Sax on the Streets
Chapter 20:
Budapest, Hungary

Waiters and Waiting

© Dan Gordon, 2003

Once past the border guards in Czechoslovakia, we were home free in Hungary. Budapest had a different feel to it from the other Eastern European cities we visited. The absence of so many regulations made us feel less scrutinized and far more at ease. There was no mandatory daily currency exchange, we did not have to account for our Hungarian money with bank receipts, the regulations for registering with the police were not so strict, and the visa we had obtained allowed us to move around the country with no restrictions for an entire month.

These relatively liberal regulations had real consequences for us as buskers. Without the mandatory currency exchange or the need to show receipts for our currency, we could once again play on the streets to earn our daily keep. Busking in Budapest was legal—or so we were often told. We couldn’t expect to get a definitive answer to such a question in the East.

Before we could indulge in any busking, we had to get settled in Budapest. First we needed some money so that we could make a few phone calls. Obtaining money is no problem for Westerners walking through the train station in Budapest; every second person that walks by is another black marketeer offering to “Change money? Change money?”

After our escapades in Czechoslovakia, I wasn’t about to mess with any of those regulations again, but Gary was still thinking about trying to beat the system. “How much for American dollars?” he asked one.

“Fifty-five forint one dollar.”

“Oh no, let’s not start playing those games again,” I warned Gary.

“Don’t worry. I just want to see how the black market rate compares to the bank rate. That guy’s offering 55, uh, what’re they called? Fornits?”

“Forints,” I said as we entered the bank in the station. “Forints.”

“Yeah, yeah, forints. He’s offering 55 forints to the dollar, and this bank here has a rate of...hmm...48,” Gary said as we looked over the exchange list. “That’s hardly any difference at all.”

“Good. Then we can resist temptation that much more easily.”

“Hold it, what’s going on here?” Gary said as he studied the list further. “This bank exchanges Czech crowns. How can that be? Every source we read says it’s absolutely forbidden to take currency out of the Eastern countries, but when you offered your left-over Czech crowns to the border guard he wouldn’t accept them. Now here’s a bank in Budapest that officially exchanges Czech money. I’m telling you, Dan, I just don’t understand it.”

I shrugged my shoulders and looked down at the ground. “Who the hell knows. ‘Don’t ask questions in the East.’”

At least I could get some Hungarian currency for my crowns, which I thought were already worthless. I changed what I had, giving us enough forints for the time being. Now to find János, a Hungarian friend from the Norwegian workcamp. We dug out the address book, found the number, and called. János’s father answered, making some absolutely unintelligible vocal noises on the other end of the line.

“Do you speak English?” I asked slowly.

“No English. Hungarian. Deutsch,” he replied.

“Nein,” I said. “Espańol?”

No response.

I guess not, I thought.

He made more sounds on the other end. I could understand the name “János” in there somewhere.

“János ja or nein? ” I stuttered.

More gibberish.

The conversation went on like this for a few more exchanges when I decided we weren’t getting very far. I hung up. “That’s not going to work,” I said, turning to Gary. “I just hope he’s not mad at me for hanging up on him.”

We wandered around the station in search of someone who spoke English. This would be a simple task in most parts of Europe, but not in Hungary. We stopped a young man in a business suit. “Excuse me, do you speak English?”


We tried someone else and got a blank stare as a response. No again. Two girls in tennis suits walked by. We asked one more time.

“Yes, I speak a little bit English,” one replied.

“Can you do us a favor?” I asked. “We’re trying to make a telephone call, but the man we got through to doesn’t speak English, and we don’t speak Hungarian. Am I talking too fast?”

“No, I understand, I think,” the girl said, with a slightly confused look on her face.

“You see, I’m trying to reach a friend of mine, but only his father is home. Could you possibly call for us and explain that we’re two American friends visiting Budapest and we’re trying to find his son?”

She looked at her friend and said something in Hungarian, then agreed to help us. We showed her to the phone, gave her the number, and watched her dial. Suddenly, she started jabbering away in Hungarian. All I could make out was igen (yes), which she repeated about a dozen times. Then she took out a pencil, scribbled something on a piece of paper, and hung up. “Your friend János is not at home. He will not be there until tomorrow,” she said in labored English. “But his father has the key to János’s apartment and you can stay there until he gets back. Here are directions to meet his father.”

