It’s late in the day, past 5. The landscape opens up to flatland under a burning, blue sky. Rolling hills and vast open plains populated by endless fields as far as the eye can see, all filled with sunflowers. Their faces turned, hopefully yearning, upwards in a single direction to pay brilliant homage to the sun. These sunflowers finally wave us into Hungary and beyond. The arbitrary borders of man unobserved by the land which serves us on some of its own terms still. That thought tumbles around in my head as we head deeper into Hungary. And then, made weary beyond reckoning by the blistering heat, it’s time to readjust again. A new currency, new language, new customs. Reset, adjust, repeat.
We’re usually camped up by now but today turned into a long day as we pushed towards the Hungarian border. We crossed it 15 minutes ago but the long day on an already tired backdrop has taken its toll.
We’ve arrived in Ozd, the border town we were aiming for. Now, with no idea which way the campsite lays I’m out of ideas. I’m sat at the side of the road unable to think clearly to make the next decision. As so often happens when I’m in this state my brain rushes ahead to the future, trying to predict the array of outcomes and their knock-on effects. Tangling itself in the surfeit of branches in the decision tree until finally, I stall, confused as I take in every conceivable option simultaneously. I sit in the shade of a parked car – all that is available – and wait. Wait for my mind to stop rushing and wait for it to come back into the present moment from which I can make decisions more effectively.
A place to sleep and a helping hand
Mickey tries to determine which road we’re on while I sit. Eventually I’m recovered enough to carry on and we have an idea of where we’re headed now. Further down the road we spy a sign for the campsite we’re looking for. We pull in and too tired to worry, I ask in English if they have a camping place.
The lady rushes off to find someone who speaks English and while she does others approach us to look. I try English, French and German with them. They speak German well but unfortunately I don’t speak it well enough to understand what they say back to me, so back to square one. It turns out that they’re just curious kids, which explains their apparent confusion about being asked if they have a camping pitch! The first lady returns with a young guy who speaks English. He immediately apologises for the standard of his English (which is good), not aware of how much of a godsend he is to me. I’m too tired for a round of charades to earn a bed for the night.
He tells us that we can pitch tonight but that we need to leave at 9 am the next morning as they have a big party arriving. Initially, we just want to crash so we agree. But after a few minutes we realise 9 am may be a bit ambitious given our level of tiredness, and the amount of time it takes us to pack after a night of camping. The reversal in our decision causes some confusion but everyone is patient and kind. Our helper heads off to the pension next door to the campsite to ask if they have a room spare, telling us he doesn’t think they speak English.
Gratitude, curiosity and a desire to connect
The gratitude I feel at having him unassumingly take the reins of proceedings over will kick in fully later. For now I smile as warmly as I can and ask how to say thank you in Hungarian. He and his friends giggle at my efforts as my tired brain forgets it almost instantly but it’s good humoured and appreciative. They’ve gleaned details of our journey and curiosity burns in their eyes. We’ve drawn quite a crowd, usually I might be intensely uncomfortable with this level of mute interest. Maybe it’s their friendly demeanour or my tiredness or maybe I’m just getting used to being a curiosity but it evokes nothing more than amusement in me. Not for the first time or the last on this journey, I wish we could speak freely with them. But maybe this is enough, this desire to connect. It’s becoming enough.
Bence (by now we have enquired after the name of our helper) sees us into our pension, helping with a few final translations on the finer points of payment before heading off telling us he is happy to have contributed a little to our adventure. The owner, heads off to get his car. On his return he directs us in parking the bikes, chattering to me in a mix of German, English and Hungarian, as Mickey arranges them. He then parks his car in front of them, blocking them in to keep them safe. The area looks safe enough but we appreciate this extra effort to ensure our bikes remain where they should. We head out into the town to find food and end up ordering way too much as we’re ravenous by now.
A touching gift
The next morning after a good feed and a good night’s sleep, we pack up as several people walk past greeting us warmly. One, a jolly looking man in his 60’s stops to look at the bikes. We don’t share much language but we share a passion for bikes it transpires. He tells us he rides but his wife, no, gesturing to me with a smile. I’m studying the map and I tell him where we’re heading today. He indicates a major road and I laugh, instead pointing to a minor, very twisty road and give him a big, grinning thumbs up. He laughs in agreement and then wanders off. A few minutes later he returns with a single, wrapped chocolate and gives it to me with something of a shy smile and an approving nod before wishing us a good journey and disappearing again.
