The spike in temperature is the first thing you notice when getting off the train in Pécs (PAYCH when pronounced), then the burning sun, followed by the orange tiled roofs. If in the south of Hungary, passing through cheerful Pécs is tough to avoid. This is a good thing. Pécs is wonderful because it impresses without trying to. Everything in Pécs has its proper place and fits in perfectly. The portion of town within the crumbling fortifications does not overwhelm, but it is still very eye-pleasing. Its streets are not over-the-top with ostentatious architecture or monuments. City squares are well kept and shrubs manicured. Fountains are plenty clean enough for toddlers to enjoy them, waist deep on a hot day. A stately sky-blue domed mosque commands the central square, the Szechenyi Tér. Some alleyways are windy, but not too curvy. The city is built on an incline, but not one that dissuades you form steering clear of the upper neighborhoods. The commercial area along with an up to date shopping mall assumes their proper place in the lower town. The trick to Pécs is to absorb it, not to attack it like you would Kraków. Pécs is not short on statues,
Some mushy symbolism of love. Time to move elewhere...
history, and sights. But it is a slow-paced community where the heat of the afternoon sun lends to a feel that you are more likely relishing in Europe, but somewhere near Arles instead of three hours from Budapest. The idea in Pécs is not to go looking for it. With an open mind and a free attitude, Pecs will find you.
Along with an increasing number of foreign tourists, Pécs is currently hosting the annual I.C.W.I.P. conference, or International Culture Week in Pécs. It is during this week when many young Europeans come to Pécs for a series of intercultural workshops, seminars, and social activities. Having crossed paths with Edgar, Ana Maria, and Laura below the mosque, I soon had the opportunity to learn a great deal more about the conference, its goals, and participants. Edgar is an overtly friendly and extremely bright professional-turned student from Colombia. Many years senior to the university-aged conventioneers, he lives in Denmark with his American wife. His outlook on Europe is flavored with an American perspective, which deviated him from the rest of the group and delighted me. I warmed up to him immediately. We clicked. The two other ladies were from Romania,
Islam once staked its claim in Hungary...
slender, good-looking, and displayed identical personalities; talking to one was like talking to the other. I liked them, too. They made me feel welcome wherever we went. I invited the three of them for drinks. Then the asked me to join them at an outdoor concert where we enjoyed a bottle of local white wine.
Edgar firmly insisted I join them and the other 280 in the group and a private party hosted by the Ukrainian delegation. I told him it was not necessary, but would like to tag along and see what the program was really all about for them. It turns out that for a good many in the group, it becomes one big party, wine-tasting, drinking, and a philandering free-for-all. They were here to have fun: sunny weather, local wine, pretty girls, handsome young men, great setting. As an analogy, think of the company’s yearly conference your bosses are forced to attend every February. Yet, you have to stay back at the office. The night before, the first item into the car for the trip to the airport is not the suitcase or laptop, rather the set of golf clubs. I.C.W.I.P. smacks of this as a
Inviting myself proved to pay off immediately...
first impression, although I later learned workshops are indeed productive and other activities did not dishearten anyone.
“Who is he?” cried out a staff member, minding the door to the entrance. Edgar and I walked in together, but I wore neither lanyard nor nametag like all the others. Her tone became less pleasant. She wanted to know why I was there. Good thing Edgar is a charmer. In no time, with the help of my business card, an explanation that I wanted to write an article on the conference, and Edgar persuasive skills, I was soon openly welcomed not only be the split-personality gatekeeper, but some of the directors of the program. All of a sudden, much to my surprise, I was some honored guest. Amazing what can happen when you are flexible with the truth to a certain point and kill people with kindness. As we walked through the entrance into the main hall, Edgar winked at me. “It’s how we do things in Colombia.”
The rest of the evening was a delightful social intermixing among Poles, Croats, Ukrainians, a herd of Italians, Spaniards, Serbs, and those from about ten other countries. Naturally, I was in my element
Swimming, Volleyball, Rafting
Doing nothing was the main order of the day...
and strangely enough, the only American. Interesting: an international conference without a single Briton, Frenchman, or American. But no one paid too much attention to this observation. I ignored the music, I mean noise, and jumped from person to person, couple to couple, and introduced myself. I had a great time.
Björn is from Hannover, studied at Northeaster University in Boston, and is famous among the young twenty-somethings for screaming “Wakey, wakey!” through the university dorms and some ungodly hour of the morning. Most had only been to sleep a few hours, were still drunk, and needed to shave their tongues before breakfast. I even heard he once awakened the slumbering partygoers with a version of Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken following a party that went very, very late. Extroverted, loud, and affable, he told me about his performance over drinks, “I can’t believe some people here still like me!”
“I can’t believe they let you live.” He let out a lion’s roar of a laugh, excused himself and thanked me for the beer, for there were pretty Russian girls wearing very little to talk to. He came to visit me on numerous occasions that evening.
