As the fat jockey circled the Kincsem Park arena, sporting a bright yellow jersey and whipping an unfortunate horse, Dan and I realised we were watching something special. We were in Hungary, Budapest to be precise, and for the final afternoon of our excursion to central Europe, we decided to join the locals in losing our money to a shady betting syndicate.
It cannot be said that this Wednesday afternoon racing session was proving to be popular. Barely twenty punters were gathered in the enormous stadium, and two were German tourists with silly hats. One had a copy of a Penguin Classics Oscar Wilde book poking through his jacket pocket, the pretentious ‘Gap Yah’ prick.
Kincsem Park lies on the outer edges of Budapest, and a twenty minute walk from the nearest ageing Metro line. One bar inside the cavernous main stand was open, dispensing cans of local lager for £1.30 which tasted like a low-grade Carling – quite some achievement. Naturally, we had about nine each, steadily getting louder as we cheered on our new heroes.
I wanted a photograph at the finishing post but I waited until the races were finished, as I remembered a piece of advice from one of those well-thumbed travel guides that people give you whenever you go somewhere they’ve been, all covered in stars and comments like “Lovely Italian” (I didn’t know whether they were referring to the food or the barman).
I waited for the photo op because apparently most of the men who attend the races are doing so without the knowledge of their other halves, so by taking pictures, you may be outing their forays. I’d have thought any wife would be happy to see their husband spend his time surrounded by other men, losing a few quid, then returning home, tail between his legs. Better than having an affair, I venture.
Anyway, racing can’t be a big deal in Hungary ‘cos the only person they could find to ride one of the poor creatures was a squat, fat bloke. All his horses came last. I could envisage a corrupt stable manager handing the jockey pork pies and laughing maliciously. If these were the finest specimens they could find to ride a horse on a chariot, Hungary needs to get some serious training together.
Betting was proving to be a problem as well. Most places we went in Budapest had a bevy of English-speaking workers. We had taken this for granted before we visited Kincsem Park. Walk in to any cuisine environment and awkwardly reply “Hello there” when a Hungarian waiter gibbers at you in their indecipherable tongue, and he or she will either switch instantly to perfect English or gesture to a supervisor for help. As I approached the tote booth, I had my bet in mind (I fancied ‘Wilde’s Joy’ and not because of the Aryan douche behind me) and confidently bellowed “1,000 Forint on Number 6 please”.
The old woman behind the desk sat there bemused for a few seconds, before a barrage of consonants and guttural sounds hit my eardrums. “English” I said, exasperated, like the worst tourist stereotype, hoping she would point me to someone who might help. Nope, she carried on. I looked around in vain but no one came. So after five minutes of painstaking pointing and waving money, I finally managed to put three quid on Wilde’s Joy. I did fancy a three-way accumulator but there is not the sign language in the world to convey this information. When she realised what number I wanted, I had to give her a thumbs up to indicate I wanted it to win. Of course, when the horses came trotting on to the circuit, Wilde’s Joy was backed by The Fat Controller and my betting stub was immediately made worthless.
Dan had better luck, although he is not quite as persistent as me and only won some money because the old woman put the wrong bet on and he couldn’t be bothered to argue. This was a recurring theme during our five day trip. Dan plays in my snooker team in Eastbourne. He’s rubbish but he’s a trier. He once turned up for league night on his birthday, pissed as arseholes, won his game against an old boy who could barely stand up and proceeded to tell everyone how much his game had improved with the addition of six pints of lager. He also signed up for an Iron Man Triathlon, a punishing mixture of swimming, biking and running that would put the fittest person in the world through physical torture. Dan isn’t the sprightliest of fellows, a paunch unbefitting of his age developing through a fast food addiction. During his first training session for the Iron Man, he did two lengths in the pool then sat in the sauna for an hour. So in short, he’s a bit of a bullshitter. Still a top bloke, mind.
He was definitely worse with the language barrier, or at least worse dealing with it. I asked him to get a pepperoni pizza for lunch. He returned with a ham and mushroom pizza covered in chillies. When I questioned him, he froze up and said he couldn’t understand what they were saying, so just kept nodding. I’m surprised he didn’t sign over his first born child.
Instead of staying in a grotty hostel full of smelly backpackers with packed lunches made by their mothers, I chose an apartment through the Holiday Lettings company. This made me a bit nervous, as the only confirmation that we had a roof over our heads was through correspondence with a chap called Daniel, who didn’t seem all there. Nevertheless, we rang him when we were outside Lazar Utca and he said someone would welcome us shortly. Joseph stumbled through a nearby door and wheezed our names. He looked like one of those talking faces you see on Nazi documentaries recalling the worst atrocities of the war. He carried a dirty dishcloth and had more lines on his face than David Bowie’s had of cocaine. We nodded and followed him, suitcases dragging behind.
“Do you have cigarette?” he asked and we both said no. “Not even one cigarette?” he pleaded, looking crestfallen when we again responded negatively. He led us through the apartment entrance and we stepped into a murky hallway, dark as dusk despite it being midday. Joseph turned right up a wide set of marble stairs and I took a nervous look around. It all seemed so… Soviet. Crumbling paint work, tiling only completed to chest height, a huge clanking lift that was out of order providing a somewhat dubious centrepiece. Dan and I exchanged worried looks. Sharing a hostel bunk bed with a hygienically challenged Dutch hippy was looking like a good shout.
