The tour minivan emerged into what had to be an important historical area of Budapest. The view from the window closest to me was of an especially stately palace adorned with statues, gates, towers, spires — typical castle stuff. The guide began to speak, and I eagerly waited to find out what iconic Hungarian landmark I was looking at.
“There are 16 McDonalds throughout the Buda and Pest metropolitan areas,” said Gabriella, a college student from Greece, who was translating the guide’s commentary, since I was on a tour of Budapest conducted entirely in Greek.
“Huh? Are we stopping for lunch?” was my first reaction to Gabriella’s comment. However, the seriousness of her tone convinced me that this was actually an authentic cultural tidbit she was relaying. Meanwhile, the tour guide, along with the rest of the passengers consisting of Iga, a woman traveling with her seven-year-old daughter, Katerina, as well as her parents and sister, turned to assess my response. None of them spoke English.
I nodded gravely as if I had been waiting for this very information ever since leaving my homeland and beloved Big Mac. Another fleeting thought that crossed my mind in addition to “I still don’t know what that castle is” was: “Geez, leave it to the Golden Arches to fill the void just left by the Iron Curtain.
Honestly, when I first joined everyone in the minivan at the Budapest airport and found out it was a tour with only Greek tourists, I was apprehensive. But the tour, provided by Malev airlines on my layover from Athens to Amsterdam, was free. Plus, who wants to spend nine hours in an airport? So, what the hell?
Fortunately, Gabriella and her friend Marilena, had attended a hotel management school in London, and they were anxious to refresh their conversational English. They had told me enthusiastically before our minivan took off that they would be happy to translate everything the tour guide said.
As the minivan cruised on, we passed more buildings of lesser stature that I guessed perhaps were not as critical to the Austro-Hungarian empire, but they were impressive nevertheless. I turned to Gabriella for their identification.
She turned her head from side to side, deciding which structure to mention first. “The city’s main TV station is headquartered in this building on the right,” she said tapping on the van’s window.
“And the cables for cable television were just installed last year,” Marilena added while looking me straight in the eye. Again, I felt compelled to nod — yes, cable television. What a relief that Hungarians finally have access to Fox News, the Cartoon Network, HBO, MTV and the Playboy channel!
Gabriella and Marilena, who continued translating the “this Buda’s for you” tour, were either impressed by Budapest’s recent embrace of technology, convenience and cholesterol or they gave me the information they guessed most suited my American tastes. It was actually quite considerate on their part.
Finally, the tour guide stopped the minivan, so we could get out and look around. I wandered around a charming square with Gabriella and Marilena. I still had no idea about my surroundings, but I knew beneath my feet lay hundreds of lines of television cables. We climbed the stairs of some random building to a balcony where we looked out at a magnificent view of Pest, which of course, included several of the 16 McDonalds in the metro area.
We re-joined the others. Iga spread out a blanket on a bench. Everyone broke out food. I hadn’t even changed out of my beach clothes from the previous day let alone stopped at the market for traveling snacks.
Iga spoke to me in Greek while signaling, “please, share some of this spread with us.”“Efharisto,” Thank you. I nodded and rubbed my stomach to indicate I was hungry. Her daughter Katerina, who looked like an ethereal supermodel in the making with her pixie haircut, slight frame and crystal blue eyes, brought me an offering in aluminum foil. It was a crusty, flaky filo product stuffed with spinach and cheese. Like my experiences all day, I had no idea what I was looking at. But I was hungry and it turned out to be the most delicious hot pocket I had ever had. After this treat, they gave me honey-laden baklava for dessert. Katerina had slowly scooted over to me on the bench. I said “efharisto,” once again.
She then looked at Gabriella said something and giggled. Gabriella told me that Katerina found it funny that the only thing I could say in Greek was “thank you.” Through Gabriella, I told Katerina I actually knew the Greek alphabet. I spared relaying the details of how I had learned her language’s alphabet, along with such skills as shot gunning a beer, while in a sorority at college. In a moment of silliness, I sang her the version I had learned courtesy of Delta Gamma.
For a minute, as everyone sat in silence, I thought I had offended them. Then they all broke out in uproarious laughter. Clearly the Greeks got a big kick out of the Alpha Beta Gamma ditty, and they had a hard time composing themselves again.
The tour guide, who had been smoking cigarettes and consulting a map, came over, pointing to his watch and motioning for us to get back in the minivan. Before complying, we managed to convince him to take several group photos. Gabriella, Marilena and I then exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch. Iga gave me extra offerings of the tinfoiled leftovers. Katerina gave me a big hug. Our tour was coming to an end, and I was sad.
When we arrived at the airport, I felt like I was going off to college for the first time. I was reluctant to say goodbye. The feeling, I think, was mutual since before the Greeks left for their departing gate, they brought me over to the flight monitors to make sure I knew where my gate was. I could have taken this as if they were treating me like a child (or an idiot), but I believed that they genuinely cared about my welfare — like I was family. We all hugged once more, and then they left. I still had no idea what I had actually seen, but I did know that the Buda and Pest metro areas together boasted a total of 16 McDonalds.