Gary and I looked at each other, pleasantly surprised. We took the slip of paper from the girl, made sure we could follow it, thanked her, and went on our way. Half an hour later, János’s father greeted us as we stepped off the tram. Apparently the backpacks on our backs and the bewildered looks on our faces made it clear that we were the guys he was looking for. Our greetings and salutations were necessarily in pantomime. János’s father led us a couple of blocks to his son’s place and let us in.

The one-bedroom apartment was small but well kept. Western magazine ads hung on the walls. In one corner stood János’s desk, covered with wires, meters, and other assorted tools of his engineering trade. A bay window overlooked the front yard.

János’s father handed us the key. “Köszönöm,” we said, thanking him with the extent of our Hungarian vocabulary.

He smiled. Through a real-life game of charades, he managed to convey to us that we were welcome to sleep there and make ourselves at home.

“Köszönöm,” we said again, being about the only thing we could say. “One moment,” I added as I groped through my backpack and extracted the hat. I placed it down on the floor, showed the man our saxophones, and gestured playing in front of the hat. I shrugged my shoulders and held up my hands to indicate that we needed advice on where to play. “Where? Uh, wo? ”

“Ah! Igen, igen,” he smiled, nodding his head. He fumbled through the gadgets on János’s desk and found a slip of paper. He drew a small map for us. “You...metro... Vörösmarty tér,” he said, pointing back and forth between the two of us and the name on the map. He motioned playing a saxophone and throwing money into the hat. “Yes, is good!”

“Igen,” we smiled, nodding our heads. “We go there now. Köszönöm.” We shook his hand and were off to earn our keep in Budapest.

We had no doubts that we’d arrived at the right place when we stepped out of the subway at Vörösmarty tér. The plaza was packed with street artists of every kind, one on top of the other. In one corner, at least a dozen portrait artists busily sketched at their easels. At a table near them, two people wearing traditional Hungarian folk costumes sat and strummed on zithers while they sang along. We heard three different accordion players. Also within earshot was an old man of at least eighty years sawing away on a beat-up violin, a couple of folk guitarists, and somebody sitting on a stoop playing the spoons. Yes, the spoons! Yet all of these acts were upstaged by a flamboyant banjo player at one end of the plaza. From the waist down, this man wore a skirt and hiking boots. From his upper body protruded the arms, legs, and head of a stuffed dummy. Together, the costume made it look as if someone were sitting on an old lady’s shoulders while she played the banjo. The man kicked and danced as he strummed one or two chords on his banjo and occasionally tooted at a whistle perched near his mouth.

“No way,” Gary said, shaking his head as we scanned the plaza.

“I feel like I’m having a nightmare about the Pompidou Center!” I said. “Let’s not go through that again.”

We looked around for a place that wasn’t so crowded. Leading into the plaza we found a long, busy pedestrian zone, full of people but no other buskers. This was our pitch.

The little saxophones made a big impression. As soon as we took the instruments out of their gig bags, heads turned. Pedestrians stopped. Fingers pointed. And we loved it. This was our first time playing in the streets in a week, and we welcomed the attention. We played up to the crowd with a big flourish when we started the first piece. As the music flowed, the crowd grew to larger numbers than ever. I thought they’d start dancing in the street.

Among the words of praise between numbers came some words of warning. “Very nice,” a man said in English as he dropped a few coins into the hat. “Your music is charming, but be careful. There is much reform going on in this country, and you are allowed to play because of it, but you are only supposed to play in the plaza at the end of the street. You may be able to continue here without any trouble because you are foreigners, but you never know. If the Hungarian police want to, they can be brutal.”

Such words only added to my already vivid imagination concerning Eastern European police. Actually, I had no evidence at all to suggest that Hungarian police were different from police anywhere in Western Europe. If someone in the West told us that the police might give us trouble for playing on the street, we usually went right on playing until they did. But I didn’t feel like challenging Eastern European police any more than we already had. We excused ourselves from the audience and moved to the congested plaza.

