I just got back from the Sziget Festival in Budapest with Fabrice and some of his friends, who met us there because they preferred to venture off in a mustard yellow 1979 Westfalia camper. Feeling somewhat less adventurous, Fab and I took Eurolines, a bus company specializing in hauling loads of poor, budget traveling students around Europe.
The festival is an experience everyone should try at least once – everybody and everything is cool and relaxed, narely a drunken crazy, quite surprising for a week-long festival that brings the young from all over Europe and beyond, and concentrates them on an island in the middle of the Danube.
For us who thought we were setting off to spend the following twenty hours in a hazy half awakened state, getting there proved to be more of an adventure than the actual festival itself, all because of the changing face of the European Union and the seeming lack of space in our bags for a measely identity card. Before arriving in Budapest, we had to cross through Slovenia, which at the time was not yet part of the European Union, not like Italy, where you cross the border and just see a sign letting you know that you've changed countries. In Slovenia they check your passport, or at least an identity card.
"Passports!" barked the Slovenian border guard after having tried to explain in Slovenian why he was on our bus, but only got fifty four blank stares in return.
He went person by person down the aisle and waited as a drowsy Fabrice pulled out his driver's license.
"No good. Passport or identity," was the only response we got.
"I have just this, no passport", Fab tried to explain, but the burly guard just motioned for us to take our things and get off the bus. Seeing as how Mr. Fab thought it was all one big European country and that he didn't need his passport, nor his ID card, he didn't have his papers. only a driver's license.
At 6:00 a.m., the bus had no other choice but to leave us in Trieste, Italy, where there was a French consulate; we laid our hopes on it to save our Hungarian adventure. Having taken the morning to relax on the port while waiting for the cafes to open, and to try several different types of coffee in various Italian cafes before the consulate opened, we figured we would easily be able to have a copy of an ID card printed and then be on our merry way. Not so. When you arrive at the consulate, tucked away in a sumptuous building with an imposing gray, renaissance facade, you have to climb up three flights of stairs (the elevator is an option, but at your own risk and peril), then follow the red carpet to the end of a long, claustrophobic hallway with only enough lighting to read the sign posted on the entrance.
"A formal form of identification – passport of national identity card – is necessary to cross the Italian/Slovenian border. The consulate is in no measure to deliver such documents. For all other enquiries, the consulate is open from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m."
At least that was clear.
This meant two of the eight days we were supposed to spend in Budapest would be spent in Italy. An unexpected vacation stint, but not completely miserable. Turned out, Trieste isn't as sad as I thought it would be. The capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, Trieste had been of some importance under the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and a buzzing cultural center with the likes of James Joyce or Ivan Cankar haunting its Viennese-style cafes at the beginning of the twentieth century. Since World War I, its economic and cultural importance has declined, reducing it to a border town with a motley mix of Italians and immigrants from the surrounding regions and ethnic groups. Its past radiance coupled with the less glorious past hundred years and modern pollution leaves the city feeling like an old aristocratic demeure (remain) that was shut up and abandoned some time ago and needs dusting.
We spent most of our two days in Trieste drinking lots of cheap, black espressos, eating cones and cones of the gelato that Italy is so famous for, doing some shopping, and haphazardly visiting a few monuments, witness to the city's long, cosmopolitan history: the roman theater, perfect for afternoon naps, the Serbian orthodox church, or the Miramare Castle built on the orders of Archduke Maximilian of Mexico. Italy's reputation for rich, delicious cuisine also extends to the furthest corners of the country, and Trieste is no exception. The first night Fab and I came upon a quaint little restaurant with the terrace set up in the very middle of the street that looked both genuinely appetizing and budget friendly for us poor student wanderers. A meal of fresh cucumber, carrot, and prosciutto salad, three plates of pasta, a liter of velvety vino nero (dark wine) and another of bubbly San Pellegrino (mineral water), dessert of about two dozen little fig-stuffed beignets soaked in some REALLY strong alcohol and two espressos for the grand total of thirty five euros.
The next morning was entirely spent at the Posta Centrale (main post office) waiting for Fab's papers to come by FedEx. Between eating, shopping, and napping in ancient monuments, he found time to call his office, where he had been working for about two months in Toulon, France. He got a coworker to go to his apartment, break down the door, find the passport, and overnight it to Trieste. Forty eight hours later, the papers arrived. The FedEx France agent explained that overnight service didn't necessarily mean the documents had been sent the night they had been dropped off. As we waited, we got to be really good friends with Massimo, the one English speaking postal clerk, who gave us a number to call to try to find out which company was handling the problem.
"SDA, you say? I have a friend of my cousin who work in SDA.! I call him for you!" Massimo exclaimed as he ran off to the back of the post office. SDA was the Italian branch of FedEx, thus the one holding Fab's passport somewhere. Less than five minutes later, Massimo came back with a smile across his tanned, fleshy face.
"The papers is at SDA, you take a taxi to this address and ask for Luca. He have the passport, no problem," as Massimo gave us a card to show to the taxi driver that he, Massimo, had already taken the trouble to call.
