Settling into living in Budapest, Hungary in 1990.
|CHAPTER TWO: THE BATHHOUSES
Steam rose from the frigid air over a city that was just settling down for the night. Trams rumbled along connecting the populous areas of Budapest with the centers of entertainment and interest. One such center was the Batheny Bathhouse on Margit Insel (Margaret Island) nestled at the foot of the chain bridge, which was the entrance for Nazi occupiers in the 1940s.
Jim shuffled his feet and patted his arms clad in his warm sailing jacket to make himself warmer. “I wonder how this works,” he said softly to himself. “I don’t even see an entrance anywhere.”
Looking farther down the path, he noticed it bending into a stand of trees, and, from there emerging to make its way to a small building with steam coming out of it. “That must be it there,” he thought. “Wonder how much a massage costs here?,” he pondered. “I’ll pay whatever; I’m so tense from traveling and running around this crazy city.”
He made his way down the path and considered knocking at the door, but then realized he didn’t even know how to ask for a massage; thinking quickly, he decided he would again gesture, as best he could, “massage” by working his fingers in a kneading motion and pointing to his neck and shoulers. He knocked on the door and patiently waited, hearing loud clamoring within. Shortly, a severe-looking middle-aged bald man appeared at the door and Jim gestured a massaging motion and pointed to his back. An ah-ha expression crossed the man’s face as he muttered something in Hungarian, and it was clear Jim had really communicated that he wanted a massage.
The man then indicated that they were to move to a room in the back of the building, and they walked together to a dimly lit room with padded tables in it. The man pulled at his shirt and made a sweeping motion with his other hand, which Jim took as an invitation to disrobe. Immediately he complied, stripping down to his boxers in the warm room.
He then climbed up on the nearest table, face down through the padded hole and groaned in private pleasure. The masseur then proceeded to rub pungently scented oil into his back, working it in with a hard stroking motion. Jim thought he’d never felt anything like it before, but enjoyed it after the initial shock of the hard, jabbing pressure wore off.
His host then led him to another part of the building where there were steaming pools of water, a rich shade of iridescent blue; he bade him to get in, and Jim felt no reason to resist his counsel. As soon as he was ready, he put his foot in the water and felt a wave of warmth surge through him. Gradually, and with due caution, he slipped into the water, feeling waves of pleasurable warmth course though his body.
Jim relaxed then in his aquatic paradise, far from the worries he had felt in the city that day. “If only every day could be like this, he groaned to himself. He resolved to make this a place he frequented. “I noticed there were a few bathhouses in this city from the times of the Romans and the Turks. I’d like to go to a couple at least to see how they compare,” he reflected.
He walked over to his clothes and fumbled to get out his wallet from his pants to pay the nice man and offered him two 100 forinth bills (about $50). The masseur looked at him with wide eyes that said, “This is way too much.” He promptly got out a big leather wallet and gave him 50 forinths change.
Jim was wondering what to tip the masseur and handed him back the 50. A broad smile appeared on the man’s face, and then he shook his head and gave the money back. “Tipping must not be customary in these places,” Jim thought. “I’ll get used to this culture yet.”
Relaxed from his massage and sauna, he began to get dressed, feeling warmer as his clothes caressed his skin. Then he donned his jacket, preparing once again for the cold night air.
He made his way toward the door, going down the dimly-lit corridor to the entrance. He opened the door and stepped out into the frigid air, made cooler by a breeze that had picked up while he was inside.
He walked briskly up to the tram stop, where a small group of people waited, staring off into space. Occasionally one of them would say something in staccato bursts, never breaking from that stare. Jim reflected on how different public transportation is in Europe vs. the U.S.: People in the United States are much more open and friendly waiting for their rides; he would later note that the people in general are more community-oriented than out for themselves over here. In fact, there are many such contrasts between the two regions.
Europe, being an older culture, is steeped in traditions – many stemming from their primarily Catholic faith. Such traditions are not just left in the church, as well, but permeate many aspects of their daily lives. For example, Hungarians celebrate a “Russian Hero’s Day,” stemming from their many years of Soviet rule. The Warsaw Pact meant they now had to deal with such issues as sub-standard, and often cramped, living situations and forced sharing of resources (e.g., food, transportation, and healthcare).
Now with democracy in place, they faced a new set of challenges: How to encourage and nurture their country’s entrepreneurial and ingenuity tendencies (e.g., Rubik of Rubik’s Cube fame was Hungarian); harnessing the yoke of their labor force; and educating their people and managers in market-driven policy-making, the reason Jim was there.
Relaxed and eager to start his work week at the Center, Jim took the nearly empty tram four stops from the foot of the bridge to his street near Dèli Palyudvar, the main train station closest to his flat.
He was tired and a little bit hungry when he arrived at his building so he wearily made his way up the stairs to his floor and went immediately went to the elderly neighbors’ apartment in search of a hot meal.