to be interested in conversations.
Now theres a look in your eyes
Like black holes in they sky
I woke up the next morning in my boxers in John’s apartment. It was 8am and we needed to get on the road to drive to the middle of the country. John was wondering out loud why there were coins all over the bathroom floor and he pushed me again to take a shower. We drove for three hours through the mountain ranges of central Slovakia. I didn’t talk much and John smoked joints out the window.
When we got to Presov we had two hours to spare so we went to a nice restaurant. I had chicken soup to start and then duck leg with cabbage and dumplings. It was heaven.
We met my driver and negotiated a price. It was another two hour ride to Krakow and as soon as we passed the Polish border we got pulled over and the cop wanted to scan all of our IDs. We made it to the Krakow airport and I had one hour until my bus left for Kielce. I was heading there (about two hours outside of Krakow) for one night to see friends I had met previously in Poland. I got to the bus station with no time to spare and presented my ticket to the bus driver.
“Bus to Kielce?” I asked.
He nodded and looked at my reservation number and motioned me onto the bus in an effort to get going. This was the same station where, a month before, I took the wrong train to Auschwitz and went to some obscure town, so I was worried. I sat on the upper deck and settled in. I had the one thought that always means I fucked something up – I’m good at this. I dozed off and an hour later I looked at the map on my phone and saw we were going in the opposite direction of Kielce. I panicked and asked the person across the aisle if the bus was going to Kielce. He looked at me funny and I showed him my ticket. His eyebrows went up and he shook his no. I rushed to the lower deck to ask the driver. He yelled at me for disturbing him while he was driving and I asked other passengers on the lower deck. They informed me that the bus was going to Wroclaw. Not Kielce. I was on the wrong godddamn bus again.
“FffffffffuuuuuuuuuuuCCCCCCCCCCKKKKKKK!” I yelled.
I spent a few moments breathing heavy and looking at my shoes. I noticed that everyone was looking at me. I asked what the next stop would be. It was Wroclaw. No early stops. We’d arrive there in three hours. It was already 6pm. No way I was making it to Kielce. A second defeat by the Krakow station. Why not sit right next to the toilet so my world would also smell like shit.
A middle aged blonde woman got my attention and said, “Wait” in a weird accent. A large gentleman came out of the bathroom and talked to her.
“Why did you get on the wrong bus?” the gentleman asked me in broken English.
“I showed the driver my ticket and he put me on board.” I pulled out my ticket to show the man and he waved his hand in disgust at the bus driver. He was big, not bad big, but, you know, jolly. He translated everything I said to his wife.
“What is your name?” he asked me.
“James, what will you do?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if there are trains to Kielce.”
He shook his head and pulled out his phone. I tried to regroup. Wroclaw? What is that? The city sounds terrible. I had slow internet so I let my friends know and they were furious about the bus driver letting me on the wrong bus. The big man next to me was chatting on the phone and I heard the word “James” and “Kielce”. He got off the phone and looked at me.
“James,” he said. “My daughter lives in Wroclaw and she checked online and there is a train from Wroclaw to Kielce but it takes six hours.” What a nice gentleman. I told him thanks. Then he called someone again and after he hung up he informed me that his daughter had found me a hostel to stay in for the night.
Well, well, well. Serge was his name. He was Ukrainian. He and his wife were traveling from Western Ukraine since 6am that morning to visit his daughter who lives in Wroclaw. He was obsessed with my banjo and told me that his youngest daughter plays the Bandura, a traditional Ukrainian instrument. We chatted about everything after that. He served in the Navy for the Soviet Union and was stationed all over the world including Namibia and Angola. He was a talker, and his English was broken, but his kindness banged a gong and it was moving me along. But more about Serge in the coming chapters. When the bus arrived in Wroclaw he waited for me outside and then the three of us walked to meet his daughter who took me to the hostel.