I had popcorn in Budapest... it got me thinking...
Try as I might, I could not remember the last time I'd had popcorn. It's one of those comfort things that's forever been around. We always had a stash of microwaveable packs at home. Later, with my ex, we would even take the time to fry them “old style”. I remember laughing at the way they fizz when you pour chilli sauce over them, their tiny anguished shrills. Popcorn's awesome. So why haven't I had any in months? And what other simple, normal, day to day niceties have I gone without?
I lost my camera's cable, so I'm effectively cameraless. So for this entry, I'll use the magic of Paint, Google Maps and Street View for a couple of images.
The visit to Romania was very homely and personal. For me, Bucharest was a city of graffiti, musicians, painters and writers. I could have stayed had I just wished to. I still might go back. It's a place full of movement and will. I like what I saw of that country, from the beautiful women, to the exquisitely eccentric gypsy castles of Cluj-Napoca. Or their seductive tales of medieval festivals and warm beaches, of werewolves and stabbing love.
Then Budapest. I stayed in the house I sent a Couchrequest to the first time I was there. And I was right. Even two years later, staying with Dorka and her family proved to be the energizing and homely experience that I expected/needed. But it is Budapest, so even though we weren't out looking for it, every night there was music, or friends, or both. There was even a massive Board Game Night event that Dorka is involved with. Just perfect.
But now, let me tell just you about Slovakia. This might take a while, so go grab some coffee.
I left Budapest a bit late, true; but it was difficult enough to leave, I just could not rush it. I got to the main Pest Train Station at almost 11. My intention was to hitchhike, but still I inquired. A train ticket to Krakow would normally cost around 30€. By normally I mean three days in advance; if you buy it same day it costs three times more. Yes, you read that correctly! Ninety euros for an eight hour ride! I wouldn't pay that even if I had it. So I got my local 500 Ft ticket and left for the highways.
Here was the first mistake. Not a big one, but this things tend to escalate: I missed my stop. Had I stepped off the train where I was supposed to, I would have been on the E77, gotten several rides through Slovakia, maybe make it to Poland that same day. That did not happen. Instead, I got off at the last station and walked towards where the Highway 2 intersects the E77, while holding out my “Kraków” sign. A car stopped. Then, the second mistake. We were enjoying some Manu Chao when I got distracted and saw E77 speed past. My driver was going to visit some friends and insisted I should come. I did. After all, why did I learn to say “Miért ne?” if not to use it! Once in what turned out to be Operentzia's recording studio, I checked the map and decided on a new route. I enjoyed the tea and joint they offered, then left. I should have gone back to the E77.
It was around 3.30pm when I crossed the Slovakian border at Esztergom. It did not go well from there. After asking and figuring out where to go, I walked a couple of kms out, and got my last ride of the day. It was 4. At some point I found a bridge over some train tracks, and stopped to rest. I never stopped flagging oncoming cars, be it while walking along the road, or while on that bridge, but it was a small road and people were not going far, already going back home. Drivers kept pointing down, which means “I'm coming here” or “not going any further”. It's basically a polite No.
I seriously considered making camp under that bridge. The wind had been getting steadily stronger, and the trees next to the tracks did not seem to sway as much as the rest of the world. Scouting around, I found a nice spot with very little wind, where I'd be protected by thorns. Nice place to camp! So when I had but decided to stay there, I grabbed my packs and continued walking. I would not quit; not while there was still light. It was around 5.30. My next pointer, Slevice, was some 44 km away. I would make that 34 at least. Then I met Josef.
I know his name was Josef because he showed me his I.D. Not just that, he showed me everything he owns. I met him by the side of the road, he said something, so I crossed to hear him better. It was clear that I did not understand a word, but he did not seem to care. I guess some people are just lonely, and will take any chance to talk with (or to) someone. He may have also been a little crazy. He just did not stop talking.
I'd say he's in his sixties. An unremarkable, little old Slovakian man; well shaven, small, gray. He would come some 10 cm from my face when talking. Laughed a lot, spat a little, and licked his finger before turning every page. He was nice. There was no running water in his place, so he had to carry bottles and gallons from the street tap, and that's why he was outside when I walked by. He took me in, and showed me everything he had around, from his empty wine bottles, his dog and empty fridge, to his childhood pictures and the contents of his wallet. I took a tour of his house, admiring every picture on the wall, his magazine cut-outs of pretty girls, and learning how to turn the heating on, and where the thermostats were. He gave me some strawberry jelly and excused himself for not having coffee. I think. I understood very little of what he said, for he did not use his hands when speaking. He simply did not care, being just happy of the human presence. I did get it though, when he asked if I wanted to leave. I guess if I'd stayed for longer he would have offered one of his several dusty couches, but when he asked a second time, I said yes. It was dark already. Cold again, trembling in the biting wind, I walked on.
I think I hit a new low point that night. You will not understand what I felt, unless you've ever started wetting your lips at the sight of a derelict building. What I felt at the sight of that overgrown, roofless carcass can only be described as lust. I stalked it from the other side of the road. Barely any cars passing by, but they were now unimportant. There were three abandoned buildings in total. Two with no roof, one with just no doors. To my relief, all empty of people. But the third one had signs of use: empty bottles, pizza boxes and stray pieces of clothing. Also, a broken down couch, only a hinge holding it all together...
Google was there in 2012. It wasn't so overgrown back then.
