Day 4: Budapest Train Incident and Escape to Eger

We were up around 7:00, showered, and went down for breakfast.  After breakfast, we returned to the room and lazed around a bit, finally getting going around 8:45.  The first order of business was to acquire a pair of inexpensive bus tickets, so we got on the M3 line from Kalvin ter, took it to the Nepliget stop, followed the Orangeways Bus signs in the metro, and went up the stairs to their ticket office.  Inside the office, two girls got us situated with 2 bus tickets on the noon bus to Vienna for the following day, each costing 2110 HUF (about $11).  Talk about VFM!  Our travels next took us back to the Nepliget metro station, as our ultimate goal that day was to take a day trip to Eger, Hungary.

This is where all the troubles started.

On the Metro in Budapest you are to buy a ticket and then validate (stamp) it in a machine just before you board the train.  Not being used to the validation process, it is easy to forget to stamp the ticket once we’d purchased them and on all of our metro rides thus far, no one had checked to make sure we had validated tickets.   In this particular instance, however, things changed.

I had two tickets in my pocket but failed to validate them.  Jim was ahead of me and passed a Metro official who didn’t bat an eyelash at him.  As I was about to pass the man, his arm came shooting out and he asked to see my ticket.  For some reason, I get flagged for this a lot.  Sheepishly, I took the 2 unvalidated tickets out of my pocket to show the man and apologetically told him that I’d forgotten to stamp them.  What happened next is a mixture of nervousness on my part and corruption on behalf of the metro official:  he took them, looked at them, put them into his pocket and said thank you.  I, being relieved that he wasn’t going to bust me, fine me, or haul me down to the pokey, said thank you, too, and quickly joined Jim on the escalator that would take us to the train.

Halfway down the long escalator, Jim asked where the tickets were.  I said that I gave them to the man, and Jim said that he had a bad feeling about this.  Unaware of the troubles that lie ahead, I wasn’t nearly as concerned.

The long, scary Metro escalator

We rode the metro to the Deak ter stop and transferred to the M2 line that would take us to the Keleti pu train station, from where our train to Eger would depart.  Once we arrived at the Keleti pu metro stop, we followed the masses to the long escalator that would take us up to the train station.  At the top of the escalator people were passing the metro officials left and right – until Jim and I tried to pass them.  A long arm came out and stopped Jim first, then another long arm reached out and stopped me.  “Tickets, please,” they each said.  Jim looked at me, I looked at Jim, and then for reasons unknown to even myself, I reached into my pocket and handed what would become the nicer of the two men a used ticket I had from a few days prior.  He eyeballed it and then informed me this wasn’t a valid ticket.  Well, I had already known that, thankyouverymuch, but he hadn’t specified which tickets he wanted to see and it was all I could muster in a feeble last ditch effort to avoid going to the gulag.  I guess I was hoping he had bad eyesight.

They took us both aside (I felt like we were being carried by the scruff of our necks) so that they could point to the metro Terms & Conditions that were conveniently translated into English.  Part of the Ts & Cs state that one must have a valid metro ticket with them at all times when riding the Budapest metro.  Clearly, we had violated the rule.  But what was most frustrating was that we actually HAD valid tickets, only the man at Nepliget had taken them.  This wasn’t going to end well.

We tried to explain that we had had the tickets and another metro official at another stop had pocketed them, but these two weren’t believing our story.  Furthermore, they kept getting out their ticket books, saying we would have to each pay a fine that was to be 6000 HUF (about $30) each.  No way!  We kept fussing, they kept pointing to the Ts and Cs, and it went back and forth for several minutes.  Every time we tried to explain our story the mean official would talk over us and point to the rules.  Yes, we’d tell him, we understand the rules, but there was a corrupt official in the metro mix, something he did not want to believe.  It was a mess and we were creating a ruckus.

Finally, Jim asked if we could use a credit card to pay the fine, to which the man said no, only cash.  I quickly informed him we didn’t have cash (ok, a lie – if I was going down it was gonna be big) and would have to find an ATM.  He indicated that it would be no problem but we would have to leave our passports with him until we got back.  Um, no thanks, I’ve seen this movie before and didn’t like how it ends (anyone recall my near miss on a train in Poland in 2005?).  So I told him we didn’t have any passports with us (again, a little lie), which just about sent his level of exasperation over the edge.