I met a
Polish couple, young ladies from Ukraine with whom I spoke about my recent time there. They filled my vodka glass and fed me toothpick morsels of those wonderful dumplings. I leaned back as one of them dropped bite-sized pieces of tasty dumplings in my mouth, like a Roman emperor nibbling on grapes from his concubine. A few Italians from Turin were proud of the upcoming Olympics. All the while, there was Edgar, at my side or nearby. I filled his glass or replaced his drink whenever I could. I was grateful to him for the good time.
For a while, I had been considering my departure. It was nearing 1 a.m. No one was pondering ending the festivities, but I was clear-headed, ten years older and ten years wiser than these folks. One of the directors invited me the next day to a lakeside retreat at Orfű, about thirty minutes outside of town. “Wow! What will be on the agenda?” I implied that I could observe some I.C.W.I.P.’s workshops, take a few notes, do a write-up, and legitimize my tagging along among paying group members.
“Wh- What agenda?” He had a perplexed look on his face.
“You know. Workshops. Lectures. Like that.”
This guy shook hid head. “No. We are going to swim at the lake, play volleyball, and listen to music. We have an arranged lunch there, too. Is that OK with you?”
Are you kidding me? Why didn’t I sign up for this program? “Well”, I gave a pause to appear as if I was actually processing this and holding some internal debate. I had made up my mind before the last words of the question came out of his mouth. “OK”.
Departing wholly satisfied and pleased with myself, I walked out to the street and looked around. I had no idea where I was. We had walked to the party, a solid thirty minutes down a boulevard to get here, plus and extra left here and right there. But which boulevard? Where was I? This sobered me up rather instantly. I deduced in which direction the center had to be by gauging the hillside and stars. It would be another twenty minutes from the center to my hotel. I was now getting hungry and accepted unhappiness until I fed my face in the morning.
When, all of a sudden, came the man of my dreams. Most guys like me do not prefer men in our dreams. Nevertheless, exceptions can be made. This dream of a man arrived from the dark and creepy distance, the only thing stirring in the neighborhood. He was driving a car. I hoped it was what the king of a car that-
Yes, it was. A car with the four most beautiful letters I could have desired at 1:30 in the morning: T-A-X-I, lit up in bright yellow. I was so excited I started to scream and wave my arms. As he slowed down to collect me, I practically hurled myself on the windshield, spread eagle, just to make sure he saw me.
I fumbled in English and German. He did the same in Hungarian and Russian. In the end, I wound up at my hotel, content. The driver also stopped at a sandwich shop for me. How lucky was I? Well, we never passed a single car, nor did we see any oncoming. I was so far out of Pécs’ downtown, it would have been hours until I would have found the hotel. I left a generous tip, knowing I would have been stranded otherwise.
For reasons still beyond my comprehension, I was wide awake at 6:30 a.m. I enjoyed Pécs in the early hours of the day and retraced my way back to where I was the night before. Edgar had told me to be at the university dorm at nine in the morning. As I arrived back at the party venue, it was deserted. Nine o’clock approached. No one. There had to be at least five tour buses parked somewhere. I looked around. There was the university. A young student passed by on a bicycle and pointed to the dorms, the asked me, “Do you want these dorms, or the other ones?”
“Other ones?” I was in trouble. He pointed them out on a map. I thanked him and panicked. I did not want to miss out on this excursion! Across the street was a hospital where I found a taxi. The driver hesitated for what seemed like years, then we were off. I made the bus, joined the lovely Laura and Ana Maria, and we pulled away for Orfű. But where was Edgar? It was be such a letdown if he had not caught the other buses.
I sat next to a carsickened Croatian, who desperately tried to be polite with me. I let her be and turned around to look back at the rest of the passengers from the front seat. Most were asleep, hungover, groaning, or suffering from some sort of consequence.
The small lake at Orfű is an awesome spot. A small grass field pokes into the lake, forming a peninsula. Most group members, still suffering, immediately claimed a shady patch of grass and went straight to sleep. As with the night before, I got to meet a few more staff members and participants. As others lounged, strummed guitars, or played volleyball chest deep in the lake, it struck me: This is where the real purpose of the conference shows its face and becomes fruitful. South Koreans waded in the water with Turks. Russians and Hungarians discuss the format of university exams. People interface, meet others and get along. I met a Jordanian living in the U.K. Catching up with Edgar the three of us wasted most of the afternoon telling jokes about our countries, our most fearful experience at passport control, soccer, and how absurdly expensive it is to live or even by a scarf in England nowadays. We complained about the espresso, which was no more than hot foam. Edgar said that when entering the U.S. and going through customs, he sees three lines: one for U.S. citizens, non-U.S. citizens, and Colombians with drugs. He tells this with is forearm held up pretending to snap a latex glove on his hand, playing the role of an American customs officer. His perspective was hilarious, as was the Jordanian’s version of crossing the borders between Jordan, Egypt, and Israel.