The taxi took us to the SDA office in the suburbs, looked as close to a war zone as anything I had ever seen. The towering apartment buildings, concrete, covered with a thick black layer of pollution clung to anything concrete. The rusting, iron train tracks high above the two way road led us closer and closer to the passport. Every third building looked like it hadn't been used in at least twenty years, yet had new cars parked in front.
The taxi dropped us off in front of a squat red brick building, where Luca was waiting for us. He gave us the passport, and gestured that Fab had to sign a release paper before shaking our hands and sending us off with something in Italian that I decided meant "Good luck". We could now continue the journey that we started a few days before.
In a torrential rain storm, we climbed aboard the bus that went all the way to the last village this side of the Balkans. At the end of the line there was a general store that sold just about everything. There we bought an umbrella, tape, paper, and markers before planting ourselves in front of the border control with a little sign, "Budapest: Sziget festival" knowing that if any other Euro-students were heading our way, they would probably help two wet tourists in need! Since hitchhiking is generally accepted in Europe, we weren't worried, didn't mean that our idea would work, though.
After thirty unsuccessful minutes, we came to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, people were a bit anxious about picking up unknown characters before crossing the border. We decided to try our luck at walking across the border. The guard halfway looked at our passports, and waved us on like a school crossing guard. After having gone through all that trouble to get the passport, I hoped the guard would have closely inspected the names, compared the photos to their owners, maybe even flipped through the pages and asked a few questions, but no. I'm sure I could have crossed over first then secretly thrown my passport back to Fabrice, but we came up with that idea a few days too late.
For hitchhiking attempt number two., we stood out on the sidewalk in front of a roadside grill and rest area with our wet paper sign, the letters starting to run, but still legible. Twenty minutes later, two Italians stopped and we quickly ran towards their little gray Fiat.
"Where you going to?" one of them asked. I guess my sign wasn't as clear as I thought.
I let Fabrice handle this one.
"To Budapest, but we'll go as far as we can with you, we don't expect you to take us all the way," he explained delicately, not wanting to lose the opportunity to get a little closer to the Hungarian capital.
"OK, we're going to Prague, but we can take you as far as you want. You tell us when you want to get out. Climb in", Stefano said and waved us into the back of the car. We threw our backpacks into the trunk and got in. We spent the next five hours getting to know each other, chatting about our respective countries, the joys of traveling, snacking on local gas station fare, and enjoying the ride. At some places we had more than ample time to admire the countryside, seeing as how the Slovenians hadn't quite mastered the art of toll booths. We could spend as much as fifteen minutes without moving before getting through one toll booth only to find the end of the line for another booth waiting on the other side.
At around 9:00 p.m., we arrived in Graz, Austria, hometown of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a thoroughly modern train station, the Hauptbahnhof, with a red and silver ceiling. Looking up at the deep intense bright red ceiling, serpented by silvery global veins, I wondered how the artist had somehow managed to travel inside the human body to be inspired to create such a work. We had a last espresso with our new Italian friends, exchanged email addresses and wondered what we would do next as Stefano and Roberto continued their own trip to Prague. At 10:30 p.m., our main preoccupation was not modern art appreciation, but modern cuisine appreciation. Graz has a quaint old town that blends Mediterranean and Syrian ambiances, but we couldn't find it at night. We found a kebab with meat roasting on a spindle. We decided to venture into the deserted unlit street instead, for the fairy tale city center. No luck.
We located a little tavern filled with locals, an innkeeper with a booming, friendly voice who welcomed us as if he had known us for years, wondering when we were going to show up.
"Yes, come in, come in! Tell me what I can do to make you at home here, I will do my best!" he greeted us in surprisingly impeccable English.
"Where are you from?" he asked as he sat us down at a small wooden table and took our backpacks. I told him that I was American and my boyfriend French.
"America! I once went to Disney World, it was a very nice place and I would like to go back one day to visit more of the country. It seems like a good country with many good people and one bad president." I knew there would have to be a reference to George W. Bush somewhere in the conversation, but at least he seemed to like the United States otherwise.
"Let me check with the little lady. We've finished serving regular meals, but maybe she can come up with a little something for you," as he made his way back to the kitchen to bring us a little nourishment.
"There isn't much left on the menu, but I‘ll bring you something you can wash down with some good Puntigamer, a local beer. I'll bring it all to you."
Out came a steaming bowl of delicious onion soup, a plate of steamed herb trout fillets and boiled new potatoes. This was probably one of the best meals that I have ever tasted, despite, or perhaps because of its simplicity. For a paltry five euros, we feasted by candlelight on an authentic meal while locals sang, played cards, drank, and passed out in their seats. What more could you ask for?
Then bedtime, or more like inflatable mattress time. We made our way to the train station to settle in. The night guard informed us that the station would be closed for the night, but there was no problem with us sleeping there. He would come and wake us when the station opened.
At 4:00 a.m – "Morgen! Morgen!" We got up, bought our train tickets and quietly waited for the six o'clock train to start on the last leg of our Hungarian odyssey.