TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE KINDNESS OF OTHERS

Handy man Zoltan

Handy man Zoltan

I knew I could no longer stay with D.C., my romantically deprived (by me at least) couchsurfing host. It wasn't that D.C. bothered me with his unrequited wants--it was that the metro in Budapest didn't operate after midnight and a taxi to his place cost around 4000 forint (240 forints to the dollar, so around 17 bucks), thus negating the monetary benefits of free, albeit kooky housing. Fortunately, I received a belated message on couchsurfing from a married couple informing me that I would be able to stay in their apartment.

At first it seemed like a safe and platonic housing opportunity. But then, as I am wont to do, I let my mind ruminate on what-ifs. What if they're one of those married couples whose sex life has gone stale and they're hunting for young meat in order to spice things up? What if the husband has a fetish and he wants me to cuckold him? What if they get off on sadism and are planning to tie me up and torture me? What if they're super boring and expect me to play hours with of passive aggressive Monopoly?

Zoltan, the husband, sent me the address of the apartment. It was in the Jewish District near the city center. A prime location. There was a condition, however. Zoltan needed help running an errand. The errand required me to meet him at the train station and head out into the Budapest boonies. I could have said no, but I said yes. Now, I had never met Zoltan and had no reason to trust him, and once again my mind wandered. I thought of all the ways in which my body could be disposed and the capability of the Hungarian forensics unit. For all the bravado and toughness of the American male, we are mostly chickenshit. I think there is something American about distrust and paranoia. 

To prove my point, I, a sizable male, had to interact with unknown women who weren't the least bit intimidated by the untrustworthy nature of my gender (but to be fair it's hard to be scary when you have dimples). Zoltan told me that a cleaning woman would be at the apartment at 11 a.m. to hand over the keys. I had trouble locating the proper street. I poked my head into a café that was just setting up for the lunch rush and handed the busy waitress the piece of paper with the address on it. Her English was mostly inscrutable and she must have recognized the pained and puzzled look on my face. She held her right index finger in the air and turned back into the café. She came back outside and locked the café door and grabbed me by the hand and led me down the street and to the apartment's front door. She smiled and didn't even wait or seem to expect any thanks. The maid let me into the apartment. She didn't speak any English either and it was clear I didn't speak any Hungarian, but she went on talking at me while she finished mopping the tile floors. The two-bedroom apartment was completely bare save for a room stuffed with old carpets and light fixtures. Zoltan didn't tell me, but I was to stay in the unfurnished apartment alone, which was fine by me.

When I finally met Zoltan, it was at the train station. I was early and unsure how we would recognize each other. My lost demeanor was enough and Zoltan tapped me on the shoulder. He certainly didn't look like a murder. He was handsome with thick and wavy salt-and-pepper hair.

"You wait here long?" He asked.

"No, not at all."

"Alright, let's go."

He didn't say where. Not that it would have made a difference.

I thanked him for allowing me to stay in his apartment. He apparently had a couple other apartments in the city and a house in the country suburbs where we were going to get a car battery. I usually feel confident in conversations with perfect strangers, but Zoltan was a tough nut to crack. It wasn't that he was silent or glib, he just seemed constantly un-entertained as if he had something more important to say or think about. I was beginning to get a feel for Hungarian men.

I want one

I want one

When we arrived at his townhouse he pointed out the car we would be driving to retrieve a spare car battery from his totaled Mercedes. He had been in a car accident the other week and his wife's brother's car needed a new battery. But that meant we had to take a third car to retrieve the totaled car's apparently functioning battery. A convoluted errand, indeed. Fortunately, the car we were taking was an algae-green Moskvich 1500. A little Soviet vehicle from the ‘70s. I loved everything about it. The engine's weak purr, the analog odometer, the metal grain of the door handles and the absence of power-steering. I sometimes wonder whether people 40 years from now will gush over the vintage feel of a 2010 Honda Civic. I hope not. 

Predictably, the old car had inconvenient idiosyncrasies. You needed to hit a sweet spot to turn the key all the way in the tumbler to spark the ignition. Zoltan couldn't find it after five minutes of fiddling. He said maybe I'd have better luck and offered me the driver's seat. I tried and found it in a couple of tries. I was now unequivocally useful and that fact relaxed me.