By this point, the entire kerfuffle had been going on for about 10 minutes so the nicer man simply gave up, walked away, and resumed his post at the top of the escalator.  But the mean man wasn’t about to let it go.  He informed Jim that he could go to an ATM but I would have to stay there.  Um, no, try again.  I did not fancy being used as collateral.  We started to fuss again, and continued to go back and forth.  Finally, the mean man turned his back on us and walked away a few feet, which gave Jim and me the opportunity to whisper amongst ourselves for a moment.  The conversation went a bit like this:

Me:  What should we do?  Should we just pay it?  Of course, we’d have to go to an ATM to make it look like we weren’t lying.

Jim:  No way.  It’s the principal.  We should just leave, he isn’t looking.

Me (starting to sweat more):  Leave?  We can’t do that – we’ll be caught and thrown into Hungarian prison!  Do you not remember the House of Terror from a couple days ago?!?!?

Jim:  No, we won’t.  Follow me (he says, as he starts walking away)

I had no choice but to follow him, afraid of so much as look sideways in case the man was following us.  Each step was one of dread, hot flashes started to resonate down my body, and my knees felt like they may give out.  We calmly (ok, some of us more than others) boarded the second escalator, hot-footed it down the long corridor (at which point Jim instructed me to channel Jason Bourne after he had just killed someone.  “Angela, you have to walk away very quickly but very confidently”), and up the stairs to the street.  Once at street level we quickly walked a looooong block down and around the corner of a big building, away from the metro station and Keleti pu main train station, and into some industrial area of the city.  I was a mess.  What now?

We huddled around the corner for about 10 minutes, trying to figure out what to do.  I lobbied hard to forget about going to Eger and just board one of the nearby street trams to take us far away from the area, not caring where it brought us, figuring that we’d somehow make our way back to the hotel.  But Jim wasn’t about to do that, no siree.  He informed me we were going to calmly walk back to the main train station, get tickets on the next train to Eger, and leave as planned.  Although this was the least desirable plan to me, I told him I’d feel better if we had a “story” in case the metro man found us again, and suggested we tell him we were looking for an ATM.  This was a rather unbelievable story at this point since there were ATMs available close by and so much time had elapsed.  Jim didn’t like that “story,” so I suggested that in the event he found us, we should just tell him that we were under the impression we could leave.  Jim liked that story a lot better, even though he informed me he thought I was a bit nuts to need a “story” in the first place, but it was helpful to my psyche.

Before we left our safe spot to head back to the Dreaded Train Station, I begged Jim to help me figure out a way to “change my look,” which was a little ridiculous given I was the only blonde woman with translucent skin wearing pigtails in all of Budapest that day.  Now he didn’t think I was nuts, he knew so.

Armed with our new found plan, we once again rounded the corner to put it into action.  Every step leading back to the Keleti pu main train station (with the top of the metro stairs at the entrance) felt as though we were walking in cement (a feeling I have first hand knowledge of), and I felt many times like I was going to pass out.  Jim led me into the train station, where we found the ticket line and purchased tickets to Eger (for 2160 HUF each).  It was then we discovered the train didn’t leave until 11:03 and it was only 10:15.  No good, no good at all.  The long arm of the Hungarian police force was after us and it was only a matter of time…  So we went into the train ticket information office, where the helpful girl said there was a 10:33 train but you had to have a seat reservation for it and change trains in Fuzesabony.  I didn’t care, at that point she could have told us the seat reservation cost 24,000 HUF and we would have bought it.

In order to obtain said seat reservation we had to get into a different line, but were able to get in under the wire and purchase it for 540 HUF each.  It was 10:24 by this point.  We located the train platform, boarded our assigned car, and found our seats.  Minutes later the train pulled out of the station and away from Budapest and away from the mean metro official, but it still took me about 45 minutes before I could breathe normally.  Jim, on the other hand, was cool as a cucumber.  Some of us are more cut out to be scofflaws than others.

