Cheers!

29th – 30th November 2016

We didn’t arrive in Budapest in style. The overnight train didn’t seem too bad – until we were told to leave the first class carriage. In our rightful place in cattle class, the lights were bright and the seats, upright. I had just dozed off around 3 a.m. when we passed through border patrol (since Romania isn’t yet a Schengen member). After that, I didn’t sleep until we made it to our hotel around 11 o’clock. 

But we only had one night so couldn’t sleep long. After an hour dozing, we were back out in the piercing cold. We held it together long enough to walk as far as the parliament building and then ducked inside the nearest place we found.

This happened to be Budapest Bisztró; a modern restaurant with an effervescent waiter whose enthusiasm didn’t quite make up for an almost-total lack of English. He raved about a few wines (we assume) but weren’t sure which ones, what they were like or if they were red or white. So ignoring his recommendations (or potentially choosing them), we picked a random wine from the list.

In Romania, we had struggled with the language. But it was nonetheless latinate. So we could manage salut (“hi”, like in French), mersi and – with some guesswork – we could decode a menu. We also quickly added noroc to a growing list of words for “cheers”. In Hungary, we had no such luck.

Apparently one of only three European languages to derive their word for “wine” (bor) from eastern roots, Hungary can lay claim to a more direct vitihistorical link with the first winemakers of Georgia. (Hungarian words for “grape” and “cask” share these roots).

White wine (fehérbor) and red wine (vörösbor) were less than obvious and neither me nor my friend knew any of the winemaking regions of Hungary, nor the grapes. (I wrote down the names of the ones we tried… and then lost the piece of paper). 

Once we had our glasses, we faced a final problem: saying cheers. It’s written egészégedre but when we asked the waiters, the sounds just wouldn’t stick.

The first red wines we ordered didn’t impress us much. Mine had no weight and my friend’s was sweet and light like ribena. But persevernce paid off because every glass afterwards was very enjoyable. 

The food at Budapest Bisztró was delicious too. I ordered duck breast with toasted potato dumplings (a bit like fried gnocchi) and a plum and truffle sauce. Everything tasted great, including the second randomly chosen glasses of wine. Everything except the Hungarian palinka (with which we asked again how to say cheers) that just burns too much for my liking.

The rest of our evening in Pest was spent hurrying from one bar to the next and then bracing ourselves to face the cold again. We had some mulled wine at a Christmas market and made our way down to a cocktail bat called Tuk-tuk. My friend (preparing me for the worst with a story where she had a full conversation with a group of hallucinations in an empty taxi) ordered an absinthe cocktail and I had a palinka-based one (determined to enjoy this local plum brandy).

After a sleepless night, we weren’t feeling up to the ruin bars of Pest – installed in disused buildings – and opted for a nightcap in a wine bar. Here they served Hungarian sparkling wine, which we felt obliged to sample. 

Well, I can drink my fair share of prosecco and a glass or two of cava has never done me any harm, though champagne has always won out (as it did whn I had last seen this friend of mine in the xampaneria in Barcelona).

J’en bois quand je suis heureuse et quand je suis triste. Parfois j’en bois quand je suis seule. Si j’ai de la compagnie j’estime que c’est mon devoir. Si je n’ai pas faim je joue avec, et j’en bois quand je suis affamée. Sinon, je n’y touche jamais, sauf si j’ai soif.

Pezsgő, or at least the one we were drinking, could challenge its French cousin. It’s a wonderful restorative. Just one glass was enough to get us through to a second and we sat up talking until the bar had emptied out; and still hadn’t managed to say cheers!

*

The next day we braved the cold for a little longer and wandered down through Pest to another Christmas market, full of food: guláysleves (goulash soup) was served inside hollowed out loaves of bread; meats sizzled away including whole piglets cut in to slices; but we went for lángos, a fried flatbread with goulash stew and sour cream on top; and a glass of mulled wine; followed by kürtőskalács, a sweet pastry cone cooked over hot charcoals; and another glass of mulled wine (it was really cold!).

Then we had just enough time to warm up in one last bar and to ask once more how to say cheers. (I think we almost got it right that time).

*

I caught a taxi to the airport with my remaining forints, leaving the city 45 mins before my flight took off. The taxi driver didn’t speak any English and I wasn’t convinced he had understood “airport”. He wrote down “15-20” when I asked him (through gestures) how long the journey would be.

We pulled around a corner and straight in to traffic and he wrote down “30”. I showed him my ticket and the time of my flight and he understood. It was a terrifying journey through Budapest’s backstreets and occassionally overtaking on the wrong side of the road but he got me there in great time.

In the end it took 45 mins but my flight was delayed by 15. I gave him all the cash I had left (not enough to cover the fare) and ran through the terminal. They were boarding as I got to the gate and I walked straight on to the plane. 

Cheers, Budapest!

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