|Archived Journals|Travel Quote Archive|
|Eyes Wide Shut in Budapest[11.08.10]|
|posted by firstname.lastname@example.org|
I was surprised when I arrived at the address of the Kiraly Thermal Baths to find a late-18th century Hapsburg façade, which looked like every other building on the Buda side. It evoked pale people in powdered wigs waltzing to “The Blue Danube”, not swarthy characters with twisty mustaches and fezzes having a soak. But the façade would turn out to be just a façade—added to the 16th-century Ottoman Turkish bathhouse, I guess, to maintain the continuity of the Austro-Hungarian street that sprang up around it. In a way, it was a veneer over what must have been a violent transition from one civilization to another and the cultural debt begrudgingly owed the outgoing one by the one coming (back) in. To me, though, it would become a kind of metaphor for society’s veneer over an aspect of human sexuality it would fain disavow.
At the box office inside, which seemed to have been remodeled sometime during the 20th century (it was unclear whether Communism or capitalism was to blame for its chintzy materials, shoddy construction, and lack of upkeep), I slipped the equivalent of 50 cents under a murky pane of Lexan to the attendant. For a little bit more I could have gotten a massage, too, but it felt even better to get in for only 50 cents.
Past the box office, there was still little indication of the place’s real age and historicity, but as I followed the retrofit pipes that ran along the ceiling toward the heart of the building, I traveled backward in time. I passed a guy getting a rubdown during World War II. I passed another guy stacking towels in the Belle Époque. Finally, I arrived in a dank, dark changing room with walls of 16th century masonry. The pipes, from who-knows-what century, continued through the wall to their terminus in the baths.
I had been relieved to read that the excepted mode of habille at the Kiraly Baths was a house-provided loincloth as opposed to nude. I’m in a minority of American men who’ve never been on a football team or in prison, so I’m unaccustomed to being around naked men or to being naked around other men. A loincloth was even too scanty for me. I was going in with swim trunks. But, as I was putting my clothes in a locker, I noticed that a lot of men were foregoing the loincloth and heading into the baths completely nude.
Smokey shafts of daylight streamed in through the little hexagonal portholes in the Byzantine rotunda that sat atop the baths. Still, the light from outside couldn’t quite penetrate the manmade darkness, which had become concentrated there over the centuries. The place was like the anti-Hagia Sophia—with steam instead of incense, mold instead of soot, and naked men instead of the devout. (The Kiraly Baths maintains the tradition of segregating the sexes by allowing men and women on alternate days.) In silence, they circumambulated the octagonal main pool, then skulked down into the smaller baths that radiated out from it. The only sound was of gently agitated water, doubling and redoubling as it bounced off the limestone walls.
I merged with the laconic flow of bodies that were depositing themselves onto sunken stone benches below the floor. I didn’t know the method for taking the baths’ mineral cures, so I just went in, trying to look like I belonged. Apparently it wasn’t working, because in my peripheral vision I could see heads tracking me. Is it the swim trunks? I thought.
I sat down in the warm, mineraly water and tried to relax. I did the thousand-yard stare and waited for the attention to dissipate, but I could still feel faces on me. I wished for something to distract them. Something did.
To my right, two men had drifted uncomfortably close and maneuvered themselves so that they were facing each other. Instead of jostling for their personal space, they seemed frozen in a kind of torpor. Under the water, one of the men was pumping his arm in the other man’s lap.
By now every pair of eyeballs in the place was on them. A second row had even formed as bathers stood up in neighboring baths to get a look.
The two inamoratos were either oblivious or indifferent.
I expected the crowd, once they had confirmed that there were shenanigans of a homoerotic nature going on in their midst, to unleash a volley of bigoted denunciations, publicly shaming the "degenerates" and cleansing the collective conscience of the taboo.
But no one broke the silence. To my surprise, they just watched. They watched like enrapt chimpanzees crowded around some simian spectacle in a nature documentary.
(If you’ve ever been to the Kiraly Baths on “gentlemen only” day, or read about it on the internet, then you probably know what was then unbeknownst to me: it’s a tacit gay cruising spot. Lord knows why, because Budapest already has an explicitly gay bathhouse. My guess is the men who come to the Kiraly Baths looking for action aren’t exactly out and proud. Maybe they’re married. Maybe they’re confused. Maybe Hungary’s not the easiest place to be gay. I don’t know. What I’m trying to say is, there was a furtiveness about the place that I think would have weirded-out a self-respecting gay man.)
I got out of the bath before male ejecta started floating around and, slipping between the voyeurs and the exhibitionists, hightailed it into a sauna.
