We travel to the wild east--via the New York Cafe

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Friday, October 14, 2011

One of the most interesting—and frustrating—aspects of travel is so often not having a clue as to what's going on around you. Like observing a colony of ants, or the control center of a nuclear power station, you see life happening, and can even describe the overt activity.  But what is actually happening can be totally opaque.  This is the way it was with the border crossing out of Hungary, the last outpost of the EU, and into Ukraine, the first outpost of the 'wild east,’ as many in Europe call it.  And I realized that not only did I not understand what all the official procedures were, that there was a whole other layer of non-official activity.  It was clear that some vehicles were held up for a very long time while others whizzed right through.  Drivers and border guards were doing some sort of subtle dance that clearly involved the passing of money and favors.  But I didn’t have a clue as to how to do the dance; in fact, I couldn't even hear the music.

The main goal for our last day in Budapest was a pilgrimage to the famous New York Café, reputed to be—take note—the world’s most beautiful café (see last slide, which you can try to enlarge on your screen to verify my assertion).  So after packing our belongings we walked uptown to see for ourselves.

The New York Café was built for opulence in 1894 by the New York Life Insurance company as an extension of their equally posh hotel next door.  After decades of neglect under the commies it was bought by an Italian company and lovingly restored over a period of five or six years.  And what a job they did!  It’s like having coffee in the Versailles palace.  Domed ceilings, walls encrusted with frescoes and friezes, marble columns of several incarnations, crystal chandeliers.  While we reverently nibbled our pastries, classical sculptures of beautiful women judgmentally gazed down at us.  One wouldn’t even think of asking a formally dressed waiter if they had Wi-Fi! 

In addition to the over-the-top decor, the photographs below document the elegant coffee with chilies that Annie had as well as my Esterházy Torte, a Hungarian specialty.  Note the mini-dollop of walnut ice cream sitting primly in its chocolate cup. This was the most intensely flavored ice cream I think I’ve ever had.

Finally, after a fond farewell to our home at 65 Vaci Utca, we slowly left Budapest in the midst of rush hour.  Eventually we found ourselves tooling down the expressway, heading east.  The land was dead flat, with scrubby fields and little evidence of population.  After on hour or so we pulled over at a sort of rest stop café for sour cherry strudel and espresso.  It was a bit of a surprise to see a full bar advertising all sorts of cocktails, right there at the rest stop.  Well, maybe it was only for passengers—we’re sure that drivers wouldn’t even think of ordering a Bloody Mary for the road. 

The highway was modern and smooth—clearly lots of work had been done since the fall of communism just over two decades ago!  After a glorious blood-orange sunset the moon came up to light our way to the border.  Eventually we encountered an incredibly long column of trucks on the right shoulder.  It overshadowed by far the biggest ferry backup at the height of the summer season on Bainbridge.  Was the mega-holdup the responsibility of the Hungarian or the Ukrainian side of the border?  Who knows?  In either case, it was daunting.

After several miles we came to a halt in the car lane and began our own wait, which amounted to two hours.  (Later, at the Guest House, people said we were lucky that the wait was a mere two hours; five is typical.)  Finally we creeped our way up to the Hungarian border and a series of guards asked us a series of incomprehensible questions.  Manfred had to fill out all sorts of documents, including how many kilometers his car had on it and even the number of liters of gas in the tank.  Who knew why.  Finally our passports were stamped and we lumbered east. 

In the midst of a dark and foreboding bridge our first Ukrainian border guard, in combat fatigues and a serious revolver, stopped us.  We braced for trouble.  He mimed, ‘how many people are in this car?’  We told him four.  He scribbled "4" on a square piece of white paper, handed it back, and motioned us to go on.  Wow, maybe this crossing wouldn’t be so bad after all!  But alas, he was only the first of a four-guard gauntlet.  One was a woman, obviously very tired who also seemed to have a bad headache.  She asked that our passports and car documentation be passed through a narrow opening in the window of the booth in which she sat.  Then we waited some more.  Our lane seemed to be by far the slowest.  The cars in the one next to us practically sprinted through, and strangely (at least for us) some cars seemed, with official sanction, to jump the line and rush into Ukraine unimpeded.  Were there winks and nods and things passed from driver to guard?  That’s sort of what it looked like, but who knew?  We later heard that people who regularly travel between Ukraine and Hungary, often to market very cheap Ukrainian cigarettes in Hungary, ease their passage with a little baksheesh.

Despite our lack of knowledge of how to do the dance—even if we had wanted to—our passports were eventually stamped and we were waved on to terra incognito.  With an almost violent suddenness all the signs morphed from incomprehensible Hungarian to incomprehensible Cyrillic.  As I speculated to my companions, when the Hungarian written language was created there must have been a big sale on umlauts; it seems to be a requirement that each Hungarian word have at least two or three.  But at least each letter of Hungarian words is familiar to western eyes, albeit decorated with all sorts of squiggles.  Ukrainian, however, has a very foreign character set so it’s not possible to even try to sound out the words.  But from deep neuronal recesses I summoned back the Cyrillic alphabet I’d memorized for our trip to Russia years ago and was soon amusing myself by struggling to read signs on roads and buildings.  Most importantly, I decoded the Cyrillic for “Uzghorod, which was very helpful since that’s where we were heading. 

With the use of an area map that I’d saved on my laptop and only one phone call we pulled up at the guest house at 10 pm.  Which to our shock turned out to really be 11 pm, since Ukraine is an hour ahead of Hungary.  Who knew?  Nevertheless we were met very graciously, and a humble but delicious meal of roast potatoes, Cole slaw, carrot salad and fresh apple cake was served to us shortly before midnight!  There was probably a moment of profound non-comprehension when this Ukrainian food met the remains of the Esterházy Torte somewhere in my gastrointestinal track.  But the dinner sat well, just the same.

As mentioned previously, the World’s superlative of the day is documented in the last slide.
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