With the right leverage, I finished splitting that couch and took it's backrest with me to another house, into a room with half a roof. There were no doors, so I could see the highway at my feet. I felt completely vulnerable, but i was safe from the wind. I crawled inside my sleeping bag, set my rucksack as far and protected from the door as possible and had a good night's rest. With my knife under my pillow, of course.
After a surprisingly good night, I woke as soon as there was light. The wind had not stopped; I could see the trees swaying violently outside. At least it wasn't raining. Yet.
I got on the road and set a limit: If by 10 I was not in Levice, I would backtrack all the way to Hungary, and back to the E77. But by 7AM I was already at the outskirts of town. Looks like just as people the previous evening were reluctant to pick anyone up when going back home, they seemed almost eager to get some company for their way to work. What came after was my mistake, just mine... My driver told me, when he knew of my destination, to follow road's eastwardly direction where he dropped me. If we had had a common language other than grunts, he also would have told me to get on the proper road, not just follow the one I was on. As such, I ended up walking a good 10k's that morning, going in the complete opposite direction from where I wanted. But it wasnt that bad, really. I could actually call it a nice walk. Still I was glad when I got a ride and finally got back on the planned road.
My leisurely highway strolls
A few quick rides and I was past Krupina, halfway through Slovakia. Then I was picked up bt a man who did not speak neither english, spanish, french, italian, german or japanese. We still could exchange a few words. Mexikanski, tekila, that kind of things. Yet we formed one of those inexplicable bonds. An ancient friendship made of silence and smiles. He drove me well past where he was going, leaving me in a service station outside Banska Bystrica. He said there was a good restaurant there, and that I must try a typical Slovakian meal: Bryndzové halušky. He actually wrote the name on a piece of paper, then gave me 25€ for it.
I could not refuse. So I thanked him and got off his truck. I had forgotten it was cold out, we were now in the mountains... so I hurried inside the wooden building. It was like entering a movie set. I was almost surprised to not see minstrels singing among the thick benches and long tables made from whole logs. Furs and old farm instruments decorated the walls, stuffed animals stood or hung here and there, a boar's head at the center of all. The space was dominated by a big fire pit—sadly off— around which the waiting staff pranced about in their traditional garments. Only the waitress's Crocs broke the kitschy charm.
Broke as I am, with still no wallet, nor credit or debit cards and stretching every penny I got, I considered only getting some coffee and moving on. But if I was to truly show my gratitude, I had to eat that which the money was given to me for. Besides, it would have been a mistake not to, I learned. Bryndzové halušky is awesome! At least to me. You either love it or hate it, the guy next table said. And I love it. It's gnocchi-like potato! and the cheese, and the savory bacon! That and a cold draft beer, and I still had 20€ to spare! Take the good as it comes, when it comes. The bad will find you on its own. Delicious.
I got a ride almost as soon as I was back out, and we crossed the mountains. The good times were over, it soon started to rain. When we parted ways in Ruzomberok, on the other side of the pass, it was full storm. Umbrellas flew off people's hands, or clawed at their faces. I stood under a bus stop, with my Krakow sign up high, the wind holding it flat against my outstretched arm. I was wearing double socks, double pants, scarf, sweatshirt, coat, hat and flannel shirt. I was soaked to the core.
But hitchhiking is called like that for a reason. You have to walk to the outskirts of town, out to a point where people know just where you want to go, and are going the same way. Sometimes, that means walking in the shivering rain for a couple of miles, then standing patiently with the backpack on and a smile stamped on your face, until someone stops. Because someone will stop, that is the hitchhiker's faith.
But soon it was five, I was between towns, and people started pointing down again, arriving home. I was close to the border, but not close enough. I crossed the last town in Slovakia with no one stopping. Despair started to grow in me. Very little cars actually passed my way. It was my fault, and I knew it! You see, in my last ride I had seen a highway veer off the side, with a Krakow sign on it. It was a ring road, I saw it, but could not get off in time. So now I trembled through town, with no hope of getting any rides there. Then a car with Polish license plates approached! And drove past. The cold reached inside, and I stopped.
How do you say "I need to go left" in Slovakian? Fast!
I had 20€ in my pocket. Surely I could find a place to sleep with that. I could walk back, talk to someone, go to a bar, ask around, go online... But I hate going back. I could see the highway in the far distance, it's little trucks just an arm away. No cars came, I was alone in the rain. I was tired. Tired of waiting, and watching time pass by. But two years it was since I was last in Krakow. I would not wait another day. So instead, I walked faster than before. I started to sweat under the weight of the packs , even with the cold outside. But I did not slow down.
I will not wait for you! I yelled at my fate. I'll get there even if I must walk there! I shouted as if the wind could listen. I shouted as if it would care. I spurred myself onward, my legs were burning when I reached the highway, only then I stopped. There was no space to hail the cars, no safe place for them to stop. I could not hitchhike there. But there was no need. Just before stepping out into the speedway, I felt his presence. I turned around to find a car almost upon me, having come the same way I had, creeping through my rainy thoughts. I bared my thumb. He stopped.
I made it to Krakow some hours later, before it was even dark. I had no local money, so I traded a bookmark and a smile for some coffee and apple pie. I could not stop trembling. A cold had crept inside me that only a very warm shower could thaw. But hell! I was already there. I could rest. I could even get some popcorn too.