I ventured out last week. I saw people other than random shoppers replenishing their food supplies. I had real conversations with real people, and it felt strange.
I’ve been conditioned to staying home, to avoiding contact, to eschewing any sort of social contact that doesn’t take place from behind masks or over a fence. I’d gotten so used to this way of living that I almost had to be dragged back into the real world.
I took the train to the city, a 2.5-hour journey. At its busiest, my carriage hosted six passengers, including myself. Signs in both English and Hungarian told us we had to wear a mask or a scarf to cover our faces. It was mandatory. A precondition of travel. Of the six, three of us had done as we were told. One man wore his mask on his chin. Another man didn’t have anything remotely resembling face cover. And the third woman placed hers on the table and didn’t put it on her face until she was disembarking. The conductor wasn’t policing masks; he was checking tickets. Thankfully though, everyone kept their distance. I loved the sense of space.
My appointments took me both sides of the river, to Buda and to Pest. There were people on the streets, people in the malls, people on the trams. But far fewer people than before. Communicating with the masked takes effort. It’s impossible to see the smiles or grimaces. It’s hard to read faces. My usually animated facial gestures were getting me nowhere; it took me a while to figure out why.
I met a friend for lunch in the excellent Bereg Bar and Café, a little gem of a place with excellent food and a lovely courtyard on the fourth floor of Hattyúház near Széna tér. The tables were well spaced and populated with lone diners or pairs. The only people wearing masks were the staff. It was a lovely change. I ordered the Bereg burger with roasted potatoes. Delicious. It was the first meal I’d had in months that hadn’t come from my kitchen and it was worth the wait. I loved the sense of space.
Later that evening, I met a couple of friends for a drink at Bambi Eszpresszó. We had to wait for a table on their terrace. Lots of people had had a similar idea – a Friday evening drink with friends. Again, the tables were well spaced, but here the table occupancy was much higher with as many as eight at one table. The place was blanketed in a haze of smoke. Smoke-wise, it didn’t bother me. I smoke myself occasionally. But given all I’d read about air particles and exposure times, I found myself getting a little antsy. Our table was on the edge of the terrace though, under the first floor, so we had some measure of protection. Had we been front and centre, I think I might have left. It’s too soon. I was getting used to having more personal space and this felt crowded.
Is this how life is going to be moving forward? Will this heightened level of awareness of other people’s expulsions of smoke or air make me more particular of where I sit? Will someone coughing or sneezing make me want to leave the room? You know those guys in crime novels who always sit with their back to the wall facing the door with a full view of the room they’re in? Will that be me, sitting on the edge of a room near a door far away from an overhead fan or AC unit ready to bolt if needs be?
I’ve been in restaurants since and not having to jostle with my neighbour to get into my seat is a welcome change – but I wonder if this extra distance is financially sustainable? I love the space. But if bars and restaurants are required to make more room by taking out tables, they’ll have to up their prices. Or am I missing something? COVID-19 is set to have some financial ramifications and not everyone might be as transparent about them as my dentist is being.
They asked my opinion on mandatory COVID testing before each visit – it would add 10 000 ft (€30) to every treatment. And these tests are only 80% accurate. But I’d be paying to keep them safe. And I like them. That said, I might go less often. And that’s not good.
Heading back on the train after a full day in the city, I realised that life had changed while I’d been hidden away. And strangely, like many of my friends, I was in no rush to get back to what I’d previously thought of as normal. The idea of bellying up to a bar in a crowded pub or club or going to the theatre turned my stomach. Funny how I don’t miss the things I thought I’d miss. What I really miss is travelling. Seeing my parents. Going somewhere new.
I don’t need a fortune teller to tell me that domestic travel will feature highly in my future. I recently renewed my START Klub Card – a railcard that gives me 50% discount on domestic trains and a discount on International RAILPLUS tickets. On Saturdays, I get to bring a friend for half-price, too. It’s a little shy of 35 000 ft the first year and then just under 30 000 ft if you renew before your current one expires. My first year was cut short because of COVID-19 but from 15 May 2019 to 16 March 2020, my card paid for itself twice over. It’s a simple online application process and worth the investment, particularly if you’re planning on staying local this summer. There is so much more to Hungary than its capital. And this summer will be as good a time as any to venture forth. This new sense of space mightn’t last long. Enjoy it while you can.
First published in the Budapest Times 13 June 2020