I’m just back from Budapest, where I was a guest at Atjarocon on October 25th 2003.
Atjaro is the new Hungarian SF magazine, and “atjaro” means a portal or passageway, though only if I put the accents on the right letters, which I daren’t do because of eccentric misbehaviour on the part of Windows XP.
My Hungarian hosts were wonderfully inventive in arranging exciting adventures. The last time I was in Budapest my friends Ata (composer of thrilling computer games music) and Kriszta showed me more regular sights such as the Citadel, the Castle (with its ancient dark Labyrinth beneath, home to artefacts of an imaginary ancient civilisation), and heroic statues of Magyar chiefs arriving from Siberia on horses with antlers. This time the accent was on transport – cars, trams, subway trains, light aircraft. On the first night after dinner we had a car crash. Peter hadn’t drunk a drop but he was quite excited, so he forgot that the dark cavernous street we were zooming along didn’t have priority over the dark cavern that intersected it. BANG, directly into the door I was sitting beside. For some reason uniquely that night I’d decided not to fasten the seat belt, so I was able to lurch into the cushion of Laszlo rather than sharing space with the intruding car – owned ironically by an insurance company manager.
The demise of the car meant that Adam took me and Roberto (Quaglia) to a bar to explain in sign language, Klingon, and a few words of English, how I would get to the con the next day. (Roberto and I had realized at Hungarocon a few months earlier that the Hungarian language, being connected with nothing else on Earth, is probably Klingon.) Tracing the route of the red Metro line across the map was okay, but then I must “Go villamos!” Pronounced villamosh. What or where was villamos? Inspiration struck me. Might it perhaps be a tram? The vocab in my Berlitz Hungarian for Travellers confirmed this, although I soon decided to alter the title of the book by pen to Klingon for Surrealists. “Yellow villamos!” cried Adam triumphantly. Clearly I should not catch a red or blue or green villamos. Fortunately Peter turned up an hour later and commented, “All villamos in Hungary are yellow. The number of the villamos might be more useful.”
So the next morning I sallied to the subway to cross from Pest into Buda, and actually arrived on a number 51 villamos at Mom Park, where the con was happening. Unfortunately I alighted from the tram beside a park, which confused me. Was the con in a tent in the park? Shivering in the arctic breeze, I gazed skywards for inspiration and discovered the words MOM PARK adorning a huge shopping centre. I was to discover that MOM stood for something like Magyar Optical Manufacturers, which had occupied the site previously.
An excellent venue, full of shops and warm air, with a cinema complex up top where Atjarocon was happening. Various radio and TV interviews occurred, one with a show hosted by actress Zita who played the Queen of the Vampires (until killed within a few minutes) in the recent Hollywood movie Underworld which was filmed in Budapest and its subways. Before my question and answer session in the main hall I’d decided to do a 5-minute burlesque skit of Warhammer 40K, and had requested a commode or potty to represent the paralysed superpsychic 40K Emperor’s prosthetic throne, but only a black plastic bucket was forthcoming. However, by putting this single stage prop over my head, this also enabled me to give the audience greetings from Darth Vader. By coincidence the Klingon name for a bucket is vödör, pronounced Vedder. Darth Vader had previously endeared himself to the whole of Hungarian fandom after Hungarocon by pouring half a dozen of the best Hungarian red wines down his sink back home because they weren’t supersweet like the white Tokaji he had enjoyed. He should have added a bag of sugar to each bottle.
I’m best known in Hungary so far because of my 40K books, which all re-appeared while I was in Budapest as a vast omnibus hardback volume weighing a ton, and also because of AI. Zsolt, who already published the 40K books separately, mentioned that he was recently driving through the red light district when he saw a prostitute standing on the pavement reading my Space Marine. This is true popularity.
Next day Zita was having a sightseeing flight in a tiny Cessna from a grass airfield, so she invited me and Roberto along. It was the first time any of us had been in such a small plane, but fortunately I had recently been on a terror ride at St Giles Fair in Oxford, so I was well prepared. Misty day; blue Danube in the distance. After we got back Zita’s dog suddenly took off right across the airfield and was nearly killed by a glider taking off, but it jumped the cable just in time, and returned very worried, trembling, ears flat back.
Another super adventure was riding the whole of the Budapest subway up front in the driver’s cab, because she, Sylvia, was one of the convention organisers. We saw the parts passengers don’t see, such as the secret tunnel to Parliament and the blast doors installed by the Communist government.
Yet another super adventure was a highspeed drive in a lurching, farting vintage Trabant (the people’s “paper Porsche” of old East Germany) through cobbled streets, ending up finally on a rooftop car park where Roberto and I were allowed to race the Trabbie around. This is all excellent material if I need to write a historical spy novel.
A pub called St Lancelot’s specialising in medieval English banquets was wonderful too. Fire-eaters, belly-dancers, suits of armour, sword-fighting, the works. Since I’ve never been to an English medieval banquet in England, it was quite surrealistic to experience one for the first time in Budapest. Since our hands were greasy from tearing whole chickens and porks apart, and since the ashtrays were a foot across in the shape of round battlemented castles it seemed a good idea to construct an army of monsters from the surplus bones and meat and vegetables and skewers and lay seige. The staff seemed to admire our food art.
By now Roberto and I were well aware that journeys in Budapest with native guides start out by going in totally the wrong direction, then correcting to a different wrong direction, only gradually converging after an hour or so on one’s goal, but he still fell into the trap of being guided in his big silver Mercedes to a place of interest out of town, which involved taking two and a half hours to leave Buda, where he was staying, via three crossings of the river over the very same bridge into Pest and back again. Getting out of town should have taken about fifteen minutes. So when we finally arrived at our destination darkness fell and we had to leave promptly, to become trapped in a two hour rush-hour queue returning to the city. Consequently, when we went to the Franz Liszt Museum the next day on foot, I used my own map, which prevented straying, although our hosts complained at how fast Roberto and I seemed to walk. “You have only been here a few days! We have been here for years!” Can it be that the gravity of Budapest upon its inhabitants increases as time goes by?
Oh what surrealistic fun it all was. What lovely meals and wines and beers and hosts and buildings and much much more. And yes, the Hungarians probably are Klingons, or some sort of delightful alien. When I was teaching Adam some more English in the airport before departing I asked, “How many fingers on your hand?” and he answered, “One Two Three Four Five.” “That is a thumb,” I corrected him. “No, ” he insisted, “it is a finger! I have five fingers!”
Stick out your fifth finger in Budapest for a ride on a yellow villamos.