We looked through a grimy window into the courtyard and saw a single metal washing line that made it look like the world’s least equipped badminton court. I mentioned this and Dan emitted a nervous titter, clearly thinking we were being led by Joseph to some drug den on the second floor from whence we may never escape.
Luckily, Joseph got his keys out and let us in to the flat, a cosy if functional abode (I called it “The Abode” and Dan asked “What’s a boad?”) with two bedrooms, a living space and a bathroom. Joseph said he hadn’t quite finished cleaning and went off to do some more errands while we sat in the living room breathing a sigh of relief that we were not being chopped into little pieces for the benefit of some creep on the internet. Joseph poked his head round the corner and asked if he was cleaning both bedrooms.
“Yes please” we said, instantaneously, and Joseph seemed satisfied that he wasn’t putting in all this effort so a couple of grown men could spend their holiday inside each other. After twenty minutes Joseph had finished his cleaning duties and, uninvited, took a seat at the table and started telling us how poor he is.
“I spent most of my money coming across town to be here” he said, despondent. I soon cottoned on to what Joseph was after, namely a few bob so he could buy some cigarettes. I wielded a crisp Hungarian bank note and Joseph’s change of demeanour was extraordinary. He suddenly became the life and soul of the party, even offering to show us the highlights of the city (with a wink and smile that made my genitals shrivel) and cook for us if we wanted. “Better than all that restaurant food” he said, before coughing up his guts and wiping his mouth on his filthy cloth.
With Joseph despatched and happily riding off into the distance with his £4, we ventured out into the city. To catch our bearings on the first evening, we went for something to eat in the centre then walked back to the flat to give ourselves some kind of internal geography.
I was in need of some pampering so the next day we went to one of Budapest’s many natural spas. We chose the largest, Szechenyi, with three huge outdoor pools and dozens of saunas, steam rooms and thermal baths inside. I feared the worst when suggesting we go there, because most of the tour guides say the system for using thermal baths is intrinsically mad. I heard stories about chalkboards and lockers and how you have to remember which locker you’re in even though there’s no number. Then there’s the rules about where you can go (there is often male and female segregation) and how you enter the pool. I heard that if you dip into one of the swimming pools without wearing a swimming cap you’ll be more or less physically assaulted by the guard.
Thankfully, Szechenyi was very much with the times and had a simple system, bereft of chalkboards and the like. It was the most relaxing two hours of my life. Just sitting there, with nothing to do, the warm bubbles gently throbbing against my skin, the not-too-strong sulphurous smell initiating deep, relaxing breathing. No wonder Hungarian unemployment is so high when you can be sitting around in thermal baths all day.
The Budapest Zoo was just around the corner and no matter how much we tried we couldn’t find the kangaroos. Signs pointing to their whereabouts led you back to the same place. I reckon that as most of their marketing material depicts a kangaroo leaping about, they can’t admit that they died or are no longer around. We asked a zookeeper and she said “Follow the signs”. We went past the ostriches for the sixteenth time but still no kangas.
On the final day we visited the other side of the river, or “The Posh Bit” as Dan called it. We were staying on the Pest side of the river, all café bars, nightclubs, restaurants and hookers outside hotel lobbies. The Buda side was more sedate, and contained some of the more cultured areas of the city. For a couple of early twenty-somethings, this meant boredom. Somewhat against his wishes, I dragged Dan to the National Gallery atop the Fisherman’s Bastion, a stunning monument with easily the widest staircase I’ve ever seen.
Dan moodily stomped around the first floor and pointed out of the window to the panoramic view of the city below and called it “The best painting here by miles”.
“Don’t be such a misery guts, you philistine” I responded.
“What did you call me?” he said, “I’m not from the Middle East”.
I ushered Dan downstairs so he could buy a beer while I continued to wander around the fascinating exhibits… Five minutes later I joined him and we were back on form again.
The two nights out we had are a bit of a blur, as is the custom. On the first we shared a bottle of Jack Daniels, which obliterated the rest of the evening’s entertainment in the slideshow of my drunken oblivion. When I returned to the apartment for a kip, Dan said he went on to a few nightclubs, all of which were bonkers. One, only round the corner from our apartment, was modelled on Alice in Wonderland and had mechanical rabbits racing across the ceiling.
On the second night out, I remember considerably more, even though we ended up in a casino for a few hours. It was surprising that even in Budapest, where there was hardly an ethnic face in sight, the casino was rammed with Asian men in suits, looking nonplussed whether they win or lose thousands. When a Mafia kingpin lookalike at your roulette table sticks one million forint (£3,000) on red, I felt like a pauper sticking my five hundred forint (£1.50) on black 17.
Suitably rinsed of cash we went for a few more drinks, which quickly turned into more drinks and ended in Joseph’s immaculately tidied room, ready to return to the normality of the United Kingdom.