Saturday, September 16, 2006


Trip dist: 104 kms. Trip time: 6 hrs, 51 min. Tot dist: 6,053 kms.

Celebrations VI/Foreigners.

Blech, didn't sleep too well last night. I arrived at the hostel at around 10 p.m., when my two female roomies from Brazil asked me if I wanted to go clubbing. I had a long ride the next day, so I said, no thanks, and went to catch up on emails on the internet instead. I was thus engaged when I suddently noticed a man in his mid-30's wearing a dark suit, which I vaguely thought strange (who wears a suit in a Youth Hostel?), pacing back and forth in the lounge, and eventually staring at me (the computer was in a room adjacent to the lounge, and his pacing was spanning both rooms).

"Sorry, do you need to use the computer?" I asked.

"Er, yes, will you be long?" said he.

"Actually, yes, but if you need the computer, I can cut it short."

"No worries," he said, "take your time, I will just wait here."

"O.K. then," said I, and went back to my emails.

Shortly afterwards, though, the man started pacing again, and finally asked me, "The two girls that were here just a little while ago, you know them?"

"The Brazilian girls, you mean?" said I, distractedly.

"Uh, yes, them," he said.

Me: "Sort of."

Him: "Will they be gone long?"

Me: "What?"

Him: "Where did they go?"

Me: "Clubbing, I think, were you waiting for them?"

Him: "Yes, I was. Well, I guess they're gone. I'll just wait out here for a while, then, I was supposed to go with them, I guess maybe they'll come back in a little bit."

Now, there was something about this man that immediately gave me a sensation of dislike, right from the very first moment I saw him pacing about. It was not a strong vibe of something, just a vague feeling that this was not someone I would care to get to know, or go clubbing with, for instance, or even want to engage in a conversation. I don't know why. The suit-wearing in a hostel, perhaps? The slavic accent? The wrinkles drawn on his face? I don't know. Either way, I was busy, and thought nothing of it.

A triplet of Irish boys checked in to the hostel, and put their stuff in one of the rooms surrounding the lounge (remember, the lounge was in the next room to where I was), and then left (by the way, this is all taking place on the 2nd floor of the Hostel, the reception is on the first floor downstairs).

I saw the man pacing about again.

Later, two French guys staying at the hostel saw me on the internet, and as I knew them from a couple of days of staying there, we started chit-chatting.

The Irish boys came back, and go to their rooms. Suddenly, one of them walks agitatedly towards me and asks:

"Did you see anyone here?"

"What?" said I. "I saw you, and your friends, why?"

"Someone took my iPod."

Another one of the Irish guys joins us: "My wallet is missing!" he says.

Oh no. I quickly check my bag. When I came in to the hostel, I briefly had popped into my room to set my jacket down, but had decided to check my email while holding on to my day bag, where I put my wallet and telephone, camera and 4 GB of memory---my life, in other words, just this time by coincidence, since I usually just leave it in the room. My bag is, of course, safely strapped across my chest, with its wallet and everything intact. But I go to my room just to make sure, when the Irish boys indicate that that is their room also.

All my bags are unzipped. I never leave them unzipped. And...there is stuff in there that I really, really wouldn't want stolen. Luckily, though, it is not obvious what that stuff is or where it is kept, either, so it is safe, and so are all other things (clothes, mostly). Clearly the thief had had no time to carefully search for things, only things that were obviously within easy reach of a zipper or two were taken. I have been lucky, but the Irish boys have all lost electronics and money.

"There was no one else here?" says the Irish boy.

"Well, what about that gentleman in a suit? Where's he now?" said I.

We all look at each other. One of the French boys says: "Yes, I saw him, just 10 minutes ago! Is he a guest?"

Irish boys go down to reception. Receptionist (a male) comes up. No, he is not a guest. How does the receptionist know? He saw him pass by and wait outside in the corridor, he thought the suit was waiting for someone from our floor.


Right under our noses. And what is to be admired, how well executed and skillful and calm and cold-blodded: the information gathering to figure out exactly how much time he had. He knew the Brazilian girls wouldn't be coming back for a long while. He knew I was going to be busy in the computer for a long while. He saw the Irish boys just come in and then step down one floor to the reception. He then left inconspicuously, probably even waving me goodbye as he passed me staring intently at my web-browser.

Anyway, to make the long story short, the Irish boys were so depressed, they went out drinking. French boys were going out anyway, and I'm left alone in the top floor with the receptionist downstairs, and a thief in a suit that walks in and out of the hostel as he pleases, apparently. Did not make for very restful dreams. To top it off the Brazilian girls burst in the room at 4 a.m. and flick on all the lights to "find out what has happened here" and check to see if their stuff is gone. It is not, all of their luggage was locked. But it took them 1 full hour to figure this out, plus it then took them another hour to discuss, quite loudly, how it was that they were going to call a cab to catch their train to Vienna, so you can imagine that after going to bed after 1 a.m. a bit freaked and begging the receptionist to come check on the 2nd floor at least every hour to make sure no one has broken back in it was not a very relaxing night for me, not at all.

Curious, though, how this "sixth sense" business works. I had not liked the man right from the very beginning. But it was a very vague feeling, it was nothing strong and obvious, and most importantly I wouldn't be able to tell you why I didn't like him, that is, neither what it is that I had observed that seemed "odd" that gave me a reason to dislike him, nor what it is about him that I disliked in the first place. Still, good mental note: always trust your instincts. And, always keep your valuables with you, even in the hotels and hostels.

Anyway, I left rather late this morning from Budapest, avoiding a crowd of protesters that had seemed to gather in one of the main avenues just outside my hostel, battling a cold, and with the wind against me for the whole length of the very flat, boring landscape ride. There is nothing uglier than interminable fields of dried up sunflowers: it is a very depressing reminder of the ephemeral nature of beauty. They must've been breathtakingly pretty in the summer....

My maps, too, are rather outdated: road #4, which was the one I had chosen for riding, has since been replaced with a motorway, so at the advice of some folks at a gas station I took another road not even on my map, but which after a couple of kilometers revealed itself to be named road #400, and what my map called "road #4", was, in fact, a strange combination of real roads #40 and #400, the ones I actually took.

But anyway, I arrived, eventually, at Szolnok, just as dusk was falling, and stayed at a very friendly communist-era hotel (36 Euros a night, but was the cheapest thing I could find in the darkness), where the receptionist chatted to me good-naturedly about the foreigners who visit, my compatriots, he continued in Italian after seeing my passport, especially, who come to Szolnok to go on hunting expeditions in the neighboring areas, and just love to send the Hungarian hare and partridges they have hunted as Christmas presents to impress their loved ones in Italy.

"We sometimes get some Germans, too, but they like to come here for the mineral baths, but we never get any Japanese. Can you believe that? Never, in my 17 years working here, did I ever see a Japanese. Italians, yes, even back in the old days before '89, they really love the hunting, and after the hunts they always invite me to these great dinners they have with lots of wine and 6 or 7 courses..."

"Yeah," interjected I with a chuckle brought about by some happy childhood reminiscences, "long social dinners are a very Italian thing..."

"Yeah! You're right! And they always invite me to them, that they cook to celebrate, yes. Lots of Italians. But never any Japanese. Though I did see 2 Norwegians, once."

"Really?" said I, just to politely continue the conversation. "What are the Norwegians like? What do they think of Hungary?"

The receptionist smiled broadly at me for a few moments, to emphasize before replying:

"Like aliens."

"What?" said I.

"Yes, they come here, and look around them all spaced-out and confused, as if they were walking on the moon!"

We had a bit of a laugh over that, before he handed me my keys good-naturedly.


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