Laid-back, friendly charm
We head out, buying a map at a garage in town along with some breakfast. We’re on the road early and there’s no hurry today, the day already scorching hot again. I’m aware of an increasingly favourable impression of Hungary. The kindness and help the previous day turned a potentially trying scenario into a warming one. People here don’t stare but show interest in you and acknowledge you if you catch their eye. There is an easy going friendliness about things it feels.
Our experiences on the road continue to build on these first impressions. Fellow road-users waves as they pass us, hanging back until there is space to pass. Nobody behaves as if we are an inconvenient obstacle. At one point, a car turning left onto the motorway pulls alongside us and the whole family wave, beaming at us. The teenage girls in the back of the car get even more excited when they realise I’m a woman, giving me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I return their waves, throwing my head back to giggle at it all. Later we stop at a garage and strike up a conversation with another biker who is out for a ride with his daughter. He is enthusiastic and positive about our journey. No safety warnings, only happiness for us that we have this opportunity – a kindred spirit, full of smiles and well wishes.
We head through a rural village and a small child looks on in excitement as we pass. As I wave at him he looks fit to burst with happiness, pumping his arms up and down in the universal gesture of childlike enthusiasm. From the oldest to the youngest, there is an openness, an easy, eager curiosity which emanates from the Hungarian people that totally catches me off-guard.
Just a perfect day
And the land is beautiful. Flat and sprawling with an old world charm, main roads are good and could be anywhere in Europe. But a slower pace of life is evident, with horses and carts easy to find the smaller roads. Sunflowers deck the landscape until their dazzling, radiant beauty is almost lost on me. At one point a smell hits me that is at once familiar and elusive. A musky incense, sandalwood perhaps, but that doesn’t seem quite right. I wonder if it comes from the trees lining the road that are adorned in thin blue grey leaves which also evoke an echo of a long forgotten memory. Another mystery of the road that will remain, for now, unsolved. It all adds a surreal, hazy dream-like quality to the sun-bleached day.
The heat of the day is extreme but today it doesn’t touch us in our summer armour, moving unfettered by traffic. It’s a perfect hazy, halcyon day. I don’t remember a time when I felt this content. This land, in this moment is entirely, exclusively ours I feel. A soul-deep, connection that speaks of home that you find sometimes in a place. I don’t know it yet but it will be shattered completely in the next country. For now though, this perfect day that Hungary has given us stretches into infinitely contained within a single, endless moment where life stands still.
Gyula and a gem of a campsite
We ride the back roads for hours. They’re deserted except for horses and carts and a few other bikers who curiously hang back for a long while before speeding past. I can’t remember a time when life ever felt this paradisiacal. After a perfectly endless moment of a day we arrive in Gyula, a pleasant little tourist town. Following signs for camping we circle the town and are just beginning to think someone has played a joke with the signs when we realise it’s a one-way system. We pull into the tiny, hidden gem of a campsite, an oasis of green and flowers in the centre of the town.
Marike doesn’t speak English, but her welcome, and that of the residents is warm nonetheless. And we have just enough German to communicate with her. Many of the residents speak English and German fluently too and are only too willing to help translate. She’s a pleasingly eccentric and formidable lady with a kind heart and a wickedly teasing sense of humour. We chat later as she probes, quizzes and teases us that we need to have babies. She tells Mickey I look like a strong woman, before calling into question his manhood and attributing our childlessness to this! If anyone else – friend or stranger – tried this they’d be on very dangerous territory indeed. But she does it in such an artless and humorous way that it’s impossible to take offense. Or indeed, do anything but laugh uncontrollably.
The campsite is a little community of repeat-visit holiday-makers and they make us feel welcome instantly, our English neighbour furnishing us with beer and stories, and seeing us off in the morning with a gift of English tea.
Tomorrow we head to Romania. I’m reluctant to leave Hungary after such a short time but time is getting shorter. Perhaps if we’d have known the extent to which Romania would challenge us we would have been even more reluctant to leave Hungary. But, as it is we don’t and so the next morning we leave, heading towards our first serious culture shock of the trip…