The sauna was empty, and like a basement boiler room in its humidity, naked pipes, and dim yellow light from a single fixture, which, in my recollection, pulsated. Most importantly, it was empty. I put my back against the wall, put whatever I’d just seen (of which I was still unsure) out of my mind, and tried to enjoy my first ever schvitz. I was only alone for a second, though, before one of the voyeurs from the other room followed me in—beating off under his loincloth.
I didn’t want to believe it at first. We all need to make an adjustment down there once in a while. Sometimes frequently. But no, he was unflagging. And worse: he was totally unashamed about looking right at me while he was doing it.
Giving the masturbator a wide berth, I quickly exited the sauna. In retrospect I feel kind of bad for the guy; he probably needed a little inspiration, being well-passed middle age and at least a hundred pounds overweight.
What the hell is going on? I thought. I figured I was just unlucky to have encountered these aberrations on my brief visit. (I’d been there less than fifteen minutes.) Little did I know that I was the aberration: someone who just wanted to use the place for the purpose for which it was built: to salve the mind by pampering the body.
But maybe I’m still being naïve. Maybe the Kiraly Baths, and places like it, have always been, in effect, sexual speakeasies, where differently-inclined men are emboldened to explore their forbidden carnal desires; maybe that’s the salve for the mind that shuns its pleasure in favor of societal mores and carries the burden of recusant impulses, day in and day out.
Neither my mind nor my body was in any need of salving. I was in my twenties; I was in Europe; I knew who I was, or at least felt I had certain key things squared away. I was just sightseeing—except that I had come to see a building and ended up seeing some pretty raw humanity; I saw the meaty cephalopod at the center of the nautilus shell, and it freaked me out.
But isn’t it better not to be so squared away? Isn’t the point of traveling to immerse oneself in different societies and cultures, and to be open to new experiences? How else are we to return home a more enlightened person?
I had to at least sit in the octagonal pool before I left. Only then would I have gotten my fifty cents’ worth.
(Side note: octagons, like circles, are associated in many religions and cultures with the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—spiritual regeneration. Hence, baptisteries are often made in an octagonal shape. The octagonal pool at the Kiraly Baths is situated at the axis mundi of the building, reflecting the false firmament of the rotunda. If the Kiraly were a church, the octagonal bath would be the altar; if it were a man, would it be his spirit, or his libido?)
Sitting there in the womb-like water, trying to take in the symmetry and the quietude of the place, I felt a foot brush against mine.
There should’ve been plenty of room in there for everybody—the pool was fifteen, twenty feet in diameter. I pulled my arms and legs closer to me.
A few seconds later, I felt the foot graze the top of my foot again, this time along its entire length. I turned my head to see a soft-bodied young man, about my age with bleached blond bangs, staring back at me from beneath plucked eyebrows; they contorted into a sideways question mark.
Observing the vow of that strange order, I wordlessly got up and left. That was it for me and the Kiraly Thermal Baths. I reemerged in the daylight approximately fifteen minutes after having gone in, and decided that the whole bathhouse thing wasn’t for me.
A few weeks later, though, I would be persuaded to give it another try—this time in a different universe, called Germany. I was reassured that what I had witnessed in Budapest could never happen there. At this place, however, fully nude wasn’t an option—it was the only option. Ironically though, this bathhouse was co-ed.
The licentious spirit was, as promised, conspicuously absent or, rather, repressed. I discreetly ogled a few boobs, and noticed a few pairs of eyes belonging to women momentarily slip below my waste, instantly to be yanked back up by some nagging sense of decorum. It was the same sense of decorum that governs our behavior on the street, made even more rigid by the compromising circumstances inside the bathhouse. We were to forget the fact that our sexuality was totally on display, and reserve those attentions for a viable mate, but only after a respectable courtship period spent in our clothes.
|July 4th, 1998[10.9.09]|
|posted by email@example.com|
I don’t know whether it was the Vicks 44 we had drunk to enhance our enjoyment of the fireworks, or just the natural tendency of young men not to want to let each other down—but at around midnight on July 4, 1998, when the day should have been coming to an end, Mike, Ritchie and I were about to embark on an asinine odyssey that, by morning, would find us in upstate New York, some 500 miles away from our origin in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I was coming out of the bathroom applying ointment to the rash I’d gotten from the overdose of cough syrup, when I found Mike and Ritchie in the living room crowding the computer screen. It was filled with the banner of a webpage that read, “The Church of the Subgenius”.
“Holy shit, man,” Mike was saying. “I’d give anything to be there when those jackasses wake up and realize the spaceship didn’t come.”
As it turned out, all that the universe asked in exchange for this indulgence was a couple tanks of gasoline and a grueling night of driving that would probably truncate our youth.
To this day I don’t understand what The Church of the Subgenius is and, looking back, it's clear that neither Mike nor Ritchie did either. But according to the website, they were camping out in Amish country waiting for space aliens to pick them up in their mother ship and take them back to their paradisiacal home world on the other side of the galaxy. The rendezvous was scheduled for sunrise, the morning after the anniversary of our nation’s independence.