Standing in the middle of the melee of buskers was like musical surrealism. It was impossible to isolate the sounds of only one act in the plaza; at best one could narrow it down to two or three. There were so many acts pitching that we were forced to violate the cardinal rule of busking and set up within earshot of the next guy. Such extreme circumstances demanded a deviation from the very basis of busker etiquette.

In spite of it all, we made out just fine. Even though the strains of our music got tangled up in the clatter of the guy with the spoons and the racket from grandma’s banjo, none of the passers-by seemed to mind. Evidently, Budapestians had grown accustomed to hearing their busking this way. They dropped forints into the hat as if Gary and I were the only attraction in the plaza. Our take for the afternoon translated to about ten dollars an hour apiece.

While that rate was considerably below Western European standards, it was plenty for Hungary, where we finally found those extremely cheap Eastern prices everyone told us about. We could live better on ten dollars an hour in Budapest than we could on far more money in other places. Busking success, after all, is not determined simply by the amount of money grossed. The cost of living varies widely from country to country, dramatically so between East and West. For all the money we earned in the Nordic countries, it hardly bought anything. A lot less money in a cheaper country like Spain went much further.

Busking in the East adds a few extra factors to this equation. In East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the need to show receipts for all monetary transactions defeats the purpose of busking altogether. In Hungary, the absence of that one regulation actually makes other regulations work to the busker’s advantage. The rule against taking currency out of the country, for instance, means that Westerners have to get rid of all their Hungarian money before they leave. With all the low prices in Hungary, Westerners usually have plenty of leftover forints. It is, for some mysterious reason, virtually impossible to exchange Eastern currency back into a hard currency, so visitors get stuck with money they absolutely have to spend. A perfectly logical way to get rid of it is to throw it at a street musician. The Western tourists respond to buskers the way they always have, throwing coins at Western levels. And that kind of money goes a long way in Hungary.

With the afternoon’s earnings, we took in the sights of the city. Budapest is a far cry from what the average American imagines an Eastern European city to be like. About all an American ever sees of the East are grimy black-and-white post-war photographs of impoverished, hungry people standing on food ration lines. That is hardly the case any more. A view from the castle on the hills of Buda offers a spectacular panorama of the city, overlooking the Danube that divides the city into its two halves, Buda and Pest. The ornate houses of parliament on the river bank provide the centerpiece, highlighted by several bridges spanning the Danube. The city is better viewed from afar; from up close, one sees a grimy layer of soot over everything. The buildings do not sparkle as they do from a distance. And the Danube is not even close to blue.

Hungarians themselves seem to be proud, happy people, except for the grumpy service industry workers who are resentful of Western tourists and constantly try to rip them off. Gary and I were subjected to this treatment at a restaurant where we ate. First, the waitress told us that every item on the menu except the most expensive one was unavailable. Then she tried to overcharge us on the bill. With prices being as low as they are in Hungary, even dinner at double the price is a bargain, but we just didn’t like being taken advantage of. The incident only reminded us of the treatment tourists often encounter, which we had been spared by having a native with us almost everywhere we went.

János’s arrival the next day protected us from such abuse. We found him tinkering with his electronic equipment as we returned to his apartment. He had squinting gray eyes and wore the kind of crew cut that made you want to run your fingers through it. He could have passed for a Westerner if not for those howdy-doody Eastern sneakers that were a dead giveaway.

János gave us the insider’s tour of the city, and afterwards we returned to the sole busking plaza for another pitch. The man with the dummy was still there, as were most of the other acts we had seen the day before. We placed ourselves in a spot that interfered with a minimum of surrounding buskers. We had difficulty concentrating on the music with so many distractions. While the natives were used to such busking conditions, Gary and I were not. The need to fight for attention among all the other acts made us play with an overblown, even bloated sound. But the novelty of the act still tickled the crowd. The hat filled up quickly.

“I think you did quite well,” János said as we counted up an hour’s worth of coins.

“Not too bad,” Gary said. “Looks like there’s about a thousand forints here.”

“A thousand forints!” János cried. “You made that much in an hour? I earn that much in a week!”

