Doing the Goulash Two-Step in Budapes



“They used to call it ‘goulash communism’,” his Bosnian tour guide had said.


Her accent had sounded vaguely Russian to him. Though because of his lack of experience in Europe, his ability to identify accents had become so ill-defined that he might have just given up and called everything he heard “goulash European.”


When he stood close to her, he noticed things — the lack of wrinkles in her eyes, the scent of her perfume — which reminded him of rosemary, but which might have been something so distinctly local that it might as well just be called fragrance-erthetetlen. He also noticed that even though she was a tour guide, she felt under no compulsion to smile. Her smiles came seldomly and with more than a little irony.


Now, alone, he was left to wander the streets of Budapest for a few hours. Today, he would try once again to buy a day pass on the local rails.  When he stepped down into the subway station of Budapest to find a ticket vending machine, the tourist instantly smelled something that had to be urine. Then Chinese food. And then a smell he couldn’t quite describe but that might have been closer to his Bosnian guide’s perfume–fragrance-erthetetlen. The smell of Chinese food was coming from a noodle stand not too far away, but he couldn’t tell if the man behind the stall was Hungarian or Turkish. He might also have been the source of the perfume…or cologne.


He approached the modern, electronic ticket machine to buy a day pass and was met by the same obstacle he had found yesterday — a panhandler, most likely several months into a serious heroin addiction, coming to beg for money. He tried to dance around the man, but this one, young, in his twenties, with the worn Reebok shoes of a habitual pick-up basketball player, matched him step for step to keep him in his line of site.


Now, he noticed things about him. How his dirty matted hair came just to his ears and how the dirt on his face looked so purposeful it could have been clown makeup. And now he stepped to the right and the panhandler stepped to the right. To the left and the panhandler followed. Like a game of basketball or an intimate dance. And then the traveler did a twirl just to see what the panhandler would do.


Would the panhandler twirl? If he did, then he’d know that it was only a dance that strangers do in the subways of Budapest. For the traveler knew that in this goulash world, they were both dirty, and they were both clowns.  


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