While on the train I informed Jim that we could never go back to Budapest.  Not now.  We’re fugitives.

The giant cathedral in Eger, where we should have atoned our sins

Upon arrival in Eger the weather was a bit gray and overcast, befitting for a couple of outlaws.  We walked into town (about 10-15 minutes), along the way seeing a rather large church and bits of one of the several town universities.  Our first order of business was to find a place for coffee, which we did after locating the main square.  The café had a disco ball and a group of girls who were day drinking, so it was likely a hip place after hours.  Our second order of business was to locate the TI and get a proper map, which was given to us by a young man whose English was pretty good (we even told him so and he blushed), but what was remarkable was that he kept using the word ‘colleague.’  We know bits of many different languages, and I would suspect learning how to say ‘colleague’ would be well down on the list of useful words.

Once we had a chance to study the map we decided to hike up to the castle that overlooks the town but we would first need a boost of energy.  This came in the form of an amazingly delicious strudel-type pastry from a bakery, I had apple, Jim had cherry.  Now freshly energized, we hiked up, seeing the old town minaret along the way.

We reached the castle and were tickled pink to learn it was free to enter the grounds in March, and even though there was still snow on the ground we were satisfied in our decision to travel during such an off season.  The free castle entry proved it.

Square in Eger

We wandered the grounds for quite a while, took in the town’s views, then eventually tired of it and headed back down the hill intent on visiting the Eger market hall in the hopes they had a langos stand.  Drasted, it was closed!  So we left the market, roamed Eger a bit more, then made our way up to the bus station (the long way around) to inquire about getting back to Budapest by using a mode of transportation that didn’t involve going to the Keleti pu train station.  I wasn’t ready to face that music yet and had been campaigning hard all day to take the bus.

Luck was on our side, as there was a bus leaving for Budapest at 16:15, and it was about 15:45 by this time.  So we purchased tickets (4960 HUF total for both, about the same amount as the train), and we boarded the bus for a very comfortable 2 hour ride back.  The terminus for the bus ride was at the Nepstadion metro stop on the M2 line, which was one stop past the infamous Keleti pu stop.  A little close for comfort to me, but it was better than the alternative.

Safe at last, we arrived back to the hotel after our adventurous day and relaxed in the squeaky bed that now felt like home.  A bit later we arose in need of a good, hot meal, so we decided to go to a restaurant on Raday utca that was not only listed in Rick Steves’ book but also one we had passed by many times and looked inviting.  Soon we found ourselves seated at Voros Postakocsi Etterem Beef Club, and it was quickly established that our waiter was quite the impish man, the kind who would make a joke and then tousle your hair.  We nicknamed him Bobo.

Bobo was great, he helped Jim pick out a meal of pork with sausage in the middle (redundant?  Perhaps) and a side of the most delicious onion dish with bits of potato; I had a chicken breast that was stuffed with cheese with a side of rice that was equally delicious.  During dinner a 3-piece band (piano, clarinet, and guitar) started to play, but it was a little pathetic because there were only 3 tables in the joint and none of us were paying much attention to the music.  It didn’t stop Bobo from tousling their hair, though.  Once we were finished and ready to go, Bobo brought over the check and asked which one of us was the Minister of Finance.  That would be Jim, naturally, and Bobo seemed pleased with himself for knowing English words like Minister of Finance.  We wanted to tousle his hair in admiration.

As we weren’t quite ready to go back to the hotel yet (it WAS our last night in Budapest, after all), we found ourselves at the Time Café where we each had 3 Sambucas, and the total bill was less than $20 (for 6 of them!).  Despite the fact we had a cozy spot and all the cheap Sambuca we could drink, Jim wanted to move on so we wound up at a Sambuca-less Italian restaurant called Angelo’s, where we each had a beer on a couch in the back with a birds-eye view.  And there was a lot going on, between the DJ spinning the best of the ‘80s and the bouncy waitress dancing around and singing along.   Life was good.  And, most notably, we weren’t in jail.

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