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Tales of the World
Slivovitz in Budapest
Paul Otteson
Stories Home

I sat under a light in the courtyard of a hostel on the Pest side of Budapest, having settled myself for a little escapist reading before bed. It was around 10pm. A weird mood had caught me that day. I'd walked aimlessly around the city, glancing with limited interest at the sites noted in the guidebook. In the evening, I listened to R.E.M. and soaked up the visuals at a laser show at the local planetarium. Like many nights on the road, I was weary from a day of in-my-face newness; I wanted nothing more than to be left alone with a tacky pulp mystery.

"Hey you," called a voice in thickly accented English. "Why don't you come over and have a drink." The 'r' in 'drink' rolled off his tongue like a stumble of hoofs. I could see the spark in his eye across the dim yard.

"No thanks," I replied, trying to sound distracted. "I'm just going to read for a bit." Who was this guy? I did not need a hassle, I wasn't looking for company just then.

"You know," he said with smiling menace, "in my country, a man offers you a drink and you refuse? You are a dead man." ...As God is my witness, he said that to me. What could I do?

"I suppose I could use a drink," I responded.

I joined him at a table and he poured me a generous glass of Slivovitz—a distilled product derived from plums, the delicate sweetness of the original fruit left far behind for the sake of an unmistakeable capacity to inebriate. Now, I'm happy to celebrate with anyone over a vessel of the local delight, but I met my match that night.

"Nazdrave!" came the toast.

"Nazdrave," I replied.

"You German?" he asked.

"American," I corrected.

"Ah!" he spat, "you Americans!" And so it began.

We sleep a thousand sleeps in life and never rouse from most. I had slept as I walked through my Budapest day, an insulating pane of mental plexiglass filtering out the sounds and scents of discovery. I was rudely awakened by a double shot of booze and wit that night—awakened from another layer of self-righteous insularity and ignorance by a Romanian-born Hungarian who ran a hostel and envied for real what I disdained over coffee.

We argued intensely as we got drunk, certainly keeping other hostellers awake as we battled. I learned what 1956 meant to the passionate partisans who were promised help from the U.S. and so stood up to the Soviets, only to be abandoned by one side and crushed by the other. I tasted the frustration of a smart human who had too many years behind him to ride the tide of freedom he'd been waiting for all of his life. He told me in a dozen ways of the pain he felt watching day after day as rich, free wanderers passed through his hostel pursuing easily the same dreams he had. I defended and countered, offered alternatives and rejected simplicities—all for nothing. His was the zeal of a clear mind.

We spent ourselves by 2am or so, I tottered to my bunk. He sat there still, a second bottle in need of draining. I never saw him again. I never learned his name. For all I know, he's still there; it wasn't all that long ago. Maybe I'll make my way back someday—or maybe you will meet him on a warm night in Buda for an awakening of your own, though your sleeps are certainly different from my own.