Now it was all starting to make sense. No wonder there were so many people busking in that plaza. By Hungarian standards, the money that could be made there was inconceivable. With all the Western tourists dropping change at Western levels, people playing on the street were earning several times the salary of skilled professionals. When word of this got out, everyone who had even the slightest bit of talent—and even a good many who had none whatsoever—put together an act and took to the plaza with it. The situation had gone to such an extreme, János told us, that the Hungarian government initiated policies to tax buskers’ incomes. I don’t know how such a matter could ever be controlled, but it shows how lucrative a proposition busking in Budapest can be.

Our brief session generated more than enough income to keep us afloat. In fact, our first two days in Budapest left us with enormous piles of coins. It was time to get rid of them. “Where’s the nearest bank, János?” I asked. “We need bills. These coins are getting heavy.”

“I’m afraid that is not so easy,” he said. “There is only one bank in Budapest that will change that many coins into bills. And we will have to wait on line at least an hour to do it.”

“An hour!?” I yelled. “How can it possibly take that long?”

“Dan, remember,” Gary said. “‘Don’t ask questions in the East.’”

We weren’t about to wait on line for that long. Our only alternative was to take the bag of change and dish out the coins little by little. We threw money at other street musicians, bought postcards and stamps and the like, and then headed for a restaurant. This time, with János around, we could rest assured that no one was going to play any games with us. But just for kicks, we decided to play a few games of our own.

“Okay, János, here’s the plan. You keep quiet and let Gary and me do all the talking with the waiter. We’ll order, we’ll ask all the questions. Don’t say anything to him until I tell you to. Got it?”

“Got it.”

The three of us entered the restaurant, sat down at a table, and looked over the menu. With a series of hand signals and individual words in assorted languages, Gary and I conveyed to the waiter that we couldn’t tell what was what and that we needed a recommendation. The waiter pointed to the most expensive item on the menu and indicated that it was a dinner for two but enough for the three of us. I was careful to ask if the price was for the whole meal or for each person. He assured us that it was for the whole meal. Through the series of grunts, groans, and garble that it took to get all this across, János sat silently.

The meal arrived shortly. The three of us enjoyed the generous helpings of roast pork with all the garnishings. Then it came time to pay for it. Sure enough, the bill totaled three times the price indicated on the menu.

“Okay, János, go ahead.” I said.

János called the waiter over, and in fluent Hungarian said, “Excuse me, sir, but I think there is a little bit of a problem with our bill. Would you mind taking another look at it so that we could straighten it out?”

The waiter turned red. He picked up the bill and turned away from the table. He returned with the waiter who had taken our order. Clever the way they work that—the one who takes your order is never the one who brings you the bill, so that any “errors” can be attributed to a misunderstanding between the two of them. That’s exactly what they told us, of course, and tried to look sincere in their apologies. The new bill was a third of the old one.

“Caught at their own game, they were,” Gary said with a triumphant grin. “Now I have no qualms at all about paying with this.” He heaved the pouch of change onto the table and dropped it with a plop.

The waiter could only stand there and watch as we made pile after pile of coins that were worth almost nothing. He was in no position to argue now. When it was all counted up, the poor fellow didn’t even check to make sure the amount was right. He just opened up the money pouch around his waist, pressed it up against the edge of the table, and shoveled the hundreds of coins into it.

“Thank you very much for a delicious meal,” we said politely as we got up to leave. “Köszönöm.”

The waiter glared at János and snapped at him in Hungarian, “I hope you never come back.”

Now, János is a good-natured fellow. He rarely gets angry. But he didn’t like that comment at all. If the waiter tried to rip us off, that was understandable. If he was resentful that he stepped into our trap, that was understandable, too. But to make a nasty remark like that was completely uncalled for. János exploded. He turned bright red as he went nose-to-nose with the waiter. He hollered, screamed, ranted and raved in a Hungarian that I was better off not understanding. The entire restaurant turned to watch. János then marched over to the maître d’ and demanded the complaint register. By law, every public Hungarian establishment is required to have such a register in which the customer can document his grievances. János filled up every square inch of the form with a long and detailed account of the affair. We stormed out of the restaurant in a rage.

A couple of months later, János sent me a letter telling me the incident’s outcome. The waiter had been demoted to a dishwasher.