Now—I don’t know— maybe in those early days of the internet it seemed inconceivable that someone would post something ironic online for the whole world to potentially take in earnest. Or maybe the internet’s demonstrated tendency to draw out the most marginal elements in society and make them visible to the world for the first time made it seem plausible that you could cross paths in cyberspace with followers of an extraterrestrial religion with a central deity named Bob. But Mike believed that they believed it, and it got his ire up the same as people who believed that God was a man who died on a cross two thousand years ago. He wanted to be there to savor their disillusionment when they realized that the aliens weren’t coming and that they’d just have to make a go of it here on Earth and get a job or something.
“Let’s go,” Mike said. “Right now.”
With our silence Ritchie and I gave our assent. Mike estimated that we could be there in seven hours if we drove like hell (which turned out to be pretty accurate). I packed my barely unpacked suitcase—if I was going along on this crazy adventure, I was going to fly home to the West Coast from the nearest airport in New York rather than make the seven-hour drive back to Charlottesville.
We made a quick stop for cash at an ATM—the last outpost in that college town of orderly Jeffersonian buildings before The Great Between-Places. My stomach churned as I took the backseat of Mike’s ’83 Volvo. Leaving at that hour was a little like sitting down to write a term paper the night before it’s due—knowing that by morning you’ll be physically and spiritually broken.
Why not just sleep along the way? I did have the backseat all to myself. But it just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing. It wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the whole day. As long as Mike was driving that car, we were all driving that car.
We plunged through the wilderness of night with nothing for the brain to latch onto but the ever-advancing broken yellow line and the occasional road sign offering abstract indications of place. Even the radio in Mike’s car struggled to muster a signal. The whole world was like sleep closing in on us and the high beams were our only talisman to ward it off. All those charming red barns, and all those bullet-domed grain silos, and all those gently rolling plow-striped hillocks, and all those brown-spotted moo cows all slipped by unseen behind the curtain of darkness. It was kind of a shame. But then, I’d made pretty much the same drive in the daylight three years earlier.
As a matter of fact, I was with Mike on that trip as well. We had driven all the way from the West Coast to bring our friend, Tim back to college in upstate New York. Who could’ve known then that we’d all eventually make our homes at opposite ends of the country, finding fewer and fewer opportunities to meet as the years went by?
Filling in for Tim on this trip was Ritchie, Mike’s roommate from Charlottesville. He lounged gargantuan in the passenger seat with his Allen Ginsberg beard and his Buddy Holly glasses, staring into the cone of light projected by the headlamps, but in his mind perhaps flying through a cosmos of math equations or contemplating The Book of Tea. He had probably traveled more miles by car than Mike and I put together. He’d have driven a thousand miles as soon as go to the store.
Mike became increasingly hunched as the hours ticked off, and the burden of sleeplessness piled on. He seemed to devolve into some primate adapted for helming an automobile. But if at any point he doubted himself or the enterprise he’d set in motion, he didn’t say anything. In fact, I can’t recall any of us saying one word the entire time. We may very well have sat in silence for seven hours, listening to the motor drone on, and on, and on.
I was well into my twenties the first time I saw the sunrise without having stayed up all night. That day would arrive later, along with jobs, responsibilities, etc. This was merely one of the many occasions on which I bitterly watched the sky turn from black, to that ambiguous shade of magenta, to pale peach, until finally the sun disk made its blaring return to pass judgment on those of us who had rejected the call of sleep.
We turned off the highway somewhere in western New York and onto the main street of a town so rustic, the sign above one store read, “mercantile”. From the arteriole of Main Street we turned down a capillary of a farm road, passing Amish people in their horse-and-buggies on their way to, or from, church. (It was Sunday.) I waved hello to one mating pair. The man simply nodded.
“Waving back would’ve been frivolous,” Ritchie explained.
Finally, in a fallow field hidden by a row of cypress trees, we reached our objective: the Church of the Subgenius camp.
It was like finishing a marathon dead last. People were rousing themselves from what was undoubtedly a great 4th of July party, eating breakfasts of oatmeal cooked over a fire, and packing up their tents to go home. There was no sign of disappointment or disillusionment in their faces—only mild curiosity at who these latecomers were, perhaps.
We must have been a strange sight through the windows of Mike's car, all pie-eyed and punch-drunk, but the Subgeniuses would’ve seen no disappointment in our faces, either. Maybe the dawn had shone a sobering light on our quixotic adventure and we no longer expected to find a bunch of misfits, suitcases in hand, staring forlornly into the sky. Maybe at some point the goal had become simply to get there. Or maybe we were just too tired to care.
We took a lap around the dirt cul-de-sac that encircled the camp, and headed straight back out the way we came.
