The Bucharest express from Vienna was a clunker; perhaps once a grandiose train in the ’70s USSR, the express now stood rusting, with interior compartments lined more with crumbs and grime than pleasant memories. It was the only train that night via Budapest, our destination, so without any second thoughts we jumped on and easily found ourselves a private cabin, for the train was all but deserted.
Seemingly so, at least. The conductors, speaking no English and barely any German, left the three of us alone as we settled into our cabin and closed the glass door separating us from the hallway. The heat was turned up – although it was summer, the nights were cool and damp as Central Europe was still recovering from the massive flooding that had just burst river banks from Germany to Hungary, and possibly beyond. Soon enough, the three of us nodding with sleep, a family raucously ambled through the narrow corridor yelling at each other. Curiously, they peered into our cabin as we gazed tiredly back at them.
A large family – father, mother, at least two children, possible an aunt, a boyfriend, it goes on – wearing tattered clothing, they soon deemed we weren’t actually all that interesting as they settled into a cabin next to ours. Now and then the children would dash out of their compartment, past our door, apparently not entertained enough by the brown upholstery of the chairs that were slowly coming apart.
As they would dash along, I would keep a checklist of their features to pass the time – matted blond hair, fairish but burnt skin, mullets, a language that seemed to sound like something I vaguely had heard before. “They must be Roma,” Maggie said to me as we both gazed at them. “Are they speaking Romanian?” I asked. She merely shrugged, as we both guessed they were taking the train the entire way to Bucharest – about 12 hours all in all.
The flooding slowed our train journey too, as what would normally have been a three hour ride slid more and more towards the five hour mark. Due to impassable terrain, we were rerouted through Bratislava – our train sat, seemingly in the middle of pitch black fields, for an endless amount of time as freight trains passed roaring by us in either direction. Suddenly, the train’s door opened, and a man with a massive backpack – at random – opened our compartment and sat down with the three of us.
“So, where are the three of you from,” he asked us smilingly as he sat down. His English was nearly impeccable, except for his Hungarian accent.
“Ah, just backpackers then, yes? Where are you going? To Bucharest?”
“Actually, we were English teachers,” Maggie said. “We’re going to Budapest.”
“Ah, Budapest, fucking Budapest,” he smiled. “That is where I’m going too. I fucking hate Budapest. I grew up there, lived there, work there, but I fucking hate it.”
“Well, really, Budapest is a good city, but Hungary is a fucking mess, you know? I love Transylvania – you know Transylvania? Dracula and everything. I love it there, it’s beautiful, the people are friendly, lots of Hungarians but they aren’t so fucking annoying as the ones in Hungary.” He laughed as he said this, and brushed aside his extremely thick brown hair.
“What’s wrong with Hungarians,” I asked him, “they all seem friendly enough to me.”
“We’re lazy people. Fucking lazy, but we never take responsibility for it. Oh, we say it was the fucking Russians, or the Germans, or the Turks, or even the fucking Romanians who took away our power, but really we just complain all the time. Look at Hungary now – Budapest is growing, but the rest of the country is fucking awful, and everyone complains but no one is willing to work. So, people are unhappy about it. They blame the rich in the country – the Jews – and the extremely poor – the gypsies – but no one is willing to actually work to make it better. You know back in the USSR times, they would call us goulash communism, because instead of focusing on infrastructure products we just sat around eating goulash and drinking beer the whole time.
“Fucking Hungarians, you know.” He gave a hearty laugh.
We all sat in silence for a bit. The train continued to bump its way along Central Europe. The man laughed, and smiled, and continued to talk. “So, where were you all teaching?”
“Oh, Turkey. I love Turkey, I was just there visiting friends in Istanbul. It’s funny, you know. Whenever I visit Turkey, Turks always go ‘oooh! You are Hungarian? Macarıstan, Macarıstan!’ – Hungary in Turkish, you know. ‘We are brothers from Asia!’ they would say, and I would just smile and laugh, because in Hungary we always talk about how much we fucking hate the Turks. Although they did give us fucking good coffee.”
“You guys have Turkish coffee too?”
“Kind of, although a little different. Of course, sometimes people fucking call it things like Serbian coffee, or Hungarian coffee. Of course we all fucking know it is Turkish. Actually, no, most people in Hungary are too uneducated to know anything. Like the EU, they have no fucking ideas about it.”
“What about you,” I asked. “Do you have any ideas about it?”
“Me? Of course I fucking do,” he laughed. “I think it’s fucking bad. Sure, it helps build Hungarian infrastructure slowly, but where does all the work come from? Where do all the train systems, and mechanical engineers come from? Fucking France and Germany – so it’s really fucking good for them, of course our infrastructure very very slowly gets better. Lazy fucking Hungarians. But who would build our infrastructure, you know?”
We didn’t, but we nodded along with what he was saying.
“So,” Maggie asked him after a brief pause, “what do you do in Budapest?”
“Oh, me?” He smiled, “Well, I’m a civilian engineer.”