You might think that the best way to get to know Budapest and have a genuine Hungarian experience is by finding the best local restaurants, the folksiest cafés, and the pubs most popular with the natives.
Of course, you'd be wrong.
Don't feel bad. Even if you were right, and finding these gems of authenticity were indeed the best way to discover Hungary, I wouldn't dream of telling you where these places are. The last thing we need is some damned slacker eco-tourists ruining it for us all by being polite and overtipping. It's a moot point nonetheless. You wanna experience Hungary? You need only ride the number 15 bus.
Last week I was riding the number 15 when a surly young drunk slouched across from me had some change fall from his pocket. Plunk! Plunk! A little old lady sits down next to him. She looks around, picks up his change, then moves to a seat a few rows ahead.
Surly doesn't like this. He starts muttering. "I saw that," he says, "that's MY money." The volume starts increasing: "Hey lady! Put that change back in my pocket where it came from."
Now, up until this point, this could be a bus in Toronto or New York. Everyone on the bus can hear him, and everyone is trying damned hard to pretend he isn't there. But here's where the whole thing takes a turn for the Hungarian. When the old lady denies taking his money, he turns to the guy sitting behind him : "Did you see her take my money?"
BOOOOM! The whole bus erupts into debate.
"That money was already on the floor when you sat down."
"The hell it was, I saw it fall out of his pocket!"
"Me too, he dropped a fifty and a twenty forint coin."
"No, it was a hundred and a ten."
That last one was uttered by yours truly. Mr. Surly was so pleased he came up and shook my hand. There was a glint of victory in his eye, but it was immediately quenched by the fat old bastard behind me.
"That was never one hundred and ten forints. You're as loopy as the drunk guy."
"No, the guy with the funny accent is right. It WAS one hundred and ten."
"A hundred and ten my ass! Besides, it wasn't his money in the first place."
And so on.
All this with a veneer of politeness. Hungarian has a respectful form of address, much like the French "vous", and we were all using it. "You, sir, are a moron." and "You, ma'am, are fucking lying!" Lively good-natured fun, every second of it. Never have I felt so proud. I was finally one of them - one of us, I suppose.
But my pride was out of place. We should all have felt ashamed. The drunk should have been ashamed of himself for carrying on like, well, a drunk at 10:00 am. The little old lady for being a thief. The fat bastard for not being able to identify one hundred and ten forints in change if you clubbed him to death with it. The guy in front of me should have felt shame for carrying around a copy of Proust, when he knows damned well he'll neither read it nor score with women using it as a prop.
And me, well my shame is the greatest of all. I should feel burning shame for being proud of sharing a sense of community with the squabbling, childish, pork lard eating, suicidal bunch of alcoholics that grace this fine land. But I can't help myself. It's a weakness, I guess.