Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Rites of Passage

My dad always taught me to drive in the left lane. "Leadfoot," as those screaming in the backseat often refer to him, is a thrill-seeker and he ingrained in me a similar taste for adventure. Yet, he firmly believes in the importance of the "buddy plan," an invaluable lesson he carried with him since his army days.

So, after bidding a cheerful farewell to my neurotic friend who bailed on us to seek asylum with classmates in Florence, here I was in Budapest, with my one Michigan crony, Tracey, who shared my enthusiasm for mild danger and excitement. We were 20 years old, carefree, careless, totally clueless. Taking the advice of those who had come before us, we decided to do something daring--- to stay with a family. I thought my dad would have loved the idea, but I decided to wait to mention it.

Arriving at the Keleti pĂș station, we were bombarded by babbling Hungarian women offering their homes to us, through pictures and a limited English vocabulary. Shifting and moaning under the weight of our worn backpacks, we quickly chose Isabel, partly because she was the age of our grandparents, warm, spoke decent English, but mainly because her husband, Solomon, drove a car-something we hadn't been in since we'd left London three weeks before.

My first sense of uncertainty hit me with a pang when Solomon drove us "home. "Dad, if you could see me now," I laughed to myself, eyes wide, as we pulled up to a tenement in the middle of a lifeless ghetto. My eyes met Tracey's with a piercing stare as Solomon opened the bullet-ridden glass doors and led us into the building.

Packed like sardines into the tight rickety elevator whose doors scrawled with swastikas spoke to my greatest fears, I was so close to Solomon because of the enormous bags on our backs I could've kissed him. I verbalized this thought to Tracey, certain that Solomon would not comprehend a word of what I was saying. We began laughing hysterically, as did the confused Solomon. The only alternative at that moment was crying.

Solomon showed us to our apartment, which we learned that we would be sharing for the night with two overzealous Russian men in their 40s. In Hungarian, Solomon gave me a brief instruction on how to lock our five doors and then went on his way.

"Shady, shady, shady," I sang to Tracey, strumming my imaginary guitar, singing a tune which soon came to be our endearing theme song of Budapest. After introducing ourselves to our Russian roommates we dropped our bags in the large red bedroom, drew the ragged curtains which covered the window overlooking the gloomy streets below, and immediately locked the door behind us. We listened to the excitement in the voices of our roommates as they whispered in Russian and giggled like two schoolgirls up to no good. The only words that we could make out were "Terazy" and "Stazy." We decided to get out while it was still light in hell.

The neighborhood was desolate, except for a few haggard adolescents and elderly locals who seemed incapable of smiling. Dogs with missing paws and one eye hobbled by us, searching ravenously for any scrap of meat. Accompanied by the dirty crumpled map that Solomon had provided and a point in the right direction by a somber local teenager, Tracey and I set off for the Hotel Gellert, a beautiful spot on the Danube that was famous for its inexpensive but lavish thermal baths. Crossing the river into Buda, we chatted excitedly about how great the massage would feel on our twisted muscles and aching heads, and how good it was to be out of Germany and relieved of the burden who was now probably fine dining in a piazza in Florence while we were roughing it in the heart of Hungary.

Choosing a different massage option than my companion, Tracey and I were separated in the lobby of the gorgeous hotel and advanced to different locations. Sent with a grunt and a shove in the right direction, as verbal communication was completely out of the question, I first encountered masses of naked women, seemingly unaware of their lack of clothing, scurrying about the "locker room." I was unaware that nudity would be part of the deal here. I hesitantly shuffled past the massage room which reminded me of an embalming room in a morgue- naked bodies stretched across six long tables being worked on by gruff overseers.

Shocked, I silently urged my self, Keep walking, until I reached the burly woman who would give me the next clue in this surreal treasure hunt. I handed my ticket hesitantly to the first of many stern Hungarian women who worked the joint, in exchange for a triangular paper robe skimpier than anything I've ever worn in a doctor's office. The back portion was completely nonexistent, as was all rational thought by this time.

