All euroed up, my TC and I returned to the Mercure Korona where a great many other travellers were gathering in the lobby with their baggage. I presumed that, unbeknown to us, all of these people were our fellow-cruisers staying at our same hotel, perhaps from all corners of the globe. We hadn’t apparently noticed them because as privileged guests we had the dubious honour of dining and breakfasting, more or less alone, in the elite dining area while our fellows were, as we heard, making happily raucus noises in the hoi polloi eating hall. It really is lonely at the top.
So after a while we were scooped up, along with a handful of Travel Marvel travellers, and taken on a (not Travel Marvel) bus to the Travel Marvel boat awaiting us on the Danube, where we were checked in, assigned a cabin, and given an hour or so to freshen up and explore our new homes before assembling in the lounge for a captain’s welcome and a briefing preperatory to our first guided tour of the city.
Our captain was a tall jovial Serbian or Slovakian with over 30 years of river-cruising experience. He was apparently fluent in German, Dutch, Slovakian and the various Slavic languages but had very limited English, so he had to call on Marion, the cruise director, whenever he groped for an English word, which was often. He introduced Marion as his daughter, and I actually believed him until, at various points during the cruise, he described the bursar as his son, the second captain as his nephew, etc. It was all very merry and familial.
Marion, from Austria, was, of course, our main guide and booster throughout the cruise. She sort of introduced us all to each other, and I was mildly irritated to learn that we were all Australians apart from a half-dozen New Zealanders. And here’s where I should make some separation between my humble piece and Dave Wallace’s essay about the ‘Nadir’ (I must say I effing hate those double-barrelled literary monikers beloved of Yank writers, sorry Dave, RIP). I can’t recall if Wallace mentioned the approximate number of passengers and crew on his Nadir, but it was surely in the thousands, and in fact a few of our passengers had been on these big sea cruises and gave them the thumbs down in comparison to our scenic/historic land/river cruise. It was my TC who garnered this info, being far more convivial and extravert than my shy/aloof self. Our own boat, which I now christen the Rough Diamond in remembrance of my Aussie fellow-travellers – doctors, nurses, teachers, truckies, shop assistants, landscapers, postal clerks, real estate agents and others we didn’t know of, some of them morbidly obese, others like myself only mildly so, and most of them in retirement – had little in common with the Nadir. For a start, it was too modest a beast to be treated with absolute disdain. No write-ups by famous prostitute-authors, and certainly no need for red dots telling you where you are on the boat (I call it a boat though I overheard a nautical chat between passengers one of whom was officially advised, he said, that it was a ship, not a boat) . Its maximum carrying capacity, in people terms, was 140-odd passengers and 42 crew. There were 4 decks, the lower deck, the Moselle, which had only a few cabins, as well as a fitness room and storage areas, then deck 2, the Danube, deck 3 (our deck), the Rhine, and above us the sun deck. It was all very tight-knit and cosy.
Once we’d checked in, we didn’t much want to leave the air-conditioned comfort for the cold and damp, so we settled in at the hotel bar for a bit. I’d decided to over-dress to cheer myself up – fancy tie and colourful waistcoat, etc – so this elicited discomforting looks from the definitely not over-dressed bar people, and even smirks and laughter from passers-by when we decided to brave the weather and try out an ATM down the road. When a particularly attractive damosel made some obviously mocking remark about me to her beau I was stung into trying out a charming French greeting, but she ignored me. Our ATM venture was also unsuccesful, it would only spit out Magyar currency, aka forints. Still I was beginning to warm to the city, as I noticed a lot of attractive, interesting-looking young people on the streets, all dressed mostly in black. This was probably because, as I discovered next day, the city’s principal university was very close by.
The next day was slightly warmer and drier, and we went for a walk to the nearby museum, an absolutely massive building which was closed, and only open a few days a week – a bad sign I thought. The university precinct, though, gave me the sense of lively Enlightenment that all such areas do. We took some lunch in a pub across from the hotel, after which I took a stroll down to the nearby Danube, where I discovered a lively cafe hub, just one street back from the river, jammed between the usual tall, tightly-packed examples of Euro-impressive architecture. By which time I’d decided I really liked Budapest, but I’m probably more easily pleased than most.