In order to make use of the distance we’d already traveled, we made New York City our new goal. We figured we were already on about the same latitude, and Mike and Ritchie had a friend there who could put us up for a couple of days. Also, there were several airports in New York from which I could fly home. So, I didn’t make the seven hour drive back to Charlottesville, but, as it turns out, the state of New York is about a seven-hour drive from end to end.
Somewhere in the middle, Mike said:
“Well, I’m about as tired as I get,” and pulled off the road to sleep.
In high school, Mike had been a long distance runner. For practice, he would run from Kennedy High to the top of Mission Peak, and back—about 20 miles with an elevation change of 2,500 feet. So when he said he was tired, he was tired. It came as a relief to me and Ritchie, though, because it meant that we could sleep as well. For two hours our bodies sipped deeply of sleep.
When we woke up, it was no longer the 4th of July—literally, and now figuratively. The afternoon traffic that meandered by on the highway now seemed to move with a certain urgency toward the City and the working week. The sun even seemed to slip down the western sky faster than it had come up. We thought we’d better be getting along, too, so we hit the road one last time and continued on to New York. But whatever adventures awaited us there, none of them have endured in my memory like that night of nothing, on the way to nowhere, to witness a non-occurrence.
It strikes me now that the previous time I’d seen Mike, we stayed up all night walking the Las Vegas strip until, finally, we crashed in a booth at the food court of the Luxor Casino as the cleaning staff was vacuuming the floors. The time before that, we walked from Westwood all the way to the ocean in Santa Monica after the streets had emptied of cars and only the sound of our voices and the shuffling of our feet filled the AM void. Even back in high school, we would often drive out to Half Moon Bay in the middle of the night and build a bonfire on the beach, or walk way out on San Francisco Bay on a jetty by the light of the moon, or start up Mission Peak when most people in Fremont were heading off to dreamland—barely making it to our own beds before the sun came up and caught us trying to cheat its natural cycle.
Quite a little tradition we’ve got.
|posted by firstname.lastname@example.org|
I arrived early for my meeting with Mrs. M., so I browsed through the book market that was set up in the square in front of the café. A conspicuous number of the books had to do with 20th century history: Fascism and World War II, Communism and the Cold War, etc.
West of the old Cold War boundary people were already looking ahead to the new century, but here it seemed people were still sorting out the last one. The extreme example was next door in the former Yugoslavia, where ethnic conflict that had been suppressed under Communism had recently erupted in civil war, which, in turn, broke up the country into its pre-World War I component states. Two Kosovar businessmen on the train from Greece weren’t even sure which country to tell the conductor they were from.
I kept an eye out for Mrs. M. although I had no idea what she looked like. Not long after I began to worry about missing her, a middle-aged woman approached me and asked, “are you American?” I hadn’t realized that Americans had a look, but apparently I had it.
We went inside the café, which was behind a run-down neoclassical façade that was impenetrable to sunlight. Dim lamps above the booths hinted at once-posh digs while obscuring the shame of afternoon boozers. I bought us coffees and she doled out cigarettes.
“So, you think you would like living in Sofia,” she began, then sucked the air to recapture fugitive smoke that had escaped while she was speaking. Before I could answer she started listing off reasons why I might: “It’s very inexpensive here. These days there are a lot of things for young people to do. The young women are very modern. You can ask them for a date with no obligations.” She drew the cherry down to the ring of Cyrillic letters above the filter, then lit up another cigarette, leaving a gap in conversation to be filled by me.
“A native speaker would be a valuable asset to the school,” she went on. “When Bulgarians speak English it’s as though they’re speaking Bulgarian but with English words.” This sounded like something she was fond of saying—like the credo on her calling card. Mrs. M. spoke excellent English. “We must adapt, or be isolated culturally and economically,” she said. “Ten years ago the government forced us to learn Russian. Today economics forces us to learn English.” Mrs. M. had a vested interest in this prognosis: she ran a private language academy.
She told me that it would take her a while to obtain the permits to hire a foreigner. I told her that in the meantime I would go and check out Romania.
"Ah,” her tone darkened, “in Romania you must be very careful of the Gypsies.”
This struck me as oddly anachronistic. All I could say was, “really? Why?”
“Because they make their living through crime,” she said, taken slightly aback at having to state the obvious. “From a very young age they are taught to steal and beg. When my husband goes to Bucharest for work, he brings a pack of cheap cigarettes to give to the Gypsy children when they beg him for money. You should do the same.” In response to the question forming on my brow, she said, “they trade them for things.”
I acknowledged her advice with a polite nod and we both flicked the ashes off of our cigarettes as though silently agreeing to move on from the subject. But as we searched the ashtray for the next thread of conversation, questions bubbled up in my mind. I realized that the little I knew about Gypsies came entirely from movies and paperback novels, which were probably outdated or inaccurate. Anticipating that it would sound like another stupid question, I asked:
“How will I know a Gypsy when I see one?”
