In Munich, we met up with Andrey and George, and later with Max’s long-distance girlfriend. We went from a cozy group of 3 people, 2 of which unconditionally followed me everywhere, to a group of six highly disorganized adults, each with their own ideas of what this trip was.
I wanted to wake up as early as possible and see absolutely everything. My sister happily followed me around, but ultimately couldn’t care less where we were and what we saw. Every time something went off plan and I would start running around trying to figure it out, she would just settle in on the closest bench for a nap. Max was now on honeymoon and tolerated only occasional excursions out of his hotel room. Andrey and George wanted to take it easy and spend the majority of their time in pubs rather than sightseeing. Trying to get all of us organized and headed in the same direction was as simple as herding cats. At times it was fun to have a large group to hang out with, at times managing six different travel styles was exasperating.
And this brings us to our next train-related mishap in Budapest. Hungary presented a whole new set of linguistic challenges. Now, within our group we had people who spoke English, Russian, German, a bit of Spanish, and none of us could make heads or tails from spoken or written Hungarian. It was as if this language was dropped in the middle of Europe from the moon, not a single word in common with any other language we spoke. I later learned that my initial impression wasn’t too far off as Hungarian actually comes from the Uralic region of Asia. We had to order in restaurants by randomly pointing at words on the menu and hoping for the best. We spent a very confusing afternoon in a modern art museum, which we thought was an anthropological museum. It finally became clear that the fossils on display were obviously fake and meant as a reflection on modern life, when one of the artifacts turned out to be a Coca-Cola bottle imprint next to a dinosaur footprint, labeled 200 million years old.
So, with all of that, it really wasn’t a surprise that we had no idea what we were doing when we attempted to use the Hungarian subway. We had a late start to the day, as always, waiting for everyone to shower and get ready and eat breakfast at a different pace. On our way we suffered multiple diversions with Andrey taking pictures next to garbage cans, my sister climbing every statue we encountered, and Max needing to go inside every interesting store. By the time we got to the subway station, we were thrilled to have finally made it and immediately went to the escalator, heading down. We were completely oblivious to the ticketing machines lining the walls of the vestibule. There were no gates, no ticketing booths or agents, nothing preventing us from just getting on the escalator. I presumed, at the time, that all ticketing booths were downstairs and that’s where we could buy our train tickets. Halfway down the escalator, we saw two people wearing red armbands at the bottom, checking everyone’s tickets. It was too late for us to do anything; we couldn’t get back up and had to ride all the way down.
“No problem,” I thought, “We’ll explain, go back up and buy tickets.”
The first problem was with how to explain. We tried every language we knew, and the ticketing agents only spoke Hungarian. One of them produced a laminated card that had the following information in multiple languages – “The fine for attempting to ride the train without a ticket is 15 Euros per person.”
“We weren’t trying to ride the train without a ticket!” I insisted, “We have no idea where to buy the tickets!” We tried to get on the escalator going up, gesturing that we wanted to buy tickets upstairs but were blocked by the ticketing agents. Seems once you go down to the platform without a ticket, you are presumed guilty and forced to pay. A college student who spoke a bit of English was also caught in the sting and quickly produced 15€. He explained that these “ticket checking raids” are pretty rare and that it’s usually possible to walk onto a train without a ticket. He translated our objections to the agents – we are new in town, we don’t know how the metro works, we didn’t know where the ticketing booths are, we just want to go upstairs to buy our tickets. The agents were unmoved. They gave us two options – we pay the fine or they call the police. Andrey and George already had their wallets out. Max looked crestfallen. I was utterly livid.
“Call the police,” I said, to the absolute horror of everyone in my group, except my sister who started giggling. “Call them! Tell them you are harassing tourists who don’t know the rules of your subway system.” The college student translated my words, his voice shaking with incredulity.
The ticketing agents were just as taken back as my friends. Andrey was searching his wallet for enough money to pay all our fines but was short. Max tried to stand as far away from me as possible, pretending he had nothing to do with this crazy person.
“We call the police!” one of them insisted.
“Yes! Call the police!” I yelled to the agents and whispered to our translator, “How are the police in this country? Are they reasonable?”
He just stared at me. Behind me, George groaned. My sister was gasping for air in a middle of a full-on laughing fit.
“Passports!” The agent demanded. “We call the police with information from your passports.”
“The hotel took our passports. It’s a rule in your country that hotels keep passports. Let’s go to our hotel, get the passports, and then to a police station.”
The agent just threw his arms up and walked away, and the college student took this moment to escape this entire mess by running off to a newly arrived train. We spent another 10 minutes standing on the platform, with the agents taking turns threatening us with police, requesting our passports, and asking us to pay the fine, until it was clear that we were not going to budge. Finally, one of them gestured us towards the escalator and turned away. We were finally free to go.
We went upstairs, couldn’t figure out how to buy tickets from the machines, walked to the next train station, made sure there were no ticketing agents on the platform below, and… got on the train without tickets. The train stopped at our initial station where the ticketing agents were still by the escalator and my sister pressed herself against the window to wave and yell at them. Check and mate.
I would like to think that the adult me would now simply pay the fine and move on with my life, without any of these youthful hijinks. Then, of course, I am reminded of the fact that mere 6 years ago I argued my way out of a fine with a Polish conductor in Warsaw.