He was chubby, greasy, disheveled, mostly bald, wearing sweatpants and a checkered shirt too large. She was cute enough in a perfectly unattractive way, with a perm that would take no bosh from any living thing, and a floral top that could only have survived on a regular crop dusting of DDT. My eyes almost got cancer looking at it!
I don’t usually eavesdrop, filing a decent cappuccino in my overflowing cabinet of experiences, without fail or reserve, as a sanctified pleasure to enjoy alone, like masturbation, deceit or revenge, but they were sitting right beside me, and talking about Budapest with such volume, with such a staunch and vulgar distaste for privacy, I couldn’t help but say my piece.
Thing is: I love Budapest. I know Budapest. I can’t leave Budapest alone, even if the it involves folk that could never get the best out of Budapest — never know my Budapest, but hell, giving them access to even a fraction of the poorest scrap of my Budapest would serve these types a right treat!
So I spoke up (I am a gentleman, after all) in my simplest voice: ‘Base your trip on Pálinka. Whatever you do, do it on a steady stream of the stuff. No buzz is sweeter. I’ll give you three options – high-end, choice middle, and best of budget. Any will serve, though of course, sitting on the top shelf offers the loveliest view.’
‘Excuse me?’ the man said, giving me a positively Down syndromish look.
‘Pálinka. It’s Hungarian schnapps. The grappa of the east. Civilized moonshine.’
‘Oh. That sounds good. My Pappy’s Pappy was a bootlegger.’
‘I’ve dabbled in the alchemy of distillation myself, you might know. Couldn’t help hearing you discuss my beloved Budapest. Thought I’d offer a few dollops of advice.’
‘Budapest. Oh yes. You’ve been there?’
‘Have I been there?’ I chuckled. ‘Thrice in the eighties, half a dozen in the nineties, and too many to count since the turn of the millennium. Was there just last month, in fact.’
‘Well, I’ll be!’
‘How long will you two stay?’
‘Looks like a week, in July.’
‘Haven’t quite booked the flights yet, but that’s just, as we say, a formality.’
‘Who exactly says that?’
‘Oh, I’m Nate.’ He extended a hand all knuckle and fat, and my innate grace forced me to take it.
‘So, as for your visit, you might very well skip all the obvious stuff. The churches, the museums and castles – that’s nowhere close to where the place’s charm lies.’
‘Skip the churches?’ It was her turn now: a blind newt crawling clumsily from hibernation. ‘Skip the museums? The castles?’
‘Yes, Your Royal Redundancy. That is what I said.’
‘But I like castles. They’re the homes of treasures and knights.’
I let twelve perfect insults slide in speaking next: ‘What you want to do post-haste, as soon you’ve checked in, is find your way to District VII and one of the ruin pubs. Szimpla kert would be a good place to start, though it’s certainly not the best one. You’ll have to look for the area, and some of the pubs are rather hidden, but it’s the best neighborhood in town. Bizarre and Bohemian with a deliciously dirty, dilapidated overtone. Sit in the garden, listen to some great music, get some food — oh, and you can definitely get your pálinka fix here—it’s obligatory, actually. Chase it down with one of the many cheap, good local beers.’
‘Ruined bars. Got it.’
‘Ruin pubs. You could get lost in this neighborhood for the duration of your trip — I’ve missed planes to stay there, and it was absolutely worth it — but I guess you should see the rest, first time and all. My main bit of advice is just to walk, walk, and walk some more. It’s a great city to do by foot. Stop at the cafes, get to the markets, zigzag the small streets, take in the beauty.’
‘Walk everywhere, hey? Connie here has a couple of nasty bunions that will have something to say about that. One’s damn near the size of a turkey egg.’
‘I see.’ I swiveled and sipped.
‘Wanna see?’ Connie asked, grabbing at a flat pink shoe.
‘No thanks–please! I meant that I acknowledge your gross impairment. Let’s talk food. You don’t eat with your feet, right?’
‘Of course not,’ she said, making an annoyed face. ‘Not unless it’s Pickle Fest fortnight.’
‘God bless you,’ said Nate with a tiny dip of his rather large head. Who knew he could be so dainty?
‘Szalonna. It’s Hungarian bacon. Bacon on steroids. It will shoot fire into your veins. It has started wars, won wars, fixed marriages. Hell, swipe a chunk of szalonna under a passed out fellow’s nose and he’ll wake up in a flash. I’ll jot down a few hole in the wall joints that make a great sandwich with it, and a few traditional spots where they do it skewered and roasted over an open pit.’
‘Very good. I like bacon,’ Nate said.
‘We both like bacon,’ Connie said, ‘don’t we?’
‘Szalonna. I’ll jot down some spots for nicer meals too. What area you staying in anyway?’
‘Wherever Connie’s cousin’s apartment is. Let me check my phone.’
‘Oh.’ I said, finishing my cappuccino. I was going to suggest one of six supremely charming little hotels, but if you have family in town.’
‘Course I never met Dwayne,’ Nate said. ‘He’s a second cousin. Fancy type I heard.’ He scrolled a finger down the screen, squinting. ‘Here we go. Strada Alexandru Constantinescu.’
‘I’m not familiar with the street.’
‘Domenii, Bucharest,’ he read on.
‘Did you just say Bucharest?’ I turned my chair back round and raised an arm. ‘Check please.’
By EM Vireo