There were a few touristy/traveller problems though. The flight had affected my normally regular sleep pattern, and two weeks into the holiday I still haven’t regained any sleep normalcy (I’m writing this at 3am in Amsterdam), and my cash-flow concerns weren’t alleviated by another ATM failure. This time I’d pre-located nearby a so-called ‘Euro-ATM’ via GPS on my phone but when I got there I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever of its instructions, and I ended up withdrawing a massive number of forints – something like 400,000 of the buggers – thinking I’d receive euros. This is no doubt the closest I’ve come to being a demi-millionaire in my life, but I felt more like a bloody idiot, with a pocket stuffed with a wad of currency that would be practically useless to me within 24 hours. My stress about this caused my first contretemps with my TC, who decided to shop for something warm to wear, in consideration of the somewhat unexpected chilliness, and so left me waiting longtemps outside stanping my feet and sensing the beginnings of a cough and a ‘bubbly dose’, when all I wanted to do was get to a bank that would turn my unearned forints into a maximum of euros. So after an all-too-familiar nasty spit-spat I stamped off to a bank. I’d been warned off having dealings with money exchangers, whose shingles were all over the place, because they apparently charge extortionate commissions, but in the bank I was advised by a friendly young teller in perfect English to use a money-changer down the road who charged no commission and whose rates were much better than the bank’s. This sounded all very helpful and civilised and I followed the young man’s directions precisely and with alacrity until I came to a kind of hole-in-the-wall booth advertising no commission and told my tale to a solemn-looking university type who very carefully counted out my great bundle of forints, typed a formula into a calculator and asked me silently to approve the result, some 800-odd euros, which I could only pretend to know was correct. But I really did feel enormous gratitude that these people seemed to be on my side, if that’s not too self-indulgent a term. Shortly after leaving the hole-in-the-wall with great relief, I stopped as my heart skipped a beat – should I have ‘tipped’ the fellow for his good sevices? I must say I can’t stand the stress and strain that tipping and haggling and such things causes. I’m no good at either, and I’m sure it’s not just a matter of inexperience. It’s just not a fair system – I would rather that people charged plainly and were paid appropriately, so I don’t have to fret about it…
Anyhow, I was happily cashed-up and ready to start the cruise….
We had to line up to get our passports checked, walking through a pointless zigzag of blue cordons and then we had to wait to be called by one of 3 or 4 inspectors. They all seemed admirably forensic in their analysis, which meant the queue moved very slowly, giving me ample time to scrutinise their scrutiny. I’m sure my limited knowlege of Hungary as a struggling ex-communist nation was infecting my impressions. In the eighties I had a near-fetish for so-called eastern bloc literature; Konwicki, Brandys, Kundera, Skvorecky, Havel, mostly Czech and Polish writers mapping the fortunes of non-conformity under ultra-conformist regimes. But that was 30 years back in my eternal-present existence. I was finally called to a checking station by a hunched, pinched elderly woman, about whom it was easy to imagine all sorts of inhumanity, either suffered or perpetrated. She looked as if she really hated me – or her job, or foreigners, or her country, or herself. In any case she didn’t spend much time on my fresh, near-virginal passport, and handed it back with a look of profound contempt. Or maybe it was just a 50-year rictus.
So with dampened spirits we were released into a small sign-holding crowd; our assignment was to seek out the ‘Travel Marvel’ sign. Over time I discovered that the ‘travel’ tag was part of an attempt by our hosting company – half-hearted at best (which was a good thing) – to convince us that we were travellers in the tradition of Marco Polo (the notorious 13th century tourist) rather than mere tourists.
Our man with the sign was a tall balding young Hungarian who shepherded four of us into a waiting kombi van while extolling half-heartedly (or again, so it seemed) the virtues of his city. Our two fellow-travellers were also Australian, leading me to at least two discomforting prophecies; all the cruisers would be coming on two by two, and they’d all be Australian. And also, they’d all be kipping the night at our Budapest hotel. Only the third turned out a failure.
It was a longish ride into town. The back seats had no seat belts, presumably not de rigueur in Hungary. We passed through a large resi-area, its colourful houses looking decidedly run-down, their steep-sloped roofs dark with what I assumed was mould. And lots of abandoned factories, railyards and carparks jungled with vegetation. It was all very green. Closer to the centre, the buildings got more solid and Euro-impressive, an architectural style I’ve hit upon, which is basically defined as ‘not much in existence in Oz’, yet still they looked a bit neglected. I had an odd sense of the guilts about my thoughts, that I was judging the place way too harshly. The cold drizzly weather was surely affecting my judgment. There’s getting to be a real accumulation of solid evidence that such externalities as temperature affect mood and hence judgment far more than we’d like to admit.
