Monday, March 15, 2010

Outwit, Outplay, Outlast

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
Last to bed and first one up, that's me.

Pécs, Hungary is a 2010 European Capital of Culture. By consequence, the city is undergoing massive renovation. Every pretty church faces a torn-up plaza and tall, chain-link fences. The city is still charming. It's so small that cab drivers must hate it here (this might explain why, when I arrived at the train station yesterday, I found no taxis waiting outside). It boasts an impressively high number of cafes and bars.

Pécs sees a lot of tourism from Hungarians themselves. Many of the folks in my hostel are Hungarians. Some Hungarian backpackers can be identified by their red, white, and green cockades, which they are wearing today for Revolution Day (I had seen people wearing these for several days in Budapest as well; Hungarians seem to be very patriotic).

I finally fell victim to a scam at the Budapest train station. It had to happen eventually; in no other city have I been so aggressively targeted. Here's how it went down. A guy pretending (in 20/20 hindsight) to be a train employee, and who addressed me immediately in English (always a tip-off), hoisted my luggage up onto the overhead racks of a train compartment. Then he asked for money. Well fuck me, I didn't ask for help. I fished out a 200 forint coin, worth about $1, although I thought his service was worth less. "No silver," he said. "Only paper." I was stupid. I figured I would give him a 500 forint note, which is the smallest paper note. However, 1000 was the smallest note I had (worth $5). I asked for 500 in change. He told me 1000 was just fine. So instead of doing the right thing and finding a real train employee, I handed him the money. Off he went.

Then I realized he had put me on the wrong car. He never checked my ticket for my seat assignment. Obviously, to run a scam like that, you just have to move the person onto a train as fast as humanly possible, hit him or her for the money, and run like hell. So, after paying him $5 I had to move my luggage to the correct car. Talk about adding insult to injury.

I wondered if Pécs was going to be another city of cons. It is not. Pécs is a city of drunks and homeless guys. Old men sit on benches in front of the theater shouting slurred things at the many tourists passing by. Homeless guys rifle through trash bins. I think there is a higher percentage of drunks and homeless guys to "regular" people in Pécs than in any other city I have visited.

I arrived at the Nap Hostel yesterday and was placed in a room with, in the words of the proprietor, "four boys who drink a lot." The boys were out, presumably drinking. I dropped stuff off, headed out, found a wi-fi cafe, and did a little work.

Then I decided to do a little drinking of my own. I had heard great things about the Hungarian wine. I found a nice bar and ordered a glass of Villany Cabernet Sauvignon, (a brand specifically recommended in the Lonely Planet guide) for 550 forints; the con man on the train could purchase almost two glasses on my 1000 forints. It was excellent, evaporating in my mouth with each sip. The words "ESTONIA WORLDCHART EXPRESS" scrolled repeatedly on the corner of MTV on a high-def TV screen. A football match followed. Moment of travel bliss: sipping that wine, watching Barcelona score a goal against Valencia on the telly, and Yes's "Leave It" playing in the background.

When I returned to the hostel I found the "boys" there, college-aged Hungarian guys, two playing chess, one observing chess, one passed out on the bed. Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique," played on a radio they had brought. At the conclusion of the chess game the three conscious ones left; they took their tallboys with them. The unconscious one awoke later to the sound of his cell phone. He left the hostel some time afterward to catch up with his friends.

The proprietor of the hostel, a guy with a long pony tail and carefully-tended facial hair, kindly informed me of a party at the Kino Cafe. So I went, since I presumed the four Hungarian lads were going to be out late themselves anyway. When I arrived I took a seat by myself and enjoyed some very good turntablism. Early part of the night featured perfectly blended trip-hop beats, a bit Fatboy Slimmish.

I was approached by an eccentric, skinny old man with a beard. Of course, after the headaches of Budapest, I wondered if his talking to me was going to be a prelude to another scam. But somehow he convinced me to follow him to a corner of the club where a trio of guys were seated. Warily, I joined them.

A few minutes later, as one of the guys approached with a tray of beers, I thought back to scams involving drugging the drinks of tourists. But then the guy started dancing with the tray, and then he stumbled, and then a full cup of beer spilled all over the table and floor. That's when I knew these guys were all right.

We ditched Kino Club when it was actually getting good, as people were now actually on the dancefloor. But Ingwie, with whom I chatted the most that night, recommended a heavy metal club called Toxic, and I have a fondness for metal clubs.

Metal kids are, generally-speaking, the best kids on earth. I had at least a dozen wonderful conversations there, including one with a former nationally-ranked table football player. I wrote a few entries ago about the best table football player I'd seen, a young woman in Budapest. This guy would demolish her.

At 4 AM I headed back to the hostel. I had had the foresight to bring a flashlight with me; thanks to that I was able to weave through two dark rooms of sleeping people with minimal disruption. I found the four Hungarian lads in my room fast asleep. I had outlasted them. I had outplayed them. OK, I was outwitted by the Budapest "train employee," but all in all not a bad night's work.

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia

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