Her answer surprised me.
“They are not like us,” she said. “They are smaller. And darker.”
(Mrs. M. was about 5’2’’, with dark hair and dark eyes.)
I remembered a Japanese girl using precisely the same adjectives to distinguish Korean immigrants from the “native” population of Japan. They’re probably the words most commonly used to describe disdained minorities in any given society. But I'd thought Gypsies were just country folk. I’d even heard Americans of Eastern European ancestry claim the Gypsies as “their people”.
“I’m confused,” I admitted. “Are the Gypsies in Romania not Romanian?”
She said, tersely, “no.” But when I asked her, then, where did they come from? she had to think about it. She opined that they had come from India. “They have their own language, their own villages...they won’t adapt,” she said. “They prefer to live on the margins of society.”
Then it hit me: the racially ambiguous guy who tried to sell me a French phone card on the street in Milan a month before—who had needle tracks up and down his arms and feet—was probably a Gypsy; the dusky girl I’d seen playing the concertina for change on the Champs-Elysées was also, most likely, a Gypsy; the little boy who asked me for money the day before while his mom and dad and sister looked on: almost definitely.
“Don’t they go to school?” I asked.
She explained that in most Eastern European countries the state established separate schools for Gypsies.
“It’s better for them,” she said, magnanimously. “It preserves their culture.”
“So, Gypsy children don’t go to school with your children?” I asked.
Her eyes became fanatical.
“No!” she protested. “I would object!”
In the blueing September afternoon, amid the receding booksellers, Mrs. M. handed me her business card. One side contained her name, contact info, and the name of her school, all in English. On the flip side, the exact same information morphed into Cyrillic like a mini Rosetta Stone. We shook hands and she told me to email her in a couple of months.
I rushed our goodbyes, hoping still to catch some sellers at the flea market in St. Alexander Nevsky Square. I thought it might be a good place to pick up an old Russian camera, cheap.
I exited the train station to sidewalk-grey skies and a disconcerting absence of people on the street. Checking around me, I withdrew the equivalent of 20 dollars from an ATM (about 320,000 lei at the time).
Across from the station, once-majestic 19th century town houses butted up against forbidding mid-20th century concrete blocks. I went inside one of the concrete blocks (a post office) to buy a phone card, which I used to call a youth hostel to inquire about vacancies. Finding that there were some, I caught the bus and headed down there.
I had only been in Bucharest for about 45 minutes when someone tried to pick my pocket.
It was pretty crowded on the bus. But not so crowded, it seemed to me, that this guy had to hold his duffle bag up on his chest order to make more room in the aisle. Nor did I feel that he needed to be standing so close to me. I recognized this technique from a report I’d seen on 60 Minutes about pickpockets in Rome. Below the duffle bag, hidden from my view, his hand was at work. I looked down and saw his fingertips enter my hip pocket.
Out of reflex I pushed him away, sending him careening backwards into some other passengers who—more out of defense of their personal space than helpfulness—pushed him back upright. I got a good look at him for the first time. He was small. About 5’ 3’’. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Addidas warm-up suit. Definitely a Gypsy, I thought.
When he’d got his legs under him again he pretended to be just as shocked as I was. He composed himself and tried once more to blend in with the other riders. His “hot” hand appeared out from under the duffle bag in order to grab the handrail above.
All of us in the aisle swung like sides of beef as the rattletrap negotiated potholes in the macadam. The workaday rhythm, manifest in the unison movement of the conveyance and all of the people aboard it, briefly returned from chaos.
But I wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily. I stared a hole through his temple.
Suddenly, he erupted, barking something in Romanian (probably, what the fuck are you looking at?) and shoved me into a couple of passengers who returned to their bodies for just long enough to push me off of them. I scrambled to my feet thinking that I had just played into a trick to separate me from my bag, but he just stood there waiting for me to come up swinging. We struck schoolyard postures in the middle of the crowd of apathetic commuters until the bus finally came to a stop and he forced his way to the exit, cursing the world.
I looked around for something like empathy in the faces of the other riders, but they all stared off in their private directions, totally unphased.
Patting myself to make sure nothing was missing, I wondered what had been in my pocket this whole time. I reached my hand in: the phone card. I had put the money away in my money belt, as usual.
I was already soured on Bucharest, but after checking into the youth hostel I decided to give it another chance. I walked to the downtown area with an American girl who was staying there as an intern with the U.S. Department of State.
Strolling around Cismigu Park was like turning the volume down on the city. The thundering of buses and the honking of horns yielded to the chirping of birds and the murmur of flowing water. Guilded Age highrises on the edge of the park poked up above the canopy of trees. They incorporated the finest elements of Eastern and Western architectures, yet to look at them was to know you were in Romania. You could see how Bucharest was once Paris’s counterpart at the other end of the Orient Express, as stated in my guidebook.
