We feel a burst of relief, stepping off the train under the massive arch roof of Budapest Keleti: sunlight fills the grand, faded station with colour and people. Middle-aged men offer us taxis. Older men play chess for money on a wide wall between platforms- they look like they’ve been there for decades. One of them doesn’t have an opponent. He catches my eye and beckons me to play. A hustler, Hungarian-style. I decline.
We leave our luggage behind a counter in a dark, high-ceilinged room with flaking signs, and exit the station through an impossibly grand yellow hall where a greasy pigeon pecks for crumbs.
Yellow is the colour of Budapest. Big, important buildings line broad yellow streets. Trees appear in tasteful places, old trees that have known Empire and Nazi collaboration and now a slightly crumbling 21st-century peace. We find an enormous artsy café under a park. Outside it, there’s a giant woman’s leg reaching out of the ground, frozen in Can-Can and wearing a nylon stocking. The leg leads a procession of outsized objects: a mascara, an iron, a hairdryer and a trouser suit. The iron lets off real steam.
We sit under the café’s dappled glass roof for hours, locked into wi-fi, getting the UnPlaned project up to some kind of speed. We haven’t eaten or slept enough, and we start to gripe and worry about time and money. We haven’t got enough money- the budget we originally drew up isn’t going to be enough. I suggest busking. The café fills up with smoke and people (no smoking ban in Budapest) and a band start to sound check. Billy goes for a walk to clear his head. I go for a walk to clear my head. We try eating some cake to fuel up, but we’re still wonky.
We call Lucy, Billy’s mate from Bristol who’s moved to Budapest. When Lucy comes, she’s a welcome person in a green hat, all English familiarity with her Hungarian boyfriend who’s also lovely. We walk to their flat, a two-room nest over a wide white courtyard, and drink Polinka, pure plum firewater spreading gladness through your gut. Lucy plays Hungarian folk on her violin and we eat pasta, so good that we’re reluctant to leave when the time comes to rush for our next train, the 32-hour Balkan Expresi to Istanbul.
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