Bumming in Budapest

Traveling in the Hungarian capital with no travel plans proves dangerous & difficult; How tradition plays a role in survival

Arriving at Südbahnhof with minutes till departure time, we boarded the train for Budapest in high spirits, Ferdinand (my accomplice in this daring venture) and I on our first trip ast together without a plan. We missed the connecting train from Györ to the spectacular Budapest Keleti pályaudvar (Eastern train station).

So it was nearly 22:00 when we arrived in my native land.

Walking through the streets of Budapest is a breathtaking experience at any hour, in part because of the genuine beauty of the city, but also to see the morbid reality of how decayed some of it is.

No matter where one is in the city, the nights can be a problem, especially for two unfortunate travelers who have arrived fashionably late to a hauntingly quiet, albeit  , northern district of Pest on the east side of the Danube, home to approximately 10,000 permanent homeless. At that late hour, the only tourist information office at Keleti pályaudvar was long closed and any chance of locating a warm, if not comfortable, hostel was slim. We had no idea where any hostels were and in all honesty, we were too doubtful of our safety to venture beyond the main road to look for one. Not having the proper currency was also a complication; in Hungary paying with Euros would surely result in getting separated from even more of our sorely needed cash.

After digesting the fact that we would also be homeless for the night, we were left strolling aimlessly around Keleti pályaudvar, arguably the least safe place a tourist can find in Budapest at night, with a wallet full of Euros and no currency exchange. It was now 11 o’clock, and we had the city to ourselves. A feeling of opportunity swept over us as we walked boldly around the city feeling that we had cheated the system by being able to sneak over the wall into a couple of palaces and gardens without having to remove a single Euro from our wallets. Our chief target was the maze of castle walls and the Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion). The only obstacle: a wire gate – child’s play to the man of adventure.

Frolicking carelessly through the night though we were, it was still hard to ignore the homeless in Budapest. They are everywhere, too used to being ashamed of their condition to give a damn. They ask if you have some small change you might wish to unburden your pockets with. If you say no (or lie), you receive a profusion of thanks for your time and they return to their uncomfortably numb lives. These shunned drones live a life of isolation, ignored by those who walk busily around them. Shame and embarrassment prevent them from seeking help, from rising out from under the bridges or from the cardboard boxes where they reside every night, to sleep and to wait for the misfortune served by a different day.

Similarly having nowhere to sleep, the excitement of being in Budapest clouded the survival instinct. While carrying our backpacks along the Pest streets, homeless silhouettes lay half hidden in the adjacent patches of grass. All of them were better equipped for the night than we were; white pillows caught our eyes from the dark abyss of the parks, on which resigned heads were resting. Some even had blankets; they might just keep themselves from freezing.

Bewildered, we managed to scrape together the few forints we found in our pockets left over from previous trips and headed for the most unexpected place in Budapest, an English pub.

Still no wiser as to where we would sleep, we continued on into the night, after a few beers and a regrettable plum pálinka, a double-distilled brandy, and deep conversations about as insightful as our layman’s analysis of Federer’s game on the television over the bar. Some time later, we decided it was time to leave. We still had a long night ahead of us and wanted to go up to the Budai Vár (Buda Castle) before we got tired.

Across the Margit híd (Margaret Bridge) we stumbled upon a yellow tram, empty, filled only with the semi-audible conversation of a group of middle aged Romas. It was a foreign experience to hear Hungarian in such abundance – even if with a disfigured dialect – rather than hearing the rare words squeezing their way out from among a pool of Viennese German. But that didn’t stop the tram from reaching its notorious destination, Moszkva tér (Moscow Square), the public transport center with underground, trams, and buses and also where Soviet troops marshaled to re-capture Buda in the 1956 Revolution.

While walking through the streets of Buda, an atypical foul stench shredded our noses; the reason was lurking not too far away, atop a miniature hill of what appeared to be trash. Closing in on the pile and the stench, my friend blurted out an old, and rather crude joke about Hungary: “Now this is definitely Hungary.” We noticed the pile was in fact not trash, but instead was surrounded by it. The general contents were a variety of furniture along with wooden boards, piled with rotting food and decomposing newspapers.

This is the tradition of lomtalanitás, honored in most parts of Hungary, translated as “discarding of unnecessary items in ones home.” Items people can no longer use are thrown out onto the side of the street on given days to be removed for free by the municipal services. The Romas, homeless, or financially unfortunate can also salvage whatever they might need from the piles. By the time the sun awoke, most of the cities’ goldmines had vanished. The homeless, with their pillows and blankets, now seemed less strange. Unfortunately, this tradition is abused by some: they take anything useful and make a profit from it.