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We drove through the flat farm countryside outside of Budapest. Zoltan told me about his love of the Beatles. Though he grew up in Soviet-oppressed Budapest he had the same revelatory experience when he first heard the Liverpudlians play. It must be universal, the memory and first moments of hearing John, Paul, George and Ringo.

With our errand finished we headed back to Budapest for celebratory drinks. Zoltan began to divulge information about himself. We talked about Couchsurfing and its discontents and benefits. He loved meeting people who traveled and hearing their stories. He told me about a an an orphaned Japanese girl who climbed the ranks of the BBC only to quit and travel the world, living out of a backpack for something like eight years. I felt that maybe my story wasn't as exciting as I'd hoped. We then talked about the unspoken sexual nature of couchsurfing. He agreed that it was there. We got into talking about sex in general. I told him that I wasn't traveling the world to get laid by in every city I visited, an expectation I feel from men I know and meet who hear about my odyssey. We talked about loveless sex as a form of validation and false intimacy. He spoke of his own struggles and realizations and what a content marriage feels like. Still, there was something longing about the way he described his own sense of contentment. This was something I would learn more about when we went out later that evening.

"So, you meet any girls yet?"

"There's this girl, Ivett (I'll write about her later), I'm supposed to hang out with later tonight," I replied.

"Well, let's go out and meet some. I have a friend that will join us later."

We drank at a hip bar in a remodeled square. The crowd was international and outgoing. Zoltan would generously offer cigarettes and drinks to people who joined us. He bought me a shot of pálinka, a Hungarian spirit made of cherries or plums or apricots and tastes like a fruity mouthwash. When we met different people and they asked what we did, I'd say writer and he'd say rock star. He was not too proud of his profession in marketing it seemed, even though it more than paid his bills. 

A Dutch girl joined us named Isa. We talked about going to a different bar. I voiced my interest in finding a Hungarian dive that would be absent of tourist.

"What is it with you Americans and trying to find authentic places? You are all the same."

She had a point. Perhaps the pursuit of authenticity is apocryphal, neutering any realness that was there to begin with. Still, I had a retort. 

"What's your background?" I asked. She said it was Dutch as far back as she could go. "See, most Americans are mutts. We have no roots. Our history is brief and our heritage is lost. I think, maybe, this obsession with authenticity is like our own anthropological and spiritual truth for ground to stand on." She squinted and then shrugged her shoulders. I am hopeless.  

We stayed out very late and were joined by a friend of his, a 28-year-old Hungarian girl. Maybe it was a European thing, but it didn't seem very kosher for a married man to be drinking with a young woman until three in the morning while his wife was out of town. I certainly wasn't going to question his morals. Not when I was given my own set of keys and an apartment all to myself. Selling out never felt so good--even if I was sleeping on a hardwood floor. Privacy is a truly wonderful thing and I walked around the apartment naked at four in the morning for an hour.

 

FINDING COURT IN A FOREIGN LAND: WANDERING ALONE ALONG THE DANUBE

 

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Though I know nothing about the virtues of fishing, I like to think that finding good ball has some similarities with this patient and noble pastime. Like the rivers and oceans and the fish that live there, public parks and the people who play there sway by weather and temperament. And, lest the best spots become overfished by amateurs and assholes, many courts are purposefully unadvertised and tucked away. Even after you've found the best spots on one of those perfectly sunny and crisp late spring Sunday afternoons when you most expect the fish to bite, you'll discover teenage boys and girls chain smoking cheap cigarettes underneath the hoop. So how does one find this elusive gathering (the narrator said in his best David Attenborough voice)?

When you are a stranger you can only wander.  

In Budapest, I got off the metro at Déak Ferenc square at the heart of the city center. I prepared myself to wander, but not before a little help from our Lord and Savior, Go(d)ogle, peace and blessings be upon its name. Because I cannot afford to purchase temporary phone plans in each country I visit, I am entirely dependent upon Wi-Fi. I found a café that displayed the clam-shaped symbol for Internet, sat down and ordered an espresso. Before the waitress could put in my order, I had another request:

"Um, excuse me, but what's your Wi-Fi passcode?" 

Her chin lowered but her eyes disdainfully focused on me. I never feel so small as when I ask for those passwords. 