Did that waiter get what was coming to him? Or did he get caught in a trap? It is unfortunate that the Hungarian service industry so often tries to take advantage of Western tourists. I had been victimized by their tricks and had heard several stories about others who had been as well. Anyone who has ever been in a foreign country knows the defenseless feeling of being ripped off and not being able to do anything to stop it. There in the restaurant, we did have a way to stop it. Yet no dramatic action would have taken place had the waiter not initiated the process himself. That waiter will think twice before he tries to play games again.

A few deceitful waiters weren’t going to spoil our time in Budapest. The rest of the Hungarians we had contact with were cheerful and friendly. They seemed to be proud of their country and its rich cultural heritage. We discovered how much support there was for that culture when we went into the biggest music store in the country for our standard music shopping spree. I have never seen musical scores at such reasonable prices. I was surprised to see such a wealth of materials in the East. Yet resources for the arts in the East are plentiful; that is one of the areas where the government chooses to spend its money. The public, in turn, has ready access to the arts and probably the highest cultural literacy in the world.

Gary and I went crazy in this music store and bought all the orchestral scores that were prohibitively expensive back home. We each snatched up over two dozen of them, cleaning us out of all our money. We had to borrow from János to pay for it all. János gladly obliged, under the condition that we paid him back in hard currency. Such entrepreneurial wheeling and dealing was a necessity for János. He needed all the hard currency he could get for a trip to the West that he was planning for later in the summer.

This was, in the strictest sense of the word, black-marketeering. Technically, it was illegal to exchange money anywhere but in a bank. It didn’t matter that János gave us the official bank rate rather than the higher black-market rate; this was an “unofficial” currency exchange. Yet without it, János would never be able to travel abroad. He is theoretically allowed to leave Hungary as often as he likes, but can only exchange 300 American dollars every three years. Since Hungarian forints are not exchangeable outside of Hungary, he has to acquire more hard currency through these unofficial transactions. Even for those who have no desire to leave the country, a pressing need for hard currency persists. All of the most desirable consumer goods are available only in the “dollar shops,” where hard currency is required for all purchases. The system is arranged such that one has to break the rules just to get by.

The obsession with hard currency has gone to such an extreme that it affects the psyche of Eastern people. We saw evidence of this even as we played in the streets. An American girl came by on our last day of busking and dropped an American dollar into the hat. Every Eastern head turned. I immediately pocketed the bill. Who knows what would have happened if I had left it there. The bizarre circumstances in Budapest had not only forced us to violate the cardinal rule of busking by playing within earshot of the next guy, now we had to also violate our personal rule of never handling money in public.

To make matters worse, our earnings in that final session accumulated at half the rate of other busking in Budapest. Normally we could live with the lower income, but this time we needed cash for our train tickets back to the West. Just when we were depending on the money, it accumulated more slowly.

“This shouldn’t be,” Gary complained after an hour in the plaza. “All the conditions are good—the weather’s nice, it’s a busy time of day, and we have a central spot here. Why is this happening?”

We looked up at each other, shook our heads, and said in unison, “‘Don’t ask questions in the East.’”

We had to play for almost three hours before we had enough money for our tickets. I was so tired by the time we finished that I was uncontrollably blowing as much air outside my instrument as into it.

The painfully slow ticket line that we found at the train station deflated what little spirits we had left. Not another line! Everywhere we went, lines, lines, lines. I don’t understand how anyone can deal with the hassles.

Actually, no Westerner could hope to visit the East for a week and come away with a thorough understanding of how things worked. I ended up leaving more confused than before I arrived. But I did learn that if socialism worked properly, it would heal a lot of the ills that plague the capitalist system. The socialist countries offer a constitutional guarantee against unemployment, assure medical treatment, and provide free education for everyone. In the process, crime, illiteracy, and economic class divisions almost disappear. But socialism hasn’t lived up to those ideals. Productivity is low, shortages abound, currencies are worthless internationally, and the pervasive inefficiency and confusion makes travel more a test of patience than anything else. The sojourn that Gary and I made through the East opened our eyes to it all, frequently shocked us, and most importantly, made us thankful. By the time we left, we felt deeply grateful for the bounty of privileges we had—privileges that all of us, all too often, take for granted.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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