But these days it was crumbling. The revolution that had saved the old city from being demolished to make way for Ceausescu’s vision of the “modern” socialist city, was now forced to review its priorities in the face of economic ruin. It seemed upkeep was one of the things that went to the bottom of the list.
Coming out of a pastry shop where we’d bought decadent tortes for about 20 cents each, a Gypsy boy of around twelve or fourteen stopped us and asked me for some money. I reached into my hip pocket and extracted two Bulgarian cigarettes. When he saw this he slouched in an exaggerated way to express disappointment and evoke pity. He held that plaintive pose while I held my hand outstretched with the cigarettes until, finally, he decided to waste no more time and just took them, then ran off to solicit someone else.
Watching him go, I took a bite out of my torte without tasting it.
As if she’d heard my thoughts, my compatriot said, “I used to feel bad about giving cigarettes to kids. But then someone told me they were like a currency to them.”
When I got back to the apartment where I was staying in Brasov it was night. The woman of the house, who was round and low to the ground and wore a scarf over her hair in what struck me as a traditional way, immediately began to heat up some water on the stove for my shower. Her son, who spoke English, relayed her apologies that the building was temporarily without hot water.
Her face beamed with sincerity. Maybe she felt bound by some Romanian tradition of hospitality, or maybe she just wanted me to be as comfortable in her home as I would have been in a hotel. I assured her that it was alright.
The son offered me a seat in the living room while I waited. He was a little younger than me, with thick black hair that came to a widow’s peak low on his forehead, which caused him to remind me of Eddie Munster. He gestured for me to sit on the couch and he sat across from me on the coffee table so that we were face to face. He engaged me in polite small talk:
“So, where you go today?”
I told him I had gone to see “Dracula’s castle”.
“You like?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s very nice,” I said, flattering his national treasure.
“Yes,” he said. “Vlad Tepes was good for Romania because he kill a lot of Gypsy.”
“Is that right?” I wasn’t sure what to say. I offered him one of the Bulgarian cigarettes, which he accepted with gusto. Everybody assumed because I was an American that I had American cigarettes, and everybody seemed to think American cigarettes were the best. After inhaling long and deep he studied the writing above the filter and realized it was Cyrillic. He cough-laughed, expelling smoke in puffs like a steam engine.
“Where did you get these?” he asked.
I told him I’d bought them in Bulgaria. He asked me where else I’d been. I told him that I’d started out in Italy, and then made my way to Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and that I would probably continue on to Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Germany, and then head home before winter.
“So, you make big travel,” he said.
“Trip,” I said, “yes.”
“Ah, yes. Trip, trip,” he corrected himself. He took a meditative drag from his cigarette and focused his eyes on something either miles away or right in front of his face. Finally, he said, “I would like make big trip. Romania is too small. Everything is old.”
“You should,” I said.
“Yes, but is very expensive. Here is very bad since revolution. Romanian money is garbage. But is okay,” he said, not wanting to bum me out, “we rent room for tourist, and they teach me English. So maybe someday I can get job on cruise ship or something.” He brightened up. “Maybe I go to America, eh?”
He asked me how I found out about their guestroom, and I told him that I was met at the train station by Dominik. Dominik was a “tout” who waited on the platform for tourists in the hopes of overcoming their skepticism with a small album containing photos of satisfied guests along with their handwritten endorsements in their respective languages. He had given me the hard sell, which I usually don’t respond to, but so far everything had turned out as he advertised. He was also a taxi driver—as is often the case with touts—so transportation was included. I imagined he took a pretty big cut of the ten-dollar-a-night fee.
“Dominik is okay,” the son said, “but he is a Gypsy with the money,” making the international sign for money by rubbing his thumb and forefinger together.
“Oh, yeah?” I said, not sure if he meant that he was a Gypsy, or just that he behaved in a manner associated with Gypsies. I tried to recall whether Dominik looked Gypsy. I didn’t think that he did, but then I wasn’t sure anymore. I was tired. I told the son that if the water was ready I would take a shower now.
“Yes, yes. Take,” he said. As we stood up he asked me how long I was planning to stay. I told him that I would leave for Hungary in the morning. That reminded me that I had wanted to check out the “Black Church” before I left Brasov. I asked him if it was close by.
“Yes, is close,” he said. “But if you go there tonight, probably some Gypsy will beat you and take your money.”
After the shower, I went to bed. That night, I had a dream that I was walking down a road in the Romanian countryside. The sides of the road were lined with crucified Gypsies.
In the morning I left for Budapest.
