We left the bohemian beauty of Budapest behind, and followed the Danube river as it meandered south towards the Serbian border. The bumpy Eurovelo 6 route skirted by under our bike wheels.
We trundled past endless farmland, occasionally broken by tiny villages with dusty streets and one small shop, where we always stopped to buy bread and our favourite hazelnut-cream wafer snacks. It was early spring, and already the sun beat down relentlessly. Stalks nested on every lamp post.
Small groups of people were out in the fields, working the land by hand. Sometimes they waved at us, but they rarely smiled. People never seemed to smile in Hungary. In fact, the more I smiled, the more people seemed to frown in return.
Samantha, one quarter Hungarian herself, told me the smiling issue dated back to the communist years, when you were all in it together and there was nothing to smile about.
Night was falling on our second evening, and our water bottles were empty. There were no towns marked on our map for miles. We squinted hopefully into the horizon. After some time, Samantha spied a couple of houses. We veered off the track and headed toward them.
A clamour of barking dogs rose as we approached. A man popped out of his house, presumably to find out what the hell was causing the racket. We held up our empty bottles, grins plastered to our faces.
He took them from us and lead us round the side of his house, where he began to pump water from a well by hand. He pumped for a long time before water began trickling through. He held up his hand, signalling for us to wait. It seemed he had to drain off some water first, before the clean drinking water could come through.
“Kávé?” he asked, when the bottles were full.
Sam and I looked at one another. We’d both given up coffee, but I liked the man and didn’t want to refuse his hospitality. We nodded happily and followed him inside.
The house was humble, with a small kitchen and open-plan sitting room, where the television was left babbling to itself. Samantha and I perched ourselves at the small kitchen table while our host made coffee for me, and hot water for Sam to dunk her teabag in. The aroma of the coffee mingled with his cigarette smoke in a homely kind of way.
We drew pictures to explain our journey: a wiggly line between a blob called Budapest, and another marked Belgrade; two stick-people on wheels, with smiles and pigtails.
“Duna,” we explained to him, pointing at the wiggly line.
“Ahh!” he said, nodding.
I went to use his outdoor toilet, collecting water from the pump to flush it like he showed me. Samantha came to find me outside.
“He says we can stay the night,” she told me.
“How do you feel about it?” I asked.
“Mmm…I feel OK. I wouldn’ t mind staying, if you want to. He seems very nice.”
He smiled and nodded when we told him our decision to stay, and made sweeping gestures to his cooker, the small shelves of food, and the lounge.
Samantha, whose nightly relaxation involved cooking delicious food, began unpacking bags and rooting through the shelves for herbs. He peered over her shoulder, clearly curious about all of our strange vegan food items. He seemed very keen to help, miming chopping and stirring, or offering extra condiments. He chattered in Hungarian.
Sam’s grandfather was Hungarian, and she had been making some progress with the language.
“He’s offering you beer,” she told me, sounding confident. I nodded happily, looking forward to a delicious beer after a full day of peddling. He handed me salt.
When we sat down to eat, he brought out a bottle of wine, homemade and very strong. It was far better than beer.
As it got late, we tried to work out where we were supposed to sleep. He didn’t seem to have a separate bedroom, but insisted we take the double sofa-bed in the lounge, while he slept on the other sofa next to it. His snoring vibrated the house. Fortunately, we both carried ear plugs.
Come morning, our host seemed keen to extend our stay. He showed us up some external stairs, where a small attic room had apparently just been redecorated.
We decided he must be very lonely, living out here on his own, miles from anywhere.
He had a computer in his lounge, which he indicated was beyond his understanding. He repeated several times a word that Samantha translated as ‘daughter’, who he seemed to say worked for the BBC in London. We also gathered he had a son who lived somewhere else, and that his wife died some years ago, leaving him alone. We left him our email addresses.
Samantha, reminded strongly of her beloved Hungarian grandfather, was very affected by our experience.
Around a month later, I received an email.
Greetings from Hungary
I’m the daughter of the man you met in Hungary. My dad is short with a moustache. I think you spent one night in our house.
He asked me to write a few words for you. He would like to know if you got back to England without any problems, and to say hello.
Unfortunately he doesn’t speak English, as you probably realised, so when he said that two English ladies spent a night in our house, I imagined the situation, which I’m sure was very funny. But he said you could actually communicate, in a way.
I’m sure you met a lot of people on your journey, but I thought I would just write a few words about him and the place, if you don’t mind.
So, he’s my dad, and the place was once very busy with lots of children and neighbours. It used to be my grandparents’ weekend house, but they spent half the year there once they retired. Me and my brother spent our holidays there. We also visited every other weekend, just to get out of the city and enjoy nature.
We loved that place. Back then, it was still “alive”. We had the little pool, we could play table tennis, my grandma cooked every day, we played and sometimes studied with my grandpa. Our cousins also visited sometimes, and we could bring friends. It was brilliant.
But then, we grew up. It wasn’t so interesting to spend our weekends there, so we stayed at home instead. Only my dad went every other weekend, and we only visited occasionally. Unfortunately, my grandma died a couple of years ago, and since then even my grandpa doesn’t visit any more.
Now, my dad is the only one who goes there. He retired recently and now has more time. He actually lives very close to the capital in a flat with my mom and brother, so he can’t wait to get out of the city, spend some time alone, and do some gardening.
I actually live in London. I came here almost eight years ago, but go home every other month to see family and friends.
I just thought you would remember that place differently if you knew a few things about it.
Thank you for reading my email.
P.S. I’ve attached two photos. One is a lunch with my grandparents and dad, and the other one is the house.