Venturing uphill from Moszkva tér, the buildings’ appearances – both literally and figuratively – became more elevated as did the road, but we managed to reach the Bécsi kapu (Vienna Gate), leading to the Buda Castle. Flushed with accomplishment we scampered around the castle walls, and suddenly knew where we would spend the night: at Halászbástya, the Fisherman’s Bastion next door to the beautiful Gothic-style Mátyás-templom, the Church of St. Matthew. Unfortunately the church was under renovation, so, we decided to explore the castle itself, still some distance away.

The Mátyás-templom was built in 1015 and used for the coronations of a long list of Hungarian monarchs including Emperors Franz Joseph, and Karl I, the last Habsburg Emperor – a reminder of Hungary’s rich, however tragic, history.

We took a wrong turn on our walk towards the castle, and ended up walking along most of the castle grounds, discovering a view of the lit up Buda hills was intoxicating. At night, the city becomes a grande dame, aging but proud, and still exceptionally beautiful. On the other side there appeared to be an endless row of apartment buildings guarded by cannon, long rendered useless. I immediately decided I would one day move there, although I realized I had no idea if they were even residences, rather than government buildings, or a museum.

Since the financial crisis, Hungary has continued downhill, but with greater speed and this is particularly noticeable in the victims. The homeless population has risen steadily, but it seems that the politicians have finally noticed the problem.

It is extremely difficult to get a job without permanent residence in Hungary and even more of a problem to gain legal residence without a paying job. So, the Ministry of Health, Social and Family Affairs has established a network of homeless shelters along with a program of support designed to re-integrate them back into the population. From the shelters, the homeless are offered a social housing apartment and a temporary job. This allows them to re-establish a connection with the world that would otherwise be racing past them and their own misery. They manage their own money, bills, and other official affairs, while still being protected from the greater risks of the real financial world, at least for the time being. When they feel fit to re-enter society, they are given the option to stay in the apartment and continue the jobs, or they can find a new apartment and a new job with the help of the government office. The goal is to encourage participants to move on from a homeless shelter and have long term success.

We eventually gave up and headed back to the Fisherman’s Bastion. We were not alone. The distant shouts of a group of clearly intoxicated people echoed from somewhere along the west end of the wharf. Extremely tired from our efforts, we tried to find a comfortable position on the cold, hard stone.

I was curled up in the meter long distance between a stone bench and the thick stone rail of the bastion and my friend, presumably more comfortable, stretched across the slightly longer than one meter stone bench directly above me. Our bags became a makeshift pillow and backrest. Sleeping under the protection of the bastion was, at least for me, something I would look back on with fond memories. This was an iconic location in Budapest, filled with history, centuries of Hungarians nobility that had trafficked there. Its seven towers were built in honor of the seven Magyar tribes that originally settled in the Carpathian Basin.

To our surprise and horror, we were suddenly awakened; it was one of the drunks from above, who suddenly decided he wanted to talk to us. While he walked down to our spot, I insisted on speaking English to include my friend, and through an awkward mish-mash of pseudo-English conversation we went from beer and friendly words, to persuading the man to not jump off of the edge of the bastion. He told us of his tragic past, which led him to jokingly hint at suicide. Feeling somewhat unsafe with our friendly stranger we decided to take our leave to a spot below where we had been, probably where he would have landed, if, God forbid, he had decided to jump.

The closer we got to what we thought might be the softest patch of grass, the more we realized we should have booked a hostel. Each patch of grass turned out to be hard, wet, and cold and already inhabited by at least three other homeless nearby. They did not appear to be what one would assume to be a homeless – none of the multiple articles of clothing all layered with a day’s worth of dirt and bearing many holes. They appeared to be regular people who had just passed out in a drunken haze. It became apparent that they were indeed homeless when we spotted that their makeshift cardboard beds had been dented from multiple nights shivering beneath the many-towered bastion.

The people of Budapest try to avoid the homeless, for the simple reason that they are filthy, or from fear of being asked for money; most feel their wallets are slim enough. For many of the homeless, the idea of reintegration is simply too hard to imagine. It seems more promising to just beg for money and get drunk.

After a night of runny noses and the noisy chattering of each others’ teeth, we slept through the cell phone alarm, rendering us completely at the mercy of the first tourists walking up to the Halászbástya, who eyed us suspiciously over their guide books.

For me, it was a new experience of my home country; I have seen the other side of life in Budapest, the less glamorous and less desirable life. And even if my glimpse was nowhere near what the truly homeless feel every day, I realized it was something I needed to know. And in an odd way, I actually enjoyed it, knowing that I would return to the warmth of my normal life. Slumming can be fun as long as you know you can go home again.

Once the forints, pálinka, food, and dignity have slipped from your hands and you realize that by yourself, you could never enter your once taken-for-granted life, all you really have is another unpleasant night followed by the same demoralizing feeling wrapped up in a different day.

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