Published: April 23rd 2012April 22nd 2012
We stood with a map in our hands debating our chances of getting from one side of Budapest to the other. Ideally we wished to achieve this with both of us arriving unscathed. Being the coward that I am and not wanting to engage in the trials of foreign public transport I was putting my meaningless vote to a walk across town. Reality suggested this would be a long, long walk.
The alternative filled me with stomach churning dread. However, this dread was going to have to be confronted and defeated in the form of the Budapest Metro; a place of nightmares.
A look at the Metro sign comforted me in no way. I couldn’t pick one word out that even began to register sense. Half the words didn’t even have a vowel in them and those that did were decorated with dots, lines and crosses that probably signalled BACK OFF! We descended the stairway to the abyss, taking a great gulp of air before vanishing. We could still go back up couldn’t we? NO!
Queuing up at the ticket office my heart was pounding and my palms sweaty. The only means of communicating was through mime. Point at present location on the map, follow the line with finger and finish with a point at destination; followed by miming the act of placing the ticket into the ticket machine. The ticket lady stared at me, through me, scratched her beard, turned her mouth down and shook her head; it was if I had gravely insulted her. We tried once more before backing off; ticket-less and rather scared.
Another queue led to what looked like a ticket machine. In this tourist orientated city perhaps they had an English translation. What was I thinking? There appeared to be a list of possible tickets in different colours matched up to increasing prices. We bought the most expensive possible; what more could an ignorant Englishman do? Fellow commuters appeared to be stamping their tickets in these bright orange machines that closely resembled those suburban letter boxes at the end of enormous driveways. We punched our tickets and confidently stepped out onto the escalator.
We had both spent more time than we would ever have liked pacing around the London Underground so we found an inner-confidence whilst navigating the musty, cavernous corridors of the Metro. The almost luminous yellow train thundered up the rail line before screeching to an ear-piercingly painful stop.
We were rattling along easy street now; several stops down to Deak Ter, hop off, jump onto Yellow Line up to destination “Fresh Air”. I allowed myself a pleasing, smug smile and slouched back in my chair.
The Budapest Metro is the second oldest underground metro system in the world. Yellow Line 1 dates back to 1896 and has been declared a World Heritage Site. I can see it’s old but a World Heritage Site? Now I looked this up… The Pyramids of Giza, Sydney Opera House, Taj Mahal, Great Barrier Reef all beautiful examples of such Sites but Line 1 on Budapest Metro? How? I delved deeper, a UNESCO World Heritage Site must be “of outstanding cultural or national importance to the common heritage of humanity.” Mmm, but this is a train we are talking about. A building must “represent a "masterpiece of human creative genius”. It must “be an outstanding example in its field”. I think this must be a mistake?
A quick hop across the platform and we were on Yellow Line 1. Our presence on board seemed to lead to everyone losing their steely frowns and breaking out into a half-hearted grin. I wondered why and carried out the normal checks; flies done up, wiped my mouth, all seemed in order. Perhaps we had finally found some Hungarian hospitality; in the most unlikely of places. I was soon to find this mis-judged; everyone bar us new our ill-fate.
Stepping off the train with backpacks securely fastened and guide book in hand we made a dash for freedom. Hungarian commuters streaked past us and up the escalators. We could see sunlight splintering through from ground above. We made it… No we hadn’t!!
The most un-officious looking brut of a woman blocked our path. She had the physique of an Olympic Shot-putter. A wart the size of a squash ball bulged from her upper lip, invading my personal space, her hair was as coarse as wire wool. Next to her was a limp looking fellow, with a very jaunty over-sized wide-brimmed hat. Both of them wore a blue ribbon with gold writing around their wrists and an ID badge draped around their leathery necks. My first thought was SHIT! I debated how successful making a run for it might be, we could certainly out run them but on the off chance she did rugby tackle us to the ground she would probably club me round the knees so hard I would never walk again. We had to see this one out. In any case we had done nothing wrong. We had our tickets.
In perfect English she asked for the tickets which I duly delivered. She turned to Limp Man and they discussed for a minute or two whilst wildly gesturing here and there. During this time streams of commuters passed without any of them being checked, but of course they were native’s not innocent tourists. The brut turned to us, pointed at the ticket and said,
At this point realising she could competently speak English I explained our journey. She shook her massive head, shrugged her broad shoulders and said,
This time I used the point and mime technique accompanied by pigeon English but it was met with the same response. Her solution to this problem was relayed once again in perfect English,
“No stamp, you have to a pay a fine”
This was an outrage, we bought the most expensive ticket possible that could probably take us as far as Vienna but had only travelled ten minutes. We stamped it on buying it and would stamp it on leaving. Unsurprisingly she pretended she didn’t understand my explanation. Spitting with anger I simplified things. Her only response was
“No stamp, you pay fine”. I refused. I felt I had to refuse; for myself, for my country, for all good people, for humanity!
Good people come here and spend good amounts of Forint on food and entertainment, we navigate our way around the metro’s labyrinth of platforms with no explanation and in reply these brusque transport guards accost only tourists, who have paid maximum money on a ticket, only to be made to feel like Hungary’s most wanted. Where is the hospitality, where is the warmth. I refused to pay the fine. Brutus responded by pulling out her phone,
“If you won’t pay the fine then I will call the police” she grunted.
The police! Is she kidding? Working out this Metro system is like completing a Rubiks Cube. Impossible! All she had to do was explain the system, explain where we had gone wrong, bid us farewell, “enjoy Budapest”!
I was that close to punching her square on the wart but thought better. Before I could get my wallet out she compounded my anger by offering option 2. Instead of the fine you could pay slightly more Forint and get a 3 day travel card. I lost it! What was this? Is she fining me or bartering with me. Clearly all tourists are treated with the same contempt. I stepped back and took a long contemplative breath before…
Not wishing to be confronted by the Hungarian police - who would probably have been less intimidating than Brutus – and a night behind bars I handed over the cash and walked away with a travel card. We had to benefit in some way. The guards stomped off to ruin some other unsuspecting tourists holiday.
N.B. To avoid such episodes, the ticket must be stamped each time you get on a different line! Head this advice or meet Brutus!