The train wound up through the Carpathian Mountains, which weren’t at all craggy and ominous like in Dracula movies, but rather pastoral, and adorned with little villages that probably hadn’t changed in a hundred years; where, I imagined, the pace of life was set by grazing sheep. If you had to pass a few hours on a train, you could certainly have worse landscapes to look at.
Eventually, the train slowed and came to a stop. It appeared we were at the border. There was little more than a small guardhouse and a man in uniform to indicate this.
“Excuse me,” I asked the man, “is this the Hungarian border?”
“Romania,” he said, pointing to his feet, then, “Hungaria,” pointing to the other side of an imaginary line toward the front of the train.
I pulled out the pack of Bulgarian cigarettes and leaned out the window to smoke. The border guard became transfixed. He tapped his lips with his index and middle finger—the international sign for can I have a cigarette?—and said:
I shook my head.
“From Bulgaria,” I said, and extended him the pack.
He made a face of distaste and waved his hand in the international sign for never mind.
|Run-In With Black Market Antique Dealers in B.F.E. [9.1.06]|
|posted by email@example.com|
I was walking around downtown Cairo after having visited the Egyptian Museum and wondering what to do next. Before I left home I had bought a Fodor's guidebook in haste, not realizing that Fodor's caters to people who crave familiarity while abroad and are willing to pay for it. Why would anyone want to go some place like Applebee's Neighborhood Bar and Grill while they're in Cairo? So what if it's on a riverboat on the Nile? But most places seemed inaccessible to me as a blond, blue-eyed westerner. So, when a young Egyptian man approached me and, after some friendly discourse, asked me if I'd like to have a glass of lemonade in a café, I agreed. Plus, a bout with diarrhea had left me dehydrated and in need of electrolytes.
In a fan-cooled, tile-covered café patronized only by Egyptians, over sugary lemonade and shisha, Ali asked me about my purpose for visiting Cairo.
"Just visiting. Seeing the sights," I told him.
"Have you bought anything in Cairo?" He asked.
"No," I said, "most souvenirs seem like cheap replicas of antiques."
"Would you buy an antique if it were authentic?"
"Maybe," I said. "I'd be interested." I imagined 19th century silver pocket watches and porcelain tea services left over from the era of British colonialism.
"I have a friend who sells antiques," he said. "Why don't we share a taxi to Giza? You can watch the laser show at the pyramids from the roof of my house, and afterwards I'll take you to see him."
He assured me that there would be no pressure to buy and that he would have another friend of his, a taxi driver, conduct me back to where I was staying on Zamalek.
Only when traveling in a foreign country would I accept such an offer from a stranger, and, as I had not yet gleaned enough excitement from this place, I agreed.
We walked toward the 6th of October Bridge to hail a cab. Along the way, Ali waxed philosophical.
"We Egyptians are running to catch up with the rest of the world. But we've come a long way from Bedouins."
"Yes," I said. Then, attempting to fuel discussion with some armchair sociology (having stimulating conversations with people from other cultures is, after all, one of the reasons we travel), I added, "but I think Egyptians are still a bit Bedouin."
Ali's great black eyebrows crashed together. "Does she look Bedouin?!" He pointed to a woman in western-style clothes. Ali himself sported a polo shirt and polyester slacks. "Does he?!" Indicating a man driving a car.
"No, of course not," I said and, at the risk of offending him further, tried to explain my point, "but I've noticed that, very often, Egyptians choose not to drive within the lines."
Ali unknitted his brow and looked at me across the bridge of his nose with a smile, "I think I see what you mean."
During the cab ride to Giza, Ali seemed to warm up to me pretty quickly.
"The day after tomorrow you should come back to Giza and have lunch at my house. My wife will cook for us. I'll lend you the traditional clothes of an Egyptian man so that you will not be pestered by street vendors." We agreed to meet at the west end of the 6th of October Bridge at 10:00am in two days time.
On approach to Giza, the pyramids loomed large and dark on the horizon, dwarfing five-story apartment blocks in the foreground and shattering notions of permanence. The trick of perspective made it seem that we were perpetually on the verge of arriving even though we were still miles away.
I asked, "How much is my share of the taxi?"
"Don't worry about it," Ali said, and paid the fare, which was half of what I would have been charged as a lone westerner.
Ali left me with a glass of tea and two Scandinavian tourists on the roof of his house on the edge of the desert as the sun set behind the pyramid of Khafre. The laser show had not changed since it appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. I was glad I had stolen it rather than paying to see it.
Afterwards Ali, fresh from a nap, came to collect me.
A taxi met us in front of Ali's house. The driver, Ali's friend, pointed the car south, and we drove. And drove. How far I didn't know. But at one point I saw what I believed to be the pyramids of Dahshur splashed with light deep in the blackness. I remembered from the guidebook that they were something like 22 kilometers - or miles? - from downtown Cairo. Aside from that, only olfactory information. The smell of sweet rot seemed to indicate that we were somewhere along the Nile. I suddenly felt very insecure. Nobody had any idea I was out here. Where was I, anyway? I sat white-knuckled and clenched-jawed in the backseat trying to calm myself.