There was nothing too dilapidated about the Mercure-Korona though. We were greeted by a charming Hungarian (presumably) damosel and taken to our ‘privileged’ bedroom suite. I don’t know why we were treated as Privileged Guests at the hotel – my TC tried to explain but I didn’t get it – but it meant not only a room with the Biggest Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (didn’t take a pic as I’d not yet switched to the camera-clicking mode which is the sine qua non of the tourist), but elite breakfast in the elite dining room, set in a sort of glass bridge overlooking a mall. Budapest was looking up.
Dubai aiport is, of course, multicultural, and you can see that’s very good for business there. It was busy when we disembarked, and busy busy when we embarked for Budapest. My TC, so much more patient than me, queued longtemps to secure a table and brekky at a patisserie française while I mooched around in a Dubai-promoting bookshop and took pics of random distant buildings. So then we spent a pleasant hour or so watching the colourful crowd – Africans, Asians, Europeans, Unidentifiables. The United Arab Emirates is just what you mitght guess it to be, a union of absolute monarchies – seven in all. The Emirati citizenry make up not much more than 10% of the pooulation, the rest are expatriates, with Indians and Pakistanis predominating. Its wealth is based pretty much entirely on oil, and I picture a thoroughgoing stratification of the population. It’s described as more diversified than other Arab states, but that’s not saying much, it’s mostly the same old shite; no elections, no press freedom, abysmal treatment of half the citizenry, not to mention the non-native semi-slaves. I was as happy to remain in the airport as they would’ve been happy to keep me there, all nuances aside.
The flight to Budapest was easier, at least most of it; I definitely fell asleep as I don’t recall much of it. The pilot spoke of turbulence, and the weather at Budapest would be storm-cloudy and cold, but I was feeling blasé and I had more leg-room in this slightly differently configured craft, and again no window seat to distract me, so all was floaty until we started in on the landing, and I noticed the viewing screen was all grey with what looked like slabs of slush hitting and slip-sliding off it. Hoping this wasn’t the view from the cock-pit, I couldn’t help but peek around a bit desperately, but couldn’t spot anything to reassure or concern me. This situation pertained for quite a while, maybe they were hovering about for conditions to clear. The aircraft was being distinctly buffeted. Finally I could feel us descend, and a lonely-looking airstrip came into view. Nothing like the bright criss-crossing lines of light in midnight Dubai, this was midday dark, divided by a solitary road. It looked more like a road than a runway; too narrow, too rough and uneven, too meagre. As the plane approached it, the noise, presumably of air brakes but imagination played it into a drum roll or mad piano music, got pretty intense and the plane was shaking. My eyes were absolutely glued to the screen and I felt completely alone in there. The touch-down wasn’t good, I could feel it. The plane veered sharply left, off, then corrected, finding and sticking to the centre line, rushing over every hump and bump, and when it had sufficiently slowed and quietened there was a smattering of clapping from the passengers. So it wasn’t just me.
So, Budapest airport, foggy, drizzly, outside temp 7 degrees. My first impression: the bleakness wasn’t just a weather thing. Sure once we got inside the ambience was that of universal airportland – big off-white tiles, discreet neon with blue signs in native and English – but when we lined up to leave that land for Hungary, the atmosphere got chillier…
If you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.
It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.
I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.
Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.
Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….
Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.
*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.
– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.
– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.
– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.
Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.
– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.
We arrived at the airport unfashionably but sensibly early, driven by a kindly friend of my TC, who has many kind friends quite prepared to let me tag along as my TC’s friend.
It wasn’t busy. En fait, as airports go, plus ou moins vide. Which was nice, frankly. We could check in our baggage before time came when we’d actually have to queue.
As mentioned our flight was with Emirates, in association with Qantas. I feel unnerved by these Middle-Eastern-Arabic cultures with their male superiority BS and their nonalcoholic antifun holier-than-thouness, and I had imaginings of semi-veiled, infantilised, under-the-pump air stewards failing to perform their modest duties, all of which I knew was molto-ridiculous, having taught a few feisty Iraqi and Arabic mothers in my time. I also had visions of Dubai airport, our stopover, as awash with tall white-robed mullahs disdainfully observing our decadence from under their sanctified headgear. Strange, smug, scared phantasies….
