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.
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.
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.