As I entered my assigned compartment and slowly yet mechanically stripped off my layers, I began thinking, "Stazy, this is crazy, this is crazy!" I rationalized to my raging doubt that while in Hungary I must force myself to do as the Hungarians do---take it all off. I stared at the ceiling of that damn cubicle at least twenty agonizing minutes before I worked up the nerve to exit.

Self-consciously walking through the locker room, the only reassuring thought I had was that my chances of running into anyone I knew were pretty slim. The fact that nobody spoke a word of any language that sounded remotely like English was now quite comforting. Seeing that there was a waiting list for massages, I was pointed towards the thermal bath until it was my time.

Entering the large steaming room in my skimpy get-up, I was met by the sight of around forty women of all shapes and sizes completely naked floating freely around the huge pool. Astonished by how casually the locals treated their nakedness and even carried on normal conversation, I felt further alienated. "You've come this far," I told my fear and embarrassment, "Don't turn back." With that, I took off my gown, which realistically served no purpose anyway, and floated to a private corner where I began to relax.

Every few seconds, while lost in my thoughts, I would glance down to find myself one hundred percent au naturel in a thermal bath in Budapest and I seriously began to wonder if I hadn't lost my mind. I quickly became overheated and because I truly feared fainting naked with confused foreigners standing over me debating what to do, I climbed out, grabbed my stupid wrap and headed into the embalming room for my massage- a prospect which no longer scared me in the least. Like a fish, I was rubbed, flipped, smacked, and pounded on by an enormous Hungarian woman with baseball mitts for hands. I returned to my compartment forever fearless, dressed and anxiously met up with Tracey only to learn that massages on her side of the hotel were done fully clothed! We dined that evening at New York Bagels, where Tracey tried to get a bite in between fits of laughter and tears of hysteria.

Later that night, locked behind our door in the projects, we watched "Dallas" in Hungarian, with Tracey translating for me a previously seen episode, while the inebriated Russians occasionally scratched at our door, their hushed voices still repeating our names. I slept no longer than twenty minutes that night as my eyes guarded the door and my mind envisioned the handle turning slowly and the foreign men creeping in, whispering "Terazy...Stazy.." The next day we bid farewell in Russian, got the hell out of the ghetto, toured the sights of Budapest and after a rare cigarette at the urging of my traveling companion, eagerly boarded the train to take us to a safer place.

The day after my "coming out" party in Budapest I rode my twentieth train in three weeks, on my final stretch of a ten country tour. Relieved to be back on the "go," I knew the motion would soon end. Just three more stops on my unpredictable adventure, Venice, Florence and Rome, and then the semester would come to a close. Exhausted, I closed my eyes on the magnificent sunset over Vienna, for the first time in three weeks allowing the moving European scenes to pass me by unnoticed.

"Stay, are you hungry?" Tracey interrupted. "I'm good," I responded, "but I have a bagel right in here, if you want it." I searched through my bag and heard a strange jingle. Carefully dumping the contents of my daypack onto the seat next to me, I was amazed by the sight of the temporary set of keys that Solomon had provided for our stay at his lovely abode.

"You will always have a home away from home," Tracey teased as we celebrated my discovery. "And you, my friend, may end up as someone's mail-order bride, Terazy, because guess who has your address?!!" I quipped, smiling. At last I spotted the day-old sesame bagel. Our eyes met with a shared laugh as I proudly held up dinner like the Olympic torch.

Caught up in the wondrous swirl of colorful faces and intriguing places, I looked back with sentiment and to the future with hope. As our chugging chariot moved us once again through the breathtaking countryside of Austria, with the tunes of the Grateful Dead flowing from our micro-speaker set-up, Tracey and I could only look at each other and grin (as we sang along) while the always prophetic Jerry crooned, "What a long.... strange trip it's been."

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