Thursday, January 3, 2008

Story Jar: Metro One, Budapest

Metro One, Budapest

Hungary, 2007: Subways are great. I say that with all sincerity right now because we stayed out too late and missed the last train to our hotel so had to hike a considerable number of blocks across the city.

Budapest is actually two cities (Buda and Pest) divided by the Danube River, a body of water without a hint of blue. It’s easy to get around Budapest on the Metro lines, the trolleys or the buses. We used the Metro for several days and took it for granted until tonight.

We boarded on the red line and meant to transfer to Metro 1 but when we started up the stairs a woman at the top shouted a string of Magyar (Hungarian) to which we responded with blank stares. She then said, “Finished.” That we understood. Didn’t like it but understood so we exited the station and pulled out the worn map that Em and Josh’s had given to us. We had to hike a distance equivalent to 7 stations on Metro 1. We walked down the wide center avenue on a clear, spring evening talking about the yellow line, Metro 1. It’s a gem.

It’s a series of Little-Engine-that-Could trains with sweet, small yellow cars that arrive every 2 or 3 minutes all day long with seating for 16 and, the poster says, standing room for 50 more. (I would challenge that because we were on a full car once and I counted 24 standing passengers with virtually no room between elbows and bags. There is no way another 26 passengers could have gotten on without some sitting on others’ shoulders.)

Hungary had the first underground system in Europe and while I don’t know that Metro 1 is part of that first construction, it certainly has the hand-crafted look of an earlier time. Metro 1 has oak doors, steel pillars with art deco tops and two-toned ceramic walls. We particularly liked that the Metro 1 cars play a happy little tune when entering stations, as if they are pleased once more to make it out of the dark tunnel.

When we arrived in Budapest we purchased a one week pass. We each carried a tiny, colorful ticket entitling us to ride any of the trains, trolleys or buses in either Buda or Pest. The tickets don’t open gates or pass under scanners. It almost seems as if a person could get around without a ticket but at any time while on the system, someone with a transit system armband might ask to see the ticket and if it isn’t produced, they collect a large fine right there. If a person has neither ticket nor money, the transit officials may confiscate anything that the person does have and hold it ransom until the fine is paid. There’s no messing around.

The system is the same in Prague where we were asked for our tickets several times. Generally tickets were checked on the bus. Not only did we always have our tickets but every person around us during those checks also produced one so we never witnessed a problem in Prague but in Budapest we saw three people pay fines. To say they looked glum would understate their appearance.

On the night of the long walk, this night of the missed train, we witnessed such a fine on the red line. We walked into the station at nearly 11 p.m. when 3 officials asked for our tickets. Rick pulled them out of his pocket and we were nodded onward. A train had just come into the station, disgorging an assortment of passengers – a band with trombone, guitar and sax, a man with a suitcase and a number of couples. These people were also stopped by the transit officials and the man with the suitcase had no ticket so one officer scribbled out a citation. The man handed over several bills, took his receipt and wheeled his suitcase out of the station unhappy to have taken such an expensive ride.

We had time to watch all of this because we had an enormous ten-minute wait before our large, modern train arrived with screeching brakes. That train took us to the station where the woman told us that the service was finished for the night.

We spent the next 20 minutes walking and missing the wonderful, yellow Metro 1 trains.

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