Lake Balaton, Hungary
When I arrived at Lake Balaton with my girlfriend, we were in a quandary about where to stay. There were signs everywhere trying to point us to the right places, but it was summer and the height of tourist season, and all the towns were full of vacationing Hungarians, Germans, Czechs, and Poles.
Still, I wasn’t too worried. We had a leased car; we could always move on to the next place. But I suspected there would be a lingering line of regret if we didn’t spend at least one night on the lake. The water stretched out before us like a diaphragm. Standing there, trying to imagine the farther shore, I felt horror vacui at the immensity of sky and water, and breathed in the embalming fluids of infinity.
“ZIMMER,” said the sign, which I had learned in the past was the German word for “room.” A feeling of dread deja-vu crept over me, then passed. The place at the end of the road, rife with campervans, wasn’t a hotel at all, but a regular house. Obviously, some hausfrau trying to make a little extra money on the side. I knocked on the door. An overaged woman with graying hair answered the door, and led us in her bathrobe to our zimmer with barely a comment. Her blasÃ© expression and careless disregard for the English language betrayed the fact that two Americans arriving on the lake was hardly a novelty or cause for celebration.
She handed us two ornate skeleton keys and politely demanded payment upfront, carefully noting our passport numbers in her thick leatherbound ledger. Up in the room, we marveled at how small it was. The view from the window was miserable. Instead of a glorious view of the lake tinged with the false promises of sunrises, we had a view onto the balcony of another house which only reluctantly shared the same patch of yard.
Instead of sightseeing, we collapsed in a heap on the bunkbeds, and woke up almost simultaneously in the evening, wondering where we were. It was enough that we were actually at Balaton. I wasn’t even sure if I needed to go swimming in it. “It’s probably cold,” my girlfriend agreed. We definitely needed something to eat, though, so we decided to actually go into town to get a goulash or paprikash, with perhaps a splash of Egri Bikavier wine.
On our way downstairs, we noticed the owner, still in her bathrobe, laughing like a wild hyena with two tough-looking bikers with long beards and tattoos. They called us over to the table. The bikers had long Zarathustra hair and were from Germany. Beers were immediately handed to us. One of the bikers, who looked a little like a Tudor King with a sleepy leonine expression, welcomed me with a firm handshake. He asked me where I was from in the fluent English of a Caribbean pirate.
“The United States,” I exhaled.
“Really?! What’s your name?”
“John Edwards?!” There was a genuine look of Santa Claus mirth on his windburnt face, as if I might accidentally share the name of a personal friend of his. He lit a cigarette, and measured the moment with a matchstick.
“Yeah, that’s my name.”
He asked to see my driver’s license, which he examined with great interest. “Johnny,” he grumbled warmly, casting a slightly lascivious glance at my girlfriend, have you seen the movie Easy Rider?”
“Yes. Great movie.”
“Johnny, That’s what the life of a biker is like. Sometimes when I travel around people don’t like me because I’m a biker. They don’t understand the meaning of freedom, Johnny. I think in America they understand the meaning of freedom. I’d like to take my Harley there and feel the wind in my hair, Johnnyyyyyy.”
With the buzz of the overproof brews building up, I finally abruptly excused ourselves, and we made an awkward exit. In town we ate. I don’t remember the restaurant. I don’t remember what the food was like.
When we returned to the house, the table was empty. Beer bottles were scattered everywhere. We hiked up the stairs to our room. Sleep stole over me like a shroud. My eyelids felt as waxed as the effigy of Lenin. When I awoke from a troubled sleep in the morning, bile on my breath, there was the sound of birdsong. I pulled open the shades, was immediately startled and somewhat troubled by what I saw out the window. I called my girlfriend over to check this out, trying to stifle the urges of hysterical laughter.
Oh, the enormity of it all!
There at the other house we saw a glimpse of naked flesh, the elderly hausfrau throwing on her bathrobe and sauntering on to the balcony, with a satiated expression on her face. While the two bikers, looking hungover and slightly guilty, chainsmoked in the false flutter of dawn.
John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). He has just written a novella, Move, and a travel book, Fluid Borders.