The thing about traveling in Hungary is that although
it is firmly planted in modern central Europe, its undercurrent
is still decidedly eastern European. This certainly
has more to do with recent immigrants than it does with the
natives. Hungarians, I have come to realize, are amazing chic
and into current western trends (save for their affinity to
Hungarian pop music), considering that until a little over
ten years ago they were wholly fenced in by the iron curtain.
But this has nothing to do with 'Today's Hungarian Social
Climate". Instead, it is about those little things that
keep Hungary eastern, like strange appreciations from Yugoslavian
My traveling companion Rob and I had just got back to Budapest
after sleeping on a sidewalk for two days in Southern
Hungary in order to catch the solar eclipse in August
of 1999. The only rooms left in the city were in a university
dorm because the Budapest Grand Prix was only days
away and all the hotels and hostels were full. Thousands of
race fans from all over the world had descended on the city
for three days of eating, drinking and racing. Italians, Germans,
Finns, and Spaniards
everyone was there. Nationalism
was at a fever pitch. Everyone thought his or her country
was better than everyone else's.
Which is why when Rob and I met Dragan and Boris outside of
our dorm, I was more than a little nervous. The U.S. Air Force
had flattened Belgrade not two months before, and here I was
having a conversation with two Belgradians. And two weird
ones at that. Dragan (as if the name wasn't menacing enough)
was about 6'5" of muscle, topped off with a Cambodian
rice paddy hat. Boris, with his chiseled Slavic features,
looked like the kind of guy you typically see on Interpol
As the four of us chatted, I found myself deliberately steering
the conversation away from where Rob and I were from: New
York. The last thing I wanted was a severe beating in
the street at the hands of two Yugoslavs who had just lost
their grandmothers to a smart bomb.
But eventually the topic came up. When meeting someone, you
can only avoid the subject for so long. So nervously I told
them. "New York."
"New York?!? No way!" Dragan didn't show instant
rage I had expected. Rather, a look of delight crossed his
previously stoic face. "You have driving license?"
I took out my license and handed it to him. He was stunned.
I can only guess he had never met a New Yorker, much less
an American in his life.
"It is so great to meet you," said Boris, smiling,
as he extended his hand for a shake. What the hell is going
on? I thought. Hadn't my country just bombed the daylights
out of your city?
"Listen, I'm sorry about what the U.S. did to your country,
the bombing, and all." I tried to be as diplomatic as
"I don't agree with it, you know." I didn't know
what else to say.
Boris and Dragan glanced at each other and chuckled to themselves.
"Bombing is best thing to happen to me," Dragan
explained. "Before, I have no job for long, long time.
I grow marijuana for money for food."
I looked at Rob quizzically.
"Then U.S. blows up all the bridges in Belgrade. I have
a boat, and now I am ferry," he boasted. "People
want to cross the river, they need me. Now I have job. Thank
you for dropping bombs on my city."