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The Inseide Dop: The Budapest-Bloomingdale Road connection

January 22, 2009
By Robert Seidenstein

The last full day the Amazon Queen and I were in Budapest was a perfect "Almost" day.

In case you don't know what an "Almost" day is (and there's no reason you should, since I just made it up), it's a day when everything goes "almost" right, which of course means nothing goes completely right.

It started with a befogged wake-up, thanks to the worst case of jet lag either of us ever had. This was followed by brewing and swilling several very large cups of Hammer - Adirondack Bean-To's high octane blend which I'd devotedly shlepped all the way to Hungary. Our BQ (Buzz Quotient) sufficiently raised, we started on the day's game plan.

"OK," I said, "what do you wanna do today?"

"Well," she said, "there's that place in Pest that's supposed to have the best coffee and breakfasts in the city. I think we should go there."

"Good idea," I said.

Apparently, Hungarians don't eat breakfast - at least not like we do. They might eat baked goods, but as for something I can relate to like real honest-to-G-and-J omelette, forget it. And when it comes to their coffee, ya pays your money and you takes your chances. Some of it is all right, some is tasteless, some is instant ... and none of it is predictable. So a place with real breakfasts and real coffee was a must.

When we left the hotel it was raining slightly, which wasn't a hassle. However, what WAS a hassle was the temperature, which was perfect to turn the rain into ice as soon as it hit the streets, resulting in all Budapest turning into one vast luge run.

Luckily, we slid our way to the metro stop without incident, got off at the right stop, and slid our way over to the cafe, which we discovered had quit serving breakfast about ten minutes before we arrived. We could've had lunch of course, but since we're vegetarians and their menu had all meat entrees, that got nixed. We then left for our next destination, St. Stephen's Basilica.

The arm ... and the arm

of the law

The basilica is a beautiful church probably Budapest's most beautiful - dedicated to St. Stephen, Hungary's patron saint. In an annex is a relic of the saint, namely his mummified right arm. And while that sounds like a weird combo, along the lines of P. T. Barnum Meets God, neither the AQ nor I wanted to leave Budapest without having seen it.

By the time we got there, the freezing rain was still doing its thing, and doing it so scarily that when we were in the basilica, I lit four votive candles two in thanks for us arriving safely, and two more as a subtle bribe for our safe return.

After that, we started toward the booth to buy a ticket to the annex, when out of nowhere a bunch of cops appeared, telling us we had to leave immediately. The next thing we knew, we were again sliding all over the sidewalk, with no clue why we'd been summarily ejected.

"All right," I said, "what next?"

"Whatta you think?" said the AQ.

"You mean -?" I said.

"Arany akna," she said. "What else?"

Ah, what else indeed.

Arany Akna was, according to all the guidebooks, the place for bargain hunters, near and far. It was touted as the biggest flea market in all Eastern Europe, with its vast number of stalls offering everything imaginable, from the mundane to the bizarre, with some real treasures in between. And the bargains could be had for mere pennies if you knew how to haggle. And let me tell you, Haggle is my middle name.

But before we could find our bargains, we first had to find the place itself, which was somewhat akin to finding the Elephant Graveyard. First, we had to take a streetcar to a metro, which we then took to the end of the line - a bus park in the apparent middle of Hell & Gone, Hungary.

The guidebooks said the 64 bus went right to flea market. Unfortunately, after reading every sign in the bus park we discovered no 64 buses stopped there.

Then, figuring we'd missed something, we retraced our steps and reread all the signsbut still no 64. And as we were standing there, soggy and clueless and about to give up and go back to the hotel, a lady bus driver motioned to us.

"Arany akna?" she asked.

We nodded, smiled and piled aboard.

More fleas than market

At a stop about ten minutes later, the bus driver pointed off to her left and said the magic words again.

After we got off the bus we looked where she'd pointed, confused. What had been billed as the biggest flea market in Eastern Europe looked instead like the remnants of a post-industrial apocalypse: Almost all the stalls were closed and boarded up and the few stalls that were open seemed to be piled up randomly with what might charitably called crap.

Still, having come this far, we figured the least we could do was walk around and see if our first impression was correct. Sadly, it was.

The merchandise, so to speak, had a weird, grinding sameness to it leather coats and jackets, all of dubious provenance, quality and odiferousness; Soviet army surplus junk; nazi helmets, bayonets and daggers; and of course putative "antiques," all of which were along the lines of chamber pots with broken handles.

The vendors, few that they were, were perfect complements to their wares: They were either talking with each other or staring off in the middle distance, and certainly not paying the slightest attention to us as potential customers, much less as sentient beings.

After one walk-through of the place, the AQ and I headed back to the bus stop, wordlessly.

When the bus arrived, the same lady driver was at the wheel. We greeted her, took our seats and the three of us chatted for the rest of the ride back to the bus park. Then, as we were getting off the bus, on a whim I turned back and asked the driver if she knew what Arany Akna meant in English.

"Yes," she said. "It means the Gold Mine."

After I stepped into the lot, all I could do was just stand there, shaking my head.

"What is it?" said the AQ.

"Do you realize we've crossed six time zones, gotten jetlagged out of our gourds, and crawled across an urban ice floe, only to end up in Hungary's version of the Gold Mine?"

"Yes, I do," said the AQ, laughing. "And let me tell you, Orville, rest his soul, would've been proud of you for it."



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