04.07.2013 - 04.07.2013 29 °C
Before leaving our Hungarian flat this morning, we had a 20 minute chat with the friendly Scottish expat manager. Among other tidbits of Hungarian life, he willingly espoused on Hungarian corruption and said it was rampant at all levels. He indicated it is not uncommon for police officers and city officials to stop people indiscriminately and fine them for a concocted indiscretion, pocketing the money themselves. He also lamented the state of the public hospitals and said that doctors would ask for additional funds before assessing you. We suspect his musings were more than just hyperbole. We noted that many of the public spaces and the sights in Budapest had either received or are undergoing amazing renovations; the manager said all the money for these upgrades is coming from the EU. We had wondered how Hungary could afford such good upkeep; I hope most of the exorbitant funds they are charging in admission prices are also going towards the bill.
While we had been fortunate to avoid Budapest traffic problems earlier this week, upon leaving, we immediately got snagged in a long, slow-moving line of vehicles. When this occurs in Budapest, it appears they have a unique, if not effective, way of dealing with intersection traffic. As in most traffic jams, the cars are lined up on the other side of the intersection so that there is no more room for another car to advance, but when the yellow light comes on, the next in line immediately enters the intersection in the hope that the line in front will advance enough to let them proceed all the way through the intersection. Of course, this rarely occurs, so when a few seconds later the red light comes on, they are now blocking traffic from the cross street. The cross street drivers, now plenty ticked off that they have finally got to the intersection, have a green light and yet still can’t advance, start honking violently and still drive up as far as they can into the intersection so that they are close to t-boning the offending cars. This results in even more gridlock. When the first red light turns green, the initial cars into the intersection can now proceed; however, due to the ones that have moved in from the cross street, there are now lanes that are blocked. This jockeying for position continues and renders the experience a very long and noisy affair. If we knew we were in for this, we would not have lingered over the earlier chat!
Eventually, we exited the mayhem and got on the road towards Slovakia. Because of the near miss we had for a fine for not having a Slovenia highway toll sticker, we were paranoid about making sure we had the required sticker for Slovakia before we entered the country. Consequently, we stopped a couple of times at gas stations trying to determine what was needed. Our language attempts did not serve us well enough to ascertain what we had to do so we kept trying to keep our eyes peeled for road signs. We saw some signs indicating a sticker might need to be bought but it was only later we understood that it is only required for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes. I have now pledged to research the toll charges on the rest of Europe before we travel further.
Lunch was a quick stop in a parking lot outside a Slovakian grocery store, where Ben and I stood near the hatchback wolfing down our food (the kids used their sophisticated tray tables). We were slated to meet up with our next host at a specified hour and we still had to go through the windy mountain roads to get to Spisske Bystre. We were aware we had lost a lot of precious minutes due to the stops and delays and I told Ben he had to try to make up some time. Ben’s response was to rely on everything he learned while driving in Italy, Malta and Germany, combining speed with cutting corners close and weaving through slower traffic. Hannah and Abby got quieter and quieter as the back end of the car fishtailed through the tight corners and flew over the hills. At one point, Hannah said she just tried to go to sleep to deal with the nausea and the fear that was simmering. There was only one passing manoeuver that I considered dubious; I’m confident the rest of his moves were well within the rules of the Sicilian safe driving manual.
As we flew through the countryside, there were many stretches where we came upon towns grouped together no more than a kilometer or two apart. We must have navigated more than two dozen small communities. Many looked to be fairly poor, without a lot of extras. As we got closer to the mountains, we encountered quite a few residents selling pails of berries along the road. The retinue included whole families and people of all ages. Most of the roadwork had potholes so it was quite different from what we had experienced in other countries. We were on the back roads for sure. Ben said, ‘Where ARE we? What kind of a place did you book us into, Muriel?’ I could tell he was getting nervous. I let him know that the road we were looking for was so new it wasn’t in the GPS yet (something he always likes to hear). When we found the road, it looked like it had just been plowed fairly recently so there was no pavement either. However, the place itself turned out to be great, very modern, inexpensive and only a year old. It also has a washer but as it is the same model as the one recently encountered in Slovenia, needless to say, we’re going to leave our laundry till Poland. The hosts are an exceptionally likable couple in their forties. He follows NHL hockey and cheers for Boston but knew enough to look a bit shamefaced when admitting it to us Canucks. They gave us a lot of tips about the area and told us we had to try ‘halušky’ and ‘pierogi.’ Our eyes lit up when we heard the word ‘perogy!’ The kids have gone eight months without perogies, the longest span in their lives since growing teeth. That night, we located the tasty potato and cheese dumplings in the grocery store; the only thing left was to ensure we found sour cream. Buying milk products in these foreign lands can be quite difficult as there is always such a variety and it’s hard to know whether you really bought the item you wanted until you get home and try it. However, Ben was so determined that he overcame any natural reticence and, with bag of frozen perogies in one hand and a couple of cream products in the other, had a hand gesture-based conversation with a clerk to zero in on the all-important right sour cream.
Because of the food, this may yet become our favourite stop of the trip!