The minivan motored over an elegant stone suspension bridge, up a hill and arrived in Buda at what had to be a former Habsburg hub. I looked out the closest window and saw an especially stately palace adorned with marble statues, wrought iron gates, towers and spires. The tour guide began to speak, and I waited to learn which significant Hungarian landmark this was.
“There are 16 McDonald’s throughout the Buda and Pest metropolitan areas,” said Gabriella, a graduate student from Greece who was translating the guide’s commentary, since I was on a tour of Budapest conducted entirely in Greek.
“Huh? Where is there a McDonald’s?” I thought. However, the seriousness of Gabriella’s tone convinced me she had just relayed a legitimate cultural tidbit.
Meanwhile, the tour guide, along with the other passengers, including Iga, a woman traveling with her seven-year-old daughter, Katerina, as well as her parents and sister, all turned to assess my response. Aside from Gabriella and her friend, Marilena, none of them spoke English. I nodded as if I had been waiting for this very information since leaving the United States and my beloved Big Mac.
Earlier that day, when I found out the tour was literally going to be completely “Greek to me,” I was apprehensive. But the excursion, provided by Malév Hungarian Airlines, on my layover from Athens to Amsterdam was free. Plus, who wants to spend nine hours in an airport?
Fortunately, Gabriella and Marilena had attended a business school in London, and they were anxious to refresh their conversational English.
As the minivan left the Habsburg hood, we passed more buildings of lesser stature that perhaps were not as critical to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but they were impressive nevertheless. I turned to Gabriella.
She moved her head from side to side. “The city’s main TV network is headquartered in this building on the right,” she said tapping on the van’s window.
“And the cables for cable television were just installed last year,” Marilena added. Again, I felt compelled to nod.
Continuing to translate the This-Buda’s-For-You tour, Gabriella and Marilena were either impressed by Budapest’s recent embrace of technology, convenience and cholesterol or they offered the information they guessed most suited my American tastes. It was quite considerate of them.
Finally, the tour guide stopped the minivan, so we could get out and look around. With Gabriella and Marilena, I wandered around a square that had several souvenir shops. I still had no idea about my surroundings, but I knew beneath my feet lay hundreds of lines of television cables.
After leaving the shops, we climbed the stairs of a building to a balcony that overlooked the rooftops and buildings of Pest, which of course, included several of the 16 McDonald’s.
We rejoined the others. Iga had spread out a blanket on a bench and arranged the food she had packed. I hadn’t even changed out of my beach clothes from the previous day when I left Greece, let alone stopped for traveling snacks.
Iga spoke to me in Greek while pantomiming, “please, share this bounty with us.”
“Efharisto,” Thank you. I nodded.
Her daughter Katerina, who looked like an ethereal supermodel in the making with her pixie haircut, slight frame and crystal blue eyes, brought me something in aluminum foil.
It was a crusty, flaky filo product stuffed with spinach and cheese. Consistent with the day, I was looking at an unidentified object. But I was hungry and it turned out to be an amazingly delicious Hot Pocketish sandwich. For dessert, they gave me honey-laden baklava. Katerina had scooted over to me on the bench. I said “efharisto,” again.
Looking at Gabriella, Katerina mentioned something and giggled. Gabriella told me that Katerina found it funny that all I could say in Greek was “thank you.” Through Gabriella, I told Katerina I actually knew the Greek alphabet. In a moment of silliness, I sang her the version I had learned courtesy of Delta Gamma, my college sorority.
For a minute, as everyone sat in silence, I thought I had offended them. Then my new friends began to laugh hysterically. Clearly, the Greeks got a kick out of the Alpha Beta Gamma ditty.
The tour guide, who had been smoking cigarettes and consulting a map, came over, pointed to his watch and motioned for us to get back in the minivan. Before complying, we convinced him to take several group photos. Gabriella, Marilena and I exchanged addresses. Iga handed me some of the tinfoiled leftovers, and Katerina gave me a big hug.
I still didn’t know what I had actually seen that day, but I did know that I had an adoptive Greek family, and I could always eat a McDonald’s hamburger and fries while watching HBO the next time I was in Budapest.
About the Author: A freelance writer, teacher and traveler, Stephanie Glaser studied in the Netherlands during college, and more recently, taught high school in Adelaide, Australia as an exchange teacher. Currently, Glaser lives with her family in Colorado where she teaches public speaking and writes about her travel blunders for her blog Travel Oops.