I logged in and brought up Google Maps and with my electronic Apollonian eye, I scoured the cityscape for squares and triangles and nebulas of green. Somewhere in those public lots would be basketball courts, and, hopefully, basketball players. I wrote down the cross streets and made a mental map. 

The original lyrics to Little Richard's Tutti Frutti:  "Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it/You can grease it, make it easy"

The original lyrics to Little Richard's Tutti Frutti

"Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it/You can grease it, make it easy"

I first walked through the Jewish district of Budapest. There were bars and a few blocks of sex clubs that advertised Glory Holes as though they were kebab specials. Soon I saw the forest green iron of a park fence. 

I could see a court on the far side of the mostly empty Klauzál tér (square). There were miserable-looking basketball hoops that sat atop a net-less soccer goal. They were conspicuously unused. The other basketball hoop was without backboard, its rim hung in the air like a still and rusted halo. I watched two young brothers boot a soccer ball at each other, completely unaware of the other sport at their disposal. So I continued to wander. 

VOGUEING 

VOGUEING 

It rained for a moment and I ducked into the old opera building. I wandered the ornate halls, but was not welcomed because of the basketball shoes that dangled from my bulky backpack. When the rain stopped, I headed back to Déak Ferenc where another park, the Erzsébet tér, was located.

There, in the shadow of a 200-foot-high Ferris wheel was a basketball court. Only two played: two Israeli brothers of Georgian descent (why is it that everyone I meet now is Israeli?) shot on an 11-foot rim and tried not to slip on the wet court. I walked up to the brothers and made the one request that no basketball player can deny.

Efficient and impractical at the same damn time 

Efficient and impractical at the same damn time 

"Can I shoot around with y'all?"

He passed me the ball. I took a shot and made it.

"Where you from?" Mishel, the older brother, asked. "Oh, New York, eh? I better watch out—this guy's a pro."

Mishel, who was round and thick with one of those perpetual five-o'clock shadows, challenged me to a game of one on one. Unable to turn down this request, no matter the circumstance, I didn't change out of my plainclothes so that I wouldn't take the game too seriously. We played and I handled him without breaking a sweat. We chatted about basketball in Israel and Hungary. We quickly ran out of things to say about basketball and Mishel changed the topic to girls. 

"Girls here, man, SO easy. You buy them one shot and then you get whatever you want! I mean, look at me, how short I am. In Israel, I could never get a good girl." A devlish grin lit up his face. "But here, I've got a girl that is like you!" He gestured at my height. I nodded, if only to acknowledge that I heard the words that came out of his mouth. Now that we had sufficiently bro-bonded, I saw an opportunity to find a new play to stay for the night. I told him about how the person I was staying with was a guy who was trying to hook up with me. Mishel was repulsed. He said he'd see what he could do about it, but that he lived in a small flat. We agreed to play basketball again tomorrow and parted ways. 

As I left, I shamefully recognized that I had used someone else's homophobia to my benefit. 

How am I not my selfie?

How am I not my selfie?

I walked until I ran up against the Danube, the river that splits the city in half. I was on the working-class, 'Pest', side. Across the river was 'Buda', which is more posh. I followed the river, occasionally looking up at the tops of buildings to orient myself. There are no skyscrapers in Budapest. The skyline is low and baroque, and the buildings peak at four stories. As I trekked north, I followed gold spires piercing the skyline. It was the Parliament building. It was extravagant. I took a selfie. An older Asian couple stared and I felt the cold sweat of selfie-shame. I walked through the Parliament's wide and open courtyard and stared until I could stand to admire it no longer. 

Purty...

Purty...

A few blocks further, I saw a park that took up an entire city block. Perched above the riverside entrance to the park were the five rings of the Olympic symbol and inside was a basketball court. It was called…Olimpia Park. I was elated until I saw it populated by shirtless teenage soccer players. I walked in anyway.

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“Does anyone ever play basketball here?”

A blonde boy with the faint signs of a mustache answered in lightly broken English.

"No. Nobody plays basketball here. Football only."

"There must be basketball," I said. "This court is too nice to not play basketball on."

He didn't budge. 

"There's a park down the street. They play basketball there." 

Wrong sport, bud

Wrong sport, bud

I said thanks, even though I figured they were just trying to get rid of me, and went to see the other park. 