Baggage processing was a breeze. Of the Emirates-uniformed staff that ushered and dealt with us there was a dark-skinned male, probably Indian, and two females, one probably Chinese, the other possibly Scandinavian, and I saw that it was good. The women wore vestigial hijabs, bits of white cloth dangling from the backs of their Emirates caps (and later, in flight, I noticed that many of them had shed even this vestige). I look forward to many correctives over this trip, experiential reshapings of vague fantastical ideas.
So the big luggage had scarily disappeared and we rambled on with our carry-ons, browsing and buying in the airport shops and looking out for eateries. Typically, we chose to calm our (or at least my) silently screaming nerves with doses of champagne. Then, to absorb the alcohol (we argued), we ordered a bowl of ‘phat chips’. They turned out to be reasonably fat, but were they in fact phat? I went into a little language dive; maybe phat is related to fat as phantasy is to fantasy? Or phact to fact? Ph words generally do have a cachet, as in physics, phenomena and pharmacology, unlike farmer, fart and fool….
My TC pulled me out of this phrolic by adverting to the tastiness of our phrites. ‘Have you noticed how soft they are to the tooth?’ In truth, I hadn’t. ‘I think they’re made from mashed potato!’ Sure enough, they seemed so to be… unless of course it was the more cacheted smashed potato…..
I lost myself in further labyrinths of language and style, luckily enough, until it was near time to bustle aboard with the finally sizeable crowd. Not a busy busy crowd though by any means. We were of the economy class, bien entendu, and had to wait until the best and second-best classes were settled in. I noticed too, with a kind of peculiar relish, that we were herded through the established better classes to the back of the bus, like ‘people of colour’ in former times and places. We were treated very nicely though.
I’ve been incommunicado for the last longest 24 hours of my life due to marathon (but OK common as muck for some) double hemispheral flights – north-south, east-west – and traveller net-availability issues, wholly predictable but probably eminently solvable if I had that ideal 13-y-o techwiz TC at my side, and I don’t mean to thus disparage my current uncommonly wise TC. But more of that enervation in due course, let me pick up the soi-disant story from my arrival at good old Adelaide airport.
Adelaide airport has been a rare destination and even rarer point of departure for me over the years. I’ve already described my first adult plane trip here, but didn’t focus much on the airport itself, and why would I as I’m fast learning that airports are generically unmemorable. No major disquisition on airport culture here, as if I could, just some vagrant impressions.
Just a couple of weeks ago my college colleagues were jokingly comparing Adelaide to the various city airports that they, as bona fide middle-class westerners of varied ethnic provenance, have processed through. They agreed that unlike other international airports, good old Adelaide airport is never busy, and they mean never busy busy. This is supposedly a stain on dear old Adelaide, this pretty little ornamental place that’s never choked with tourists or business conventioneers. I regularly feel stabbed to wounded pride for its putative dreariness, especially come festival time when over the past no less than 40 years now I’ve overheard chitchat among Big City visitors in which bright young things are informally instructed in sneering at small-city try-hardism by their smartarse seniors. Yet, take this, I just read somewhere that Adelaide is among the five most liveable cities in the world. Probably fifth. And that’s funny, I’ve no idea who makes these random pseudo-quantative studies but whenever I hear that Adelaide is one of the 10 or 50 or whatever best cities for xx (which I often hear) I always assume that it comes in 9th or 10th or 47th or 49th or something and I don’t know whether that’s just me following the fashion of putting Dear Old Adelaide down or me being quite rational, sort of. E.g., if DOA came 3rd on a list of 10 or 50 or 100 best x’s, you wouldn’t crow about it by saying ‘up yours, we’re in the top 100 cities for women over 75 sporting dreadlocks’, say. We’d surely boast ‘hey bro, toke on that, we’re in the top 5′, or ‘we is numero trio!’ Dang right. I would say that’s a top x rule in psychological statistics, if there is such a field, and dang right there is. If your city is in the upper half of a ‘top x statistical measure’, say 23rd out of 50, you must, for the purposes of most effective preening, divide the denominator [in this case 50] by the largest whole number [in this case 2] which provides a new denominator [in this case 25] that remains larger than the numerator [in ths case 23]. Only we’re not, sensu strictissimo, talking numerators and denominatora here… Am I being too pedantic?
Okay so I’ve run out of words and I’ve not even started on Adelaide airport yet (which would only take a sentence or two anyway). So at least I’ve arrived and I’m posting this from the lobby of the Mercure-Konica hotel, Budapest.