A series of posts on a blog that I read regularly has been making me think of the time I spent in Europe. I can't believe it's been six years since I was there. It was truly a remarkable experience, maybe the best of my life (so far). Today's post is about the city of Budapest, which was probably my favorite city that I visited. Some of the best stories I have of that trip happened in Budapest. I want to share one of them with you. A few weeks ago I was asked, "What is the nicest thing a stranger has ever done for you?" And this is the answer. Sorry, but it's kind of rambly.
My friend Marnie and I went to Budapest on a whim. We found out on Thursday evening that our Friday class had been canceled, so we decided to take the first train to Budapest Friday morning. We had an amazing time, stayed in a nice youth hostel, ate fabulous food (really cheap!), bought some souvenirs, and walked all over the city to almost all the sights. I think we crossed all but one of the seven bridges in the city across the Danube.
So by Saturday afternoon we were exhausted, and we were on our way back to the train station to catch the last train back to Vienna. We had to get back that evening because we had to go to the opera for another class and if we weren't there our professor would be worried. So we decided to take the subway from where we were, somewhere near the city center, directly to the station. But at the first subway station we stopped in, the automatic ticket vendor was broken, and the ticket window was closed. In Europe, the ticket system works differently than in America: it's more of an honor system, there are no ticket punchers or anything, so you don't have to have a ticket to get on the train, but the system has special police who ride the subways all day and discreetly ask to see your ticket and if you're caught without one, it's a very expensive ride. (I lived in Europe for six months and wasn't kontrolliert [asked for tickets] once, even the last month when I'd lost my pass and rode without one.) Marnie and I discussed whether to just risk it, or to walk to the next subway station and try to buy a ticket there, and we decided to walk. We were in a strange country, and didn't speak a word of the language, and wouldn't know what to do if we got kontrolliert and didn't have them. I think we had it in our heads that we would be arrested, or made to pay a huge fine right on the spot and neither of us had that kind of cash--hey, we were tired, and Hungary is still a developing country with (at that time) kind of corrupt cops and we heard all kinds of crazy stories from the Hungarian girl living in our dorm. When we got to the second station, though, it was the same situation. By now we were starting to realize that this was pretty much the norm in Hungary (and a lot of former Soviet countries), that things were broken and there wasn't money to fix them. In fact, the night before we'd tried to get subway tickets at the central station and three out of the four automatic ticket vendors were broken--at the central station where most everyone passes through.
So we walked down to the third stop--same story. By this time we were getting a bit desperate, because we wouldn't make it to the train station on time if we walked, we didn't have money for a taxi, and we couldn't get a subway ticket. There was a little old lady at the station who had been watching us as we tried to get tickets and as we stood there discussing what to do next, she approached us. She knew we were Americans, but she didn't speak a word of English. She just took out her wallet and handed each of us a little purple ticket for the subway. We tried to give her money for them, but she refused to take it and just smiled kindly at us. Then the train pulled up and we all got on.