Lunch was just fine, the swimming more than adequate, and the weather delightful. I played volleyball, too. I swam with the Italians. If it weren’t for the complete surrendering of your independence for the sake of the group, I could see myself as a participant here, though I would be in a vocal minority on most issues and topics debated. There isn’t really much more that Rich Incorvati, freeloader extraordinaire, could want more from this day.
The round trip ticket to my next destination, an overnight trip with no couchettes available or reservation needed cost me about one dollar more than if I had bought the one-way fare. I inquired at the ticket window why this was and got the standard shrug of the shoulders from the Hungarian official. It was the shrug with which I have become all too familiar: I do not know and do not care. Please go away so I can read my magazine. You made me lose my place. I, of course, bought the round trip in the event that I needed to swing in this direction on my way back to Ukraine. I still do not understand the reasoning.
My last hours in Pécs were quiet and blissful. I have concluded that Hungarians have a fascination with paprika. They use it in practically all their dishes: goulash, salads, beef, pork, you name it. The goulash I had for lunch was superb, if it had not been for the heat of the afternoon and that hot goulash smothered in paprika would do much better in winter.
I gladly departed from the Delta Hotel where I languished under unfriendly and uncaring service at the reception desk. Then there was the battle I hold every year in cheap hotels between suffocating in an 8th-floor hotel room with the windows closed in mid-summer. It was either that or open the windows for the swarms of mosquitoes to feast on my thighs and buzz my ears. I usually side for the suffocation, like in the Delta. At least with the windows closed I could more easily ignore that repeated blaring of train departures and arrival from the platforms below.
A good chunk of the afternoon saw me searching for a needle and thread to repair a rip in the seat of my pants. I killed time in the central market. I love going to markets in Europe. They often reflect the flavor of the town in the meats, fresh produce, and spices that are on sale. Meanwhile, perhaps I could find a laundromat, for I had not come across any in weeks. I have not done a laundry in, umm, I’d rather not say how long it has been. Every now and then, I have washed a few shirts in hotel and pension sinks. But, the number of underwear remaining is at a critical stage. The lack of clean underwear is one of the few obstacles that can put a dead stop to your journey, no matter how many times you consider turning them inside out and thinking that is acceptable. It isn’t.
While at the train station’s international ticket counter to book my overnight compartment, a French couple next to me was looking to go to Zagreb. They had put down their bags and then approached the window to inquire. The exchange went something like the following:
“Parlez-vous français?” The lady behind the fingerprint-pocked window stared back emotionless and continued silent. The couple looked at each other, surprised that their language had not taken over in Hungary. “Habla español?” was the next stab at communication. They both spoke Spanish, and as many French do, probably having traveled to Spain often. Fair enough. But in Hungary? This started to get amusing. Their last ditch effort before relenting was, “Deutsch?” Still nothing. The two paused as if at an impasse.
Then the ticket lady put her forefingers together and raised them up at eye-level. “English a little bit?”
Oh, no! Not English! The couple looked at each other and finding no other options, reluctantly conversed in rather decent English with her. But all along the way, they resisted using the one language they knew would get them the immediate results they needed. And they could speak English well enough, too! The French continue to be in denial that their language has taken a back seat to English in every non French-speaking country in Europe, and the world and that matter. In fact, in Eastern Europe outside of a few dusty pamphlets, French has been relegated to the trunk, never mind the back seat. How typical. How arrogant. How Fr- Well, you know.
Germans do not go around asking if Poles, Slovaks, or Hungarians speak German, even though that does happen more than any other language outside of English. The Spaniards are not in denial, but they just keep quiet when around Anglophones or English-speaking situations. Always in groups of seven or eight, young Spaniards delegate one among them whose English is the best, and can offer and retrieve the necessary information for transportation and accommodation. The rest are mute, a marvel if you get to witness it. But at least Spanish tourists do not go around expecting anyone in Hungary to articulate anything in proper Castillian. We need not mention those from Flemish Belgium, the Netherlands, or the Nordic countries; they speak English better than I do. In fact, a few of them have been known to correct my grammar.
The Americans and British are a different animal. Many of us who venture to the European Continent or Asia understand that our language is omnipresent. And if we don’t, we figure this out very quickly. This deters us from even learning the basic phrases from greeting others and bidding them farewell. Wherever we go, we are linguistically catered to. It instills complacency, and at times, a false sense that everyone is OK with us when we blare out a question and English and never precede it with a kind, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” That is our flaw, and it is severe. But, the French are by far the worst when it comes to adjusting linguistically while abroad.
My 8:42 train rolled away from Pécs two minutes late. I once again perched myself against the window, and even after night fell, stared unremittingly at the sorrowful fields of sunflowers. They seem to bow at the wagons in silence as we pass. I smiled in spite of the stickiness of the humid night, the upcoming four passport controls that would interrupt any productive sleep on the narrow and poorly padded seats. Mist enveloped the sunflowers and maples behind them. I was alone in my compartment, but happy to be in the rails again, bound for Sarajevo.
People in Sarajevo wash their clothes, don’t they?
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