East Side Story

We were taking the train from Budapest to Prague.
The first of many inspectors came along. We asked him what time the restaurant car opened. He laughed quietly to himself and kept repeating the words. "restaurant...... restaurant ha! Then he looked at us and announced in a solemn voice ”Iisss no restaurant cchharr!"
”Where can we buy some food then?”, we asked, rather naively.
”Iiiss no fudd ”, came the reply.
We both looked at each other, then at him, then back at each other again. No fudd, er food. It was a 10 hour journey and the only digestible things we had with us were some travel sickness pills and half a bottle of water. We could starve. I could just see the headlines ”Budding author and wife found dead in Hungarian railway sidings - suspected overdose of Queasytum”.
”Does the train make any stops?” we asked in near desperation.
”Iiss one more stop in Chhungary, 4 in Slovakia and 5 in Czech Republic”, he told us. We felt momentarily relieved that we would have the chance to stock up with comestibles. But wait a minute. We didn't have any Czech or Slovak money, only Hungarian and the train was already slowing down for the last stop before the border. I couldn't imagine the station kiosks in Slovakia would take American Express, so it was now or never. As we came to a halt in the little station, I shot out of the carriage door like a bat out of hell. The poor country folk waiting to get on were somewhat taken aback to see a half-starved Englishman leap out from the top step clutching a wad of forints and then run up and down the platform like a headless chicken in his desperate search for nourishment. Luckily there was a little kiosk at the end of the platform selling sandwiches and rolls wrapped in cellophane and cans of drink. Ĺ little old lady in a headscarf was minding the store. It would have been too much to hope that she spoke anything but Hungarian. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the last of the passengers was getting on board.
”I'll take everything you've got !”, I shouted, accompanied by wild gesticulations.
”Miről beszélsz? ” came the unintelligible reply.
I could just see myself getting stranded at this one-horse station as the train pulled out with my wife / passport / money etc.
”Ich nehme alles was Sie haben”, I said again and tried to mime the action of gathering everything off the shelves. Then she twigged.
” Most már értem, te őrült fickó!”, she cried in triumph.
” Most már értem, te őrült fickó!”, I echoed, not knowing if it meant ’Now I understand’ or ’Who is this idiot?’
No matter, she dragged all the sandwiches and drinks off the shelves and put them in a bag. The guard had his whistle in his mouth.
”How much do you want ?”, I asked, waving a handful of notes at her. She shook her head and waved her hand from side to side. The guard was just lifting his flag. I wasn't sure if I was offering her too much or too little. I didn't want to see my face on wanted posters at every station between here and Prague so I just threw down everything I had, which was about $10 worth of forints and sprinted for the nearest carriage door.
As the train started moving away, I looked back to see if I could see her. She appeared to be doing some kind of Hungarian jig and throwing notes in the air. I'd probably paid her the equivalent of a month's wages but I didn't really care because a) it was better than starving and b) you weren't allowed to take forints out of Hungary anyway. Laden down with my newly purchased victuals, I found my way back to our compartment. The wife reprimanded me for giving her such a scare. We laugh about it now but at the time it was life or death. I emptied everything out onto the seat. I'd no idea what I had bought so I was hoping it was something edible and not stuffed hedgehog or pickled squirrel. It was some kind of meat, not instantly recognisable but palatable nevertheless. We ate with gusto. In fact it had only been 3 hours since breakfast but the thought of possible starvation had sharpened our appetites immensely.

P Cleary

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