Budapest’s social scene goes non-stop, around the clock. Entertainment options range from cafés, theater, jazz clubs, thumping nightclubs, and late night pubs. Falling short of my goal to find a particular underground night spot along the Danube in Pest, and then perturbed the wine bar in Buda I sought out was closed for vacation (things they can never inform you of in a guidebook!), I trudged back to my apartment, indignant and resigned to retire early for the evening.
Other than the dim incandescent lights that are suspended over the dark back streets of Pest, late night establishments leave one lit sign outside their door to indicate they’re open. Nearing Garay Tér, a few of these signs called out my name, and I decided to explore these underground vaults of nocturnal life. The most interesting point about these places is that you have totally no clue what you’re walking into. With only the bottom of the staircase in view and maybe the murmurs of muffled voices being drowned out by music to guide you, it becomes a crapshoot. Will you walk into a saloon frequented by toothless men, yet vacant of women, where everyone stops and stares at you when you make your entrance? Or an elegant speakeasy in which the patrons dawn formal attire and daintily lift champagne glasses into the air? In my case, my first plunge sent me into the former, a smoky chamber of unwashed, chain-smoking, and bearded men (the same could be said for the women, by the way) drinking beer out of half liter bottles. Unused kegs made improvised seats at wobbly and cracked timber tables. The lone ceiling fan hums overhead as other younger tattooed men minded their own business (as I minded mine) at the video poker machines. It is a place where lonely people come to be alone among the company of others. The stocky and buxom barmaid and I exchanged glances as she chucked the recently torn away bottle caps to the wet floor. Nonverbal communication can only go so far. At any rate, the wounded expression on her face told anyone observant enough that she did not want to be there. Neither did I. But, there is an unwritten rule that once you stick your head in a place and you’ve been noticed, you have to stay for one drink. I do not know who wrote this rule or where I have seen it, bit it is one that I most try to adhere to. I sucked up my beer, smiled at her one last time, and climbed up to street level.
Not willing to call it a night, I was up for one more try. Around the corner from my first stop, a waiter was stacking plastic chairs from an outdoor terrace. As I stopped by, I peeked down the stairs and heard clamoring of small glasses and quiet conversation. They’re still open. This might work out, I said to myself. And it did.
I dropped down into a small wine pub, nothing more than a tiny bar, on which a tinier 12-inch black-and-white television set sat. These artifacts still exist? A few bottles of liquor on an uneven shelf got little action. However, the bartender was busy dipping a long-stemmed ladle into one in a series of vats of homemade wine. The customer in front of me out of the way, I shyly yet respectfully, as I always do, asked if he spoke English. Then German. No, he said, but he pointed down to the vats and lifted up an empty glass to my eyes. I liked this guy already. From behind, an older man kindly interrupted who offered his assistance. “I speak English”. His diction was that of refinement.
After an exchange about which wines where from where, who made them, how they got to Budapest, and the rest of the entire viticultural history of the bar, I bought him a sweet Tokaj wine and one for myself. He had just finished his. He graciously thanked me and joined me at one of the empty picnic table arranged in two rows.
A native of Pest, his name was Julius, a regular customer at the bar. I learned that he was fifty-two and very much down on his luck. His wife had just left him. He rarely speaks to his eighteen-year-old daughter and has moved back to live with his infirmed mother in a two-room apartment in Budapest. Julius freelances as an English and German teacher at a local institute. He also makes himself available as a tour guide for those who are interested in his services.
He teaches, loves to teach in fact. That alone carried our conversation through a few more glasses of wine. Julius maintained my attention. The later the hour became, more people of various backgrounds, some awaiting an early-morning departure from the nearby East Station, continued to file in. He spoke of his travels to Germany, Hungary under communism, and vented his frustrations about his life and daughter. I am sure that all the wine I could buy him would not offer any solace. Julius is fluent in Dutch, curiously enough, so we discussed how it could be possible for him to be functional in two completely useless languages. We lingered on for a long while, neither none of us wanted to call it a night, until I think I finally relented.
I made it back to the apartment with the satisfaction that I had gotten a taste of Budapest’s nightlife, albeit without the strobe lights, house music, and multi-language menus.
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