This park was heavily wooded with a playground and Ping-Pong tables and there was, in fact, a basketball court. Through the leaves and thin wire fence I saw two 20-something boys shooting. I walked through an opening in the fence and set my backpack down.

"Can I shoot around with you guys?" 

They both looked at each other with an unsure expression. I repeated myself, this time more clearly. The shorter of the two, Peter, who spoke decent English, tossed me the ball. I made the first shot. At first, we shot around in silence. Everything about the hoop was metal. The backboard, the rim and the net. I love the sound of the ball going through woven metal—urban wind chimes.

I started to pry about finding some competition. 

I want that shirt

I want that shirt

Peter, who donned a well-worn t-shirt with the Looney Tunes' Tazmanian Devil inside of a basketball hoop, told me that the weekends were best. 

"Football (soccer) rules here. That's what everyone plays. But people play over at the Olimpia Park on the weekends."

Peter shot the ball. He had good form. Tom's shot was a little quirky. 

"Where are you from?" Peter asked. "Ah, nice, so who do you like: the Knicks or the Nets?"

"Neither. I don't really have a team anymore...What about you?”

"Detroit."

I never thought I would hear mention of this Midwestern city abroad. Peter listed the players from the 2004 Championship team: Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace. 

"I also like the Patriots," Peter continued. Apparently, the NFL has a bit of a following in Hungary. They broadcast games and Hungarians watch. Peter explained to me that this was because the Hungarian national soccer team has been dismal for decades. 

While Peter and I bonded over the Patriots and the NFL, I asked him where he lived. He pointed to a building around the block with a salmon pink exterior. I dropped hints that I was looking for a place to crash, this time omitting my current living situation, but either my subtle suggestions were lost in translation or Peter did not want to host me. 

We shot around some more and then parted. On this particular day there were only nibbles, but maybe I'd land a big fish this weekend at Olimpia Park.

I found a café nearby with Wi-Fi. D.C. had left me a message asking what time I would return to his apartment. I guessed I could spend one more night at the awkward Bed & Breakfast. 

TEL AVIV II

 

Picture ploy to get more traffic

Picture ploy to get more traffic

Jaffa minaret 

Jaffa minaret 

I was surprised that Ron would give me such unfettered access to his apartment. He lived in a three bedroom on the third floor of a mostly dilapidated building in Jaffa. Jaffa is the historically Arabic port neighborhood in the southern end of Tel Aviv. Many Arabs live there today (about 16,000) amongst the growing Jewish population (about 30,000). There was a mosque a couple blocks from Ron's apartment and five times the adhan, the call to prayer, would project from the loudspeaker atop the minaret. I could hear it as early as 4 in the morning and it was beautiful and primordial and erie and guttural and perfectly matched the desert heat...

TEL AVIV I

 

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During the week leading up to the invasion of Gaza, when things looked like they might resolve without excessive tragedy, I met Ron on King George Street in central Tel Aviv.

He was wearing a No. 4 Spud Webb Hawks jersey. Sometimes it's important to wear symbols. We were in line to get a six-shekel (under $2) falafel. I was with my friend Noah. Noah was staying at a dorm provided by his Israeli internship, and, against the organization’s rules, I crashed in his dormitory apartment. Noah recognized a friend, Ryan, in line for a falafel. Ryan was Australian and a couple inches taller than me, maybe 6'5”. We eyed each other with tall-people distrust, like two lanky male peacocks during mating season. While Ryan and Noah caught up, I started talking basketball with Ron.

"You play ball?" I asked, pointing at his vintage NBA jersey.

"Yeah, when I can," Ron replied. Ron reminded me of my family physician. They both had similarly narrow faces with slightly sleepy eyes. They also seemed perpetually unenthused, Operating at one speed and tone no matter the subject. 

"Where do the best players go?"

...

JERUSALEM II

 

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There are some things you cannot get used to. 

I slept on the roof my first night in Jerusalem at the Heritage House. There was a fellow camper in the bed adjacent to me whose snores were cartoonishly loud and sleep was futile next to him. I grabbed a blanket and a pillow and found a mattress on the roof balcony. It was already 3:30 in the morning. At quarter to four, the Muslim prayer rang from the east side of Jerusalem. It was spectral otherworldly ephemeral ancient primordial. I couldn't sleep and watched the sunrise over the Arabic end of Jerusalem...