Swapping identities at the Budapest flea market

     Budapest! I made a visit heavy on reunions with a funny coincidence: a Hungarian friend I hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years knew a Hungarian friend I haven’t seen in nearly ten years from when they both recently lived in different parts of Holland.
     On my way to Hungary I had a layover in Geneva, Switzerland for a couple of days and stayed with a fun Couchsurfing guy, Leonardo. It could just be me, but there are two unusual things about this photo below. The first is that five friends (one had to leave early) in their twenties would get together indoors for communal food, in this case, a sublime fondue. Does that happen elsewhere and I don’t know about it? The other striking thing is that all five are fit. It isn’t something that would have been remarkable a few years ago, but in this day and age of morbid obesity, it’s noticeable. There’s a reason I’m not in this photo, lamentably.
geneva fondue
     I found it funny that all the guys naturally deferred to the one from Fribourg about how to make a proper fondue just because he comes from a famous fondue town. If a bunch of American friends get together with me, they don’t let me make the burritos just because I’m from California, though if they know what’s good for them, they should. The Hungarian equivalent of this might be for bogracsgulyas (kettle goulash over an open fire), which might not be trusted in the hands of city folk. I once sat through a long bogracsgulyas evening where the guy from the village insisted that the kettle be turned 90 degrees every five minutes and the fire was watched more closely than a kid playing with matches.
     The wifi connection name in Leonardo’s home is “8 filles” (8 girls). “Huit filles” sounds close to “wifi” when pronounced in French. It’s a smidge more clever than the wifi connection name I saw in the Everett, Washington Amtrak station, “Hugh Jass”.
     Sorry I just wasted 10 seconds of your life with that. Let’s move on to meatier stuff.

alps view from plane

     Swiss Alps flying east from Geneva on Wizz Air. It’s a good idea to sit on the right side of the plane.

Taxi cowboys

     Taxi cowboys! This is what you see on the men’s bathroom by baggage claim when you arrive at Budapest airport. The Hungarian government is polarizing the country with its heavy-handed, divisive policies, but is somehow unable to control all the sleazeballs who roam the airport looking to rip travelers off.

     At the airport I hacked my way through a thicket of taxi cowboys to ask a girl behind a counter where I could buy a bus ticket. I then noticed I had interrupted her reading. Uh-oh. She slowly looked up at me with venom, ready to burn a hole in my head with her glare. She fixed her eyes on me only for a moment, though, and as her head began pivoting back downward to her magazine, she managed a gesture to a shop across the way.
     Where was this? Tourist information! It was at that exact heart-warming moment when I knew I had arrived back in good ol’ Hungary. I could have kissed her. It was an emotional moment, to be sure. Hungary’s the best.
     I used to live in Hungary. I taught English in Pecs for eight months, which is the longest I have ever been in one place in all my adult life. (That’s very hard to accomplish and I don’t wish it on anybody.) I’ve visited maybe 15-20 different times from the communist era until today, had three operations here, infuriated countless tourist information staff, the whole deal. Everything has happened to me in Hungary, so for a long time it has felt like a second home and only recently have I stopped challenging anyone to a fistfight who thinks Prague is better than Budapest.
     As a flea market hound I’ve been going to Budapest flea markets since time immemorial. The oldest, most well-known one is called Ecseri and is halfway to Bolivia, way, way southeast of town. It’s a complete waste of time unless you are looking for rusty bolts in bulk or over-priced, moldy paintings. The gypsy market or thieves market or I don’t know it’s official name that was on Verseny Utca behind Keleti train station was shut down and hasn’t resurfaced yet as far as I know. What’s left is Petofi Csarnok in Varosliget, City Park, which is pretty good, just short of great. It has an outdoor amphitheatre and a big indoor pavilion where I once saw Henry Rollins in concert, but it would make too much sense to have a winter flea market indoors, so now it is scattered on the frozen periphery where on most Saturdays and Sundays (the better day) there are people in various levels of desperation selling their life’s possessions.
budapest flea market

     It’s the middle of winter, but I’ve never seen so many people at the flea market. Why are we all out here freezing to death again?

budapest flea market

     I failed to get a photo of a guy standing on a framed painting to keep his feet off the cold ground. Classic.

budapest flea market

     Just off camera here I slipped on the ice and fell on my butt. I thought I heard a yell in my direction, but it wasn’t until I was picking myself off the ground when an old man next to me fell and then I heard it clearly: “Meg egyszer!” (Once more!) The sellers were announcing every fall.


     So what did I buy? IDs. Two expired passports, old Hungarian socialist party membership booklets, communist-era soldier IDs, stuff like this. Everything in the photo cost about $5.

     Why do I buy this junk? I like passports, for one. In the old gypsy market it was possible to buy valid passports, though I wondered if I would find myself on the no-fly list if immigration back home noticed I had them. On the other hand, maybe I should embrace the idea that I am a spy. Some of my family and friends think I work for the CIA, anyway, so it is convenient that I’m buying passports on the black market in Eastern Europe as an integral part of my double life. (For emigration purposes, it would be smarter to get a Somaliland passport). In fact, I am offended that more people don’t believe I’m a CIA agent. Who would be a more perfect candidate? I wouldn’t give myself away like in the Inglourious Basterds three glasses scene either.
Piroska utca

     A public thanks to my friend, Peter, for letting me in his warm home on this cold street for so long.

Practical information
     When I was looking at flights from USA to Europe, some had London as a transfer point, but I had to look closely to notice that a few had connecting flights that went into London Heathrow and went out from London Gatwick. The font was the same size where it tells you that you have to pay your own way to get between the two, and in one case, less than three hours between flights, which I declare to be impossible if you have to go through customs.
     On my American Airlines flight to London I had a defective headphone jack. On another flight I merely mentioned this to the stewardess and she hastily gave me a $50 voucher for a future flight. On this flight they just shrugged. When I gamely said I was a part-time coal miner and baker with the rare double affliction of both black lung disease and white lung disease and all I wanted to do is unwind with Ice Age 3, they were still unmoved.
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