August 22, 2008

The Hospitality of Strangers, Turned Friends
Sárospatak, Hungary

I wanted to put our return train ticket to Slovakia to use or sell it, and with zero opportunity to do the latter I was quite happy to incorporate a portion of the Füzesabony–Košice route into our travel to Sárospatak. We boarded a mid-morning train that ran to the large industrial city of Miskloc and sat in the shared compartment tensely, wondering if the conductor would even accept a Slovakian-issued ticket for a train that didn't even run into Slovakia (perhaps we'd get booted at the next station if he didn't).

Luck was with us and after some humming and hawing a few transit notes were scribbled on the ticket and we were free to enjoy the (lovely) passing countryside.

Without a doubt one of the most intense transit experiences we've had in Eastern Europe—perhaps ever as a couple—came when we changed trains at Szerencs (there were a whopping total of four different trains I navigated us between this day). I'd noticed on the schedule (and made our future host Laszlo aware the night before) that there was only a narrow three-minute difference between trains at this station.

As the transfer time drew closer, I kept jumping back and forth between sides of the carriage, popping my head out the window as we slowed (very much prohibited) to try and see station names before we were upon them. I had no idea how big the station would be, or how many trains would be there waiting for me to decipher the destinations of.

The train ground to a halt at Szerencs, and after frantically wrestling with the malfunctioning latch on the station-side door of the carriage, I threw myself out the opposite side and ran around the back of the train, double jumping down and up through the oily gravel and earthen-colored steel.

Searching for someone in uniform, I ran at full sprint with my pack on up the dull-gray concrete sidewalk between our prior train and the new one running parallel. There seemed to be only one train, but I had to be sure.

Mid-step I darted into a carriage opening and flew out the other side, scarcely a foot touching inside the train formerly flanking my left. I ran—my legs driving me forward as my backpack (and almost equally weighty frontpack) fought to drag me down.

The age twenty-something conductor standing next to the locomotive was my reached goal. Hell if I knew how to pronounce Sárospatakproperly, so I blurted out my best attempt and pointed to the city name on my ticket. He nodded affirmatively, and I believed him.

I spun around and sprinted half the length of the train before I sensed the departure was imminent. Once again I threw myself up and into a carriage stuck my head out the opposing door, looking up and down the median for a sign of Tatiana and Aidric. There was none, and that was a good thing.

As I careened between the connecting carriage doorways, I made eye contact with Tatiana only moments after the train lurched forward. I gave her a thumbs-up from afar so that she didn't panic. This was the train. We'd made it.

Total elapsed time: Less than 80 seconds.

Hungarian Hospitality

Laszlo was waiting for us at the Sárospatak station, scarily making it on time himself. The majority of these Eastern European train stations aren't grandiose, but generally small, rural, utilitarian constructs from decades prior. It wasn't hard to spot us.

Laszlo, a tall, well-spoken 25 year old, guided us to his father's uninhabited childhood home (less than five minutes walk from the station and perhaps eight minutes from the center of town). It was quite an experience having someone waiting for us with a smile and a handshake, and I instantly felt like Laszlo was an old friend from the road, welcoming us into his hometown.

Now, picture what your grandmother's house would look like if it were decorated in the late-50s and early-60s (by American standards, equivalent to the 1980s in Hungary). Then convert the backyard into blacksmith's workshop, and age in interior after a decade or so of only light use. That's this home.

For years this residence has only been used for late-night drinking sessions and miscellaneous storage (leaving Laszlo to do his best to clean it up on such short notice). I felt instantly comfortable here, as you would in the home of a time traveling grandparent (though I never had one who sported such a décor within my lifetime). Tatiana thinks there are ghosts here.

Our vintage bedroom

Laszlo gave us a quick tour (and a set of keys) before running off. Space was ample, but amenities were limited. A basic gas-driven stove was located in the rear of the house (in an area half absorbed by the workshop), no working fridge, microwave or Internet—but plenty of blankets, beds, privacy, and antiques to wrinkle your brow over.

His father (like his father's father) had been in the ironworks industry, until his employer closed the business. This left his dad with a trade that turned into a hobby that turned into a sort of side business. The backyard steelworks are his grandfather's, though the sounds of hammering away on hot iron now belong to his dad.

After a decade or so the ironworks has started to bleed into the home, and the rear of the residence (along with the bathroom) feels like it's slowing getting absorbed into the shop.

Truly one of the hardest people I've ever tried to read has been Laszlo's father. His cigarette smoking, never changing pokerfaced expression made of granite is one that neither Tatiana nor I can decipher. Is he pissed or happy? Unhappy that we're here, or indifferent?

Marton and Laszlo

Laszlo is pleased to see the house getting a breath of life in it, and brought his cousin Marton over this evening for some beers and conversation. Marton's just days away from returning for his second intoxicating moneymaking round in Ireland, and like Laszlo, speaks great English (albeit his with a mild Irish accent). His first trip to Ireland landed him an environmentally sensitive Hungarian girlfriend and a job fielding angry calls from customers.

This CouchSurfing method of travel is really an amazing thing. I'm genuinely sad that I never opened my door to travelers when I had a couch of my own to offer. It's something special when you've got not only a place to stay, but also friends to go along with it. This experiment has already been a success.

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