I USED TO VISIT HUNGARY regularly in the 1980s before the end of Communist rule in that country. Sometimes I drove, other trips I travelled by rail.
In 1985, I boarded a train at London’s Victoria Station. As I was settling down in my seat, a couple accompanying an older man asked me if I could look after on the journey to Hungary. He was their relative and only spoke Hungarian. My knowledge of that language was limited to a vocabulary of less than 100 words including ‘fogkrem’ meaning toothpaste and ‘meleg szendvics’ meaning heated (toasted) sandwich, and ‘menetrend’ meaning timetable and ‘kurva’, which you can look up yourself! I agreed to do my best to look after the gentleman.
After taking the ferry across the English Channel, we boarded an express train bound for Budapest. The gentleman and I were in the same couchette compartment along with some young people.
We stopped in Brussels early in the evening. A late middle-aged Belgian couple entered our compartment, and we set off eastwards. After nightfall, the Belgian couple left us. Several minutes later, they returned. They had changed their clothes. They had dressed in pyjamas and silk dressing gowns. Clearly, they were either unfamiliar with travel in 2nd class couchettes or had formery been used to travel in 1st class Wagon Lits sleeping cars.
We arrived at Hegyeshalom, a Hungarian border town close to Austria. As I was planning to visit southern Hungary, I disembarked there. So did the man who I was ‘looking after’. He was met by some of his family. Although they spoke no English, they expressed their gratitude for me, and kindly offered to drive me to Győr, where I wanted to catch another train.
At Győr, they helped me find my train. I boarded a basic looking local train bound for Keszthely on Lake Balaton. After a while, the train stopped in the middle of the countryside and everyone except me disembarked. I looked out of the train. We were not at a station. Someone saw me and signalked that I should also leave the train. We all boarded buses that had been laid on to substitute for the train that could not proceed further because of track repairs.
After a ride through flat agricultural terrain, we reached a small station, where we boarded another train, which carried us to Kesthely, arriving at about 4 to 5 pm.
I looked around the station at Kesthely and for some unaccountable reason I decided that I did not want to stay in the lakeside resort. I looked at a timetable and discovered that a train would be leaving soon, bound for Kaposvár, which was on the way to the southern city of Pécs.
A Hungarian couple with one child ‘got wind’ of my plan to join the train to Kaposvár, and took me into their care. I boarded the train with them and travelled in their company as the train followed the southern shore of Lake Balaton.
My ‘minders’ left the train at the lakeside station at or near Balatonlelle. Before they disembarked, they asked a man, a stranger to them, in our compartment to look after me. He spoke only Hungarian.
As the train wound its way inland through hills south if Lake Balaton, the sun set and it became too dark to see the countryside through which we were moving slowly. Although there were light fittings with light bulbs in our compartment, they were never turned on. The two of us travelled in total darkness. We tried conversing, but with little meaningful success.
We both left the train at Kaposvár station. Darkness reigned. I had no idea where or even whether there was a hotel (szálloda) in the town. However, my latest ‘minder’ led me to a large state run hotel, the Kapos.
The young receptionist spoke good English. She asked me if I had any books in English. I did. I gave her one that I had already finished. She was very happy.
After a heavy meal in the hotel’s large restaurant (etterem), I retired to my room. The hotel had poor sound insulation. There was a party somewhere in the building and my room seemed to be throbbing with the loud music.
After a while, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and found a waitress holding a plate with an enormous slice of watermelon. She muttered something about ‘recepció’. I realised that the watermelon was a thank you gift from the receptionist.
I took the watermelon into my room and stared at it. Then and still now, I cannot stand eating watermelon. I could not throw it away because it was bound to be discovered and that would have seemed very ungrateful on my part. So, after a bit of thought, I carried the slice of fruit downstairs to the receptionist to whom I had given the book. I thanked her, and then explained, telling a ‘white lie’, that I was allergic to watermelon. She seemed to believe me.
That night, I found it difficult to sleep partly because of trying to digest my heavy dinner and the noise from the party.
On the following day, I took another train to Pécs having stayed in a city I had never heard of before.
Picture of Hotel Kapos in Kaposvar in 1985