Eventually we pulled off the highway into a town with mud streets and no doors on the front of any of the buildings. As Ali and I walked down the road, I peered inside a bare concrete room and saw a little boy sharing the floor with a mule. Finally we came to a house, conspicuous among all the others because this one did have a door: with steel reinforcements and a sliding metal peephole, which slid open as we were scrutinized from within.
The eyes inside met Ali's with friendly recognition and, with the unlocking of several locks, we were invited in. Our host, also a young Egyptian man not much older than myself (but obviously more enterprising) bade us sit down on one of the many red velvet couches lining the walls of the foyer.
"Would you like something to drink? A Coca-Cola or some tea?" Ali asked me on behalf of our host.
I was starting to feel very guilty for my growing indebtedness to him, and now to this "antiques dealer", which would not be repaid if this expedition didn't end in a sale. I tried to refuse politely.
"Oh, no thanks," I said, "I'm fine."
There was some awkwardness as Ali relayed my response to the antiques dealer in Arabic, after which Ali delicately explained to me, "you don't understand, even I cannot refuse his hospitality." I had heard that this was the custom in Arab societies.
I acquiesced, "I'll have a Coke, thank you."
I sipped from the familiar red bottle, the branding unmistakable even in Arabic, as the antiques dealer unrolled a cloth bundle on the red velvet couch next to me. It contained several tiny figurines of people and animals that appeared to have been carved out of bone - a long time ago. There was no doubt in my mind, nor is there any today, that they were genuine. These weren't antiques. These were artifacts.
Ali explained that the dealer went to dig sites and uncovered the pieces himself.
"Do you like them?" Ali asked, on behalf of the dealer.
"Yes. They're very nice," I said. They seemed unsure whether this was positive or negative, and it was my intention to seem ambivalent. But not because I was trying to drive the price down. I hadn't even inquired about the price, knowing that that would only lead to endless haggling.
I took my time examining them, conscious of my privilege at seeing these pieces, which would likely never end up in a museum. I picked up one figure in the shape of a man, which was no bigger than a paperclip, between my thumb and forefinger. What were they? Had they been the playthings of princes? Or the private comforts of slaves? Had the hands that made these infinitesimal things also made the pyramids? (But then, the pyramids were, ultimately, equally finite.) So how much did this guy want for them?
"So...would you like to buy?"
I didn't know how to explain without disparaging the antique dealer's livelihood that I felt the objects should remain in Egypt, or at least shouldn't be the private possessions of one person. So I focused on the illegality of it, which scared the crap out of me. Last Crusade and Midnight Express were angels on my shoulder that day.
"No, no, no," Ali tried to reassure me, "he has many ways of getting around the police." One way, he explained, was to hide the genuine antiques inside of a replica antique, which comes with documentation certifying that it's a fake. The customs people would read the documents and not scrutinize the object. Another way was to send someone with me to the airport to pay the customs people not to look inside my bags. "He's done it many, many times."
"Well, that's pretty smart," I conceded, "but...I don't know..." I said, still trying to seem ambivalent, when, in actuality, I had known from the moment I saw this guy's front door - and, let's face it, probably from the moment of Ali's initial proposition - that I wasn't buying anything. I had just been out for kicks.
"I think I'm going to have to say, no thank you."
We went around and around a couple of times, they, giving me their assurances, and me, expressing concern. Finally, seeing that I had made up my mind, they gave up.
Ali left me in the back of the taxicab like yesterday's newspaper.
"He'll take you back to Cairo. When you get there you'll give him thirty-five pounds." (About eleven dollars; very reasonable for such a distance.)
"That sounds kind of expensive," the budget traveler whined.
Ali shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry but the driver has to get paid," he said, and closed the door.
"Will I still see you on Thursday?" I asked.
"Yes, good night," Ali said into his shoulder as he headed back down the mud street into town.
I was relieved to again see the pyramids of Dahshur, this time passing by on the opposite side of the car.
"Where are you going?" The driver asked.
"Zamaleck," I said.
"Ahhh. Very nice there. Lots of Americans there," he said.
|Travel Quote Archive|
"I have left my native country; I have pledged my estate; I have forsaken my comfort and delivered myself into the arms of Fortune to lead where she will."
"Such is the nature of us Spaniards that the more he told us about the fortress and bridges, the more we longed to try our fortunes, although to judge from Olintecle's description, the capture of Mexico would be an impossible enterprise."
"There's only four ways to get unraveled...one is to sleep and the other is travel."
"We choose to go to the moon...not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard."