Friday, September 19, 2008

God Bless the Magyars

18 September 2008:

“Professor Duncan!” Knock, Knock. Dietmar’s deep voice at the door of Max’s room, “Ferdi wants to say goodbye, and he has to leave soon for school.” Jarred awake, I switch on the bed lamp and say, “I’ll be right there,” only to find Ferdi at my bedside for his farewell hug. It was still night in the room, though 7:30 AM and quite light outside. Is someone closing shutters at night, or is there some high-tech solar-powered anti-peeping device at work on these basement windows?

After thanking one another for the good time we all had, issuing heartfelt invitations for future visits, and after another healthy and tasty breakfast prepared by Sabine, I hit the road at about 9:00, heading for Eastern Europe.

Today has been filled with a few of the Fulbright-promised “adventures.” There was a bright sun shining, but a bit of haze in the Schwabian hills. As I went with the flow at 130 to 160 Km/Hr on the autobahn, I noticed that the views to both sides were usually restricted to high fences of wood or concrete. The only sightseeing one could do was “over the nose.” Maybe those are neighborhood noise shields. In some areas of Austria, they may be snow fences. But I’ll bet that their main purpose is to remove the driver’s temptation to look at the (sometimes spectacular) scenery. For Germans and the other Europeans who use the Autobahns, it is all about the drive. They freaking fly down the road, and when someone ahead hits his brakes, they’d better be looking at the road, or they’d be up someone’s tailpipe, PDQ.

Of course you can’t average anywhere near as fast as you cruise in the open. Around cities there are speed limits that people only abuse by 20 Km/Hr or so. And, there is a lot of construction in progress. Nevertheless, one doth certainly cover ground in these parts. Hence, I write tonight from a rest stop rooming house in Tatabanya, Hungary, only about 45 Km west of Budapest. There have been some notable events right here, though getting here was too much the adventure. So, please bear with me, this one is bound to be a long post.

I hit the Munich area before lunchtime, so decided to see that great city (home of the Bayerische Motoren Werke!) on my next opportunity. I had such a great cruise going that I decided to make it to Salzburg, Austria, for lunch. I had a fantasy of sitting in an Internet Café in Mozart Platz, e-mailing my greetings to Bob Swift, my friend and colleague from the Music Department at PSU. So, I stopped at Salzburg. Almost at once on the way into the Alte Stadt (Old City) I passed a Harley-Davidson/Chevrolet dealer. I could not NOT stop. I met there a most friendly and multilingual motorcycle salesman named Ernst, who willingly listened to my M/C tales, then found me the location of just the right Internet Café, indeed in Mozart Platz! So I took directions and drove into town. There I saw the charm of this old city. The “Blue Danube” (actually the grey-blue water of a stream fed by glaciers, as is also seen in British Columbia) flows smack down the center of Salzburg, so the town is dotted with bridges. I crossed two of them to face Mozart Platz, which turned out to be a pedestrian-only area, ringed by centuries-old buildings, and having no convenient parking save a lot by the river that had a long line of waiting cars. So, I drove up above the river to find parking, parked at a pay lot, walked across to a deli, and had a European deli sandwich for lunch: massive roll topped with poppy seeds housing two thin slices, one of salami and the other of cheese. A “Coke Light” washed it down. Looking at my watch, 2:30, I concluded that I should get back on my way East. But one day, I want to spend some real time in Salzburg, maybe at their university on my next sabbatical. (What do you mean by that reaction? I’ll only be 72!)
So I made a dash for Vienna (Wein). Great mountains appeared on the right, and some picturesque lakes. Sure wish I could have seen them better.

I got to the Vienna area about dinnertime. It was just showing signs of sunset. So, as at Munich, I decided not to enter the center of the city, but rather to try to find a small suburb with a hotel, take a room, and have a relaxed dinner. So I turned off the A21 at a town just SE of Vienna. The woman at the gas station could not tell me of any local hotels, and suggested I ask the cabbie who was replacing a headlamp bulb in her drive. I did so, and was told that there was a big “congress” in town, and hence rooms were probably scarce. (The German for “convention,” or “conference,” is "congress." I had learned this from Dietmar, who pointed out the Congresshalle in Fellbach.) So I decided to try the next town that looked promising.
I did so, but the promise proved deceptive. The town named on the exit was 7 Km south of the highway. But I did see a burg called Maria Ellend with a roadside restaurant/guesthouse. I went in, and discovered that I had to communicate with a young woman who was speaking in a language I had never heard. Was I in Hungary already?

Notable here is that neither my crossing from Germany to Austria nor my crossing from Austria into Hungary involved any contact with a government agent. The only legalistic thing I had to do was purchase a €7.50 “Vignette,” a windshield sticker that proves you’ve paid a tax in order to use Austria’s roads. The minimum Vignette is good for ten days. (That was bought at a Shell station.) It was worth it, too. The A1 across Austria is a marvelous road. I made much better time there than I had in Germany. (I wonder what hassles I’ll encounter tomorrow, at the Romanian border.)

I let the woman show me a room. She wanted €30.00 for a room without a bath. Internet? Was I kidding? I told her I would look down the road a bit, and that I might be back. But, backing and turning in the cramped lot, I got too close to a downspout on an outbuilding. “GRAUNCH!” went my sweet new-used BMW. Not to worry, though, a jar of touch-up paint came with it, and it is nearly all better after its boo-boo.

At that point I was only 221 Km from Budapest, it was about 7:00, and it was getting dark. I had a choice to make. Clearly I was now tired to the point of being unqualified to drive at 3 miles per hour, backward. So, 100 MPH forward was probably a bad idea, too. But accommodations in Budapest were bound to be much more plentiful, and of a much higher standard. I got back on the S1 and headed east again, having decided to play it by ear.

I made a stop at a small rest area. I took my “dinner pills” and other meds, and had a banana and a piece of bread from the “Doggy Bag” that Sabine had put together for me. Then I went to use the facilities.

It is a good thing that in 1989 I’d been to the Pyrenees in Spain with Jamie, where the roadside “facilities” had consisted of a hole in a concrete pad, because this room had no flush toilet, a trough for urinal, no light, a “do not drink” sign (cup in a circle with a line through it) next to the sink, and a stench that I feared Preston could smell in New Hampshire. Is this what people mean by Eastern Europe's being a cultural challenge? I should have used the grass, but I chose the urinal.

I proceeded toward Budapest. The stench was still with me. Was I imagining it, or had stale urine soaked into my leather-soled shoes? Yuck!

Up ahead I spied Golden Arches! Yep, McDonald’s to the rescue! I washed the soles of my shoes in the acceptably clean men’s room, and enjoyed a Big Mac Menu (Value Meal). No free refill for my Diet Coke, but otherwise quite comparable to their stateside fare. And the place was packed. Hmmm. I wonder why.

I drove on. Whew! The smell had abated. Then I spotted this Hotel/Restaurant at an S1 (The Road's Number) fueling station/rest area at Tatabanya, only 45 Km west of Budapest. They had a room with a shower for €26.00. No phones, no Internet, but a nice place it seemed, and I was bushed. I took it. I went out to get my overnight bag. I rummaged awhile for stuff in the car, camera, leather jacket, etc. I then locked up and headed back inside, when a man called me back. He handed me my passport wallet. Which he saw me leave on the trunk (nothing of importance in there, save three credit cards, my spare passport photos, and €100). I must have laid it there before rummaging, because I’d earlier given my passport to the desk clerk while going to the car. I thanked him, went inside, recovered my passport and room key from the clerk, and walked upstairs to Room 3. Shortly, there came a knock on my door. The desk clerk. I opened the door, and she handed me my Merrill Lynch checkbook. Another man had found that in the driveway. Him, I found and tipped.

Feeling both disoriented and in good hands, I slept well. God bless the Magyars!

[In the morning I intend to find a Starbucks (or better) in Budapest, get online, and get this posted, so that I won’t be declared missing by my readers. Then, on to Romania!]