The Balkans begin east of Vienna
August 28, 1996, through Austria to Hungary

Michael NeugebauerIn the morning we stop with Michael Neugebauer, who now manages his father's Neugebauer imprint. Michael has just hired a student of Jovica's to digitize some of his father's calligraphy as type. While I am busy in the back room dealing with e-mail, Jovica and Jan go over the beginning of the work.

The drive from Salzberg east is miserable. Rainy, slow traffic, bad radio, boring. Austrian fields are a lot like German fields, only the rooves in the villages are more often black than red. The scale is smaller. Fields are smaller. The mountains are bigger and closer. For all that, I really don't like Austria. Jovica says, "the Balkans begin east of Vienna."

We stop at some expensive roadkill, er, roadside refreshment center, the kind with a restaurant and gas station, but no picnic tables, and make lunch--brie and salami sandwiches on fresh Salzberg rolls with peaches and bananas and mineral water. With food this good, the idea of taking the time and wasting the money to eat indoors does not arise. We wouldn't have objected to picnic tables, but after all this time, standing around, with the food on the car's hood, is quite all right.

As Jovica had threatened, not far after Vienna we reach the border. The border guard, speaking Slovak (according to Jovica--it was all Greek to me), speaks each of our names as he reads the passports, stamps them, and we are in Hungary. I can't resist taking a picture of the sign: "McDonalds blights the worldMcDonalds welcomes you to Hungary," but, really, since crossing the border, there are McDonalds everywhere. There are signs along the highways, there are signs in the byways. Everywhere in Hungary is McDonalds.

The main part of the road as far as the first town has become a toll road since Jovica was last here. Fortunately we can pay by credit card, as we don't have any Hungarian money (forints, "forinteh" as the natives would say). The toll-taker would accept German money, but at what we later discover is about a 50% markup. So, as Jovica says, "God invented VISA card," so we charged the $15 toll and headed onward.

We got off the road for Gyuur, where Jovica remembered some amazing market. It was already after 6pm and I was worried about getting some money changed in case there weren't ATMs and we needed to find someplace open. The market was farther in towards the border, though. Everything was new since his last time through, so we followed the map in the LONELY PLANET guide book to a bank. Well, actually, we got close to the bank, and Jovica parked the car so that I could walk the block over rather than us circle further.

The street by which he parked was beautiful. The buildings already felt comfortable, human. It was that time of evening, just after six, when a lot was winding down. Here were people crowded along the sidewalk in the local cafe, there was an amazingly well-stocked news kiosk, and a street vendor selling local and foreign CDs (I always keep an eye on the local music vendors). Sure enough, I found the bank, it had an ATM machine so I withdrew a healthy amount of "florinte" and walked back to the news kiosk where, in my godawful German, I managed to purchase a couple of newspapers and break the large bills I got from the bank. The two newspapers, one in English, "The American", the newsweekly for Americans abroad, and a local German daily for Jovica cost 500 florinte, are, as we shortly discovered, about $3.30, total. (There are about 150 florinte to the dollar, at least this week.) Using the ATM I had withdrawn 10,000 florinte, or about $66. I had wanted to be sure that we had enough money for any normal immediate expenses while we figured out what things should cost. We do intend, of course, to charge everything that we can. Exchange rates and the lag in the charges appearing on our cards should give us a reasonable discount. In the meantime, the fact that our ATM cards work means that cash can be withdrawn in smaller amounts, and as needed (we also had reserves of dollars and marks, but that was for emergencies).

It took a while to find our way back out of town to the highway. Jovica was confused because the road cues were different. Perhaps the only constant was the prostitutes at each intersection out of town. I didn't realize at first what we were seeing, but it did seem rather odd that each intersection had 2-5 bored looking women, staring distractedly at the traffic as it passed by. Jovica says that on the way to Prague from Germany last trip he counted at least 2,000 women along the road. Scary. One is torn between wondering how much they charge, and if they use condoms, to what is happening to the economies of these places that this is how so many women earn their living.

Wandering into town didn't matter, really. Our detour cost us maybe half an hour, three quarters of an hour, and soon we were back on a brand new Autobahn, two lanes in each direction, flat, slightly rolling fields (a bit like Kansas, but we weren't in Kansas any more), and the occasional McDonalds billboard. The road being new, it was far better than most of the US Interstate system, and except for the unpronouncable Hungarian placenames on the exits, it was just us, a few cars, the fields, and the McDonalds billboards for miles and miles between Shell and BP gas stations. The tour book insists that Hungary has received more US investment than any other place in Eastern Europe. It shows.

We haven't any idea where to stay in Budapest, and it is getting dark--it is almost 7pm by the time we are back on the Autobahn to the city. It is dark by the time we have arrived. Jovica has suggested that we stop in St. Andrews (Stendrewsz or something in actual Hungarian) which was a major center for Serb merchants in the nineteenth century. The guidebook suggests that there are no more Jews in St. Andrews than there were Jews on Judengasse in Salzberg, but it gives us an actual goal. We manage to navigate through Budapest and north to the suburb 20km away with only wrong turn. Of course, as is common in most cities, we return almost to the beginning before we find a place to turn around and try again.

We do eventually find our suburb, and after asking directions a few times, and showing people the awful map in the guide book, we wind up at an amazing, quiet, inexpensive ($15/each) hotel. It is late for dinner by now, but after our large lunch, we don't want more than a beer. We know that we are in the right hotel, in the right room, because over our cheesy cheap beds (beautiful building, beautiful room, totally cheesy furnishings); in fact, over the bed that I have chosen, is a picture of a Jewish synagogue (perhaps one of the Budapest synagogues that I hope to see later in the trip) with the words, in Hebrew, "Beit T'filah Yikrah l'kol ha-amim", "It shall be declared a house of worship to all the nations." Given the antisemitism that has been endemic in Hungary the last century, this is an odd, trifle suspicious, and yet, entirely-possible-to-consider-as-auspicious omen. In short, we feel entirely at home. So, as I type this up, Jovica takes over the camera and Ari in the darkcatches me writing in the dark. We're in Hungary. We're finally in Eastern Europe, and it feels good. Outside, the sky has finally let loose with thunder and lightning. In between cloudbursts the frogs' rhythm celebrates our arrival.

And so, to bed.

[back] to Salzberg, home of "Sound of Music"

[on] to Budapest and points south

Europe '96 | Ivritype | My WELL pages

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