Category Archives: 2011: Slovakia & Hungary

The Mission Profile Said: Proceed with Caution — in Event of Hostility, Withdraw

Everywhere we traveled in Europe, we were met with kindness. The hospitality was amazing. People were invariably friendly and outgoing.

It’s not like we get rebuffed in the States, but there was a level of acceptance that amazed me. In Kunova Teplica, Slovakia, we ended up introducing ourselves to the town mayor, who has the same last name as Linda.

We explained that Linda’s family was from the area, and that we wondered if we were related, and he invited us in. His family started giving us tea and cookies and took out family photo albums. It turned out that he and Linda are cousins.

I wonder how things would have played out had the situation been reversed — a foreign family in the U.S. looking for relatives.

In Szalonna, Hungary, one of the townspeople took a liking to Linda.

The Moment That Freezes

August 2009: I nearly got us killed on the motorcycle in Hungary.

It was one of those humbling Oh My God did I really do that moments that never really leave you, but instead are called up by memory usually in the dead of night when you’re trying to get back to sleep. There are hard lessons learned in such moments, but they’ll haunt you.

It happens while we’re riding to Miskolc, a good-sized town about 112 miles from Budapest. We’re traveling from Kunova Teplica, Slovakia, where we visit Linda’s relatives, really nice people we haven’t seen since our first encounter in 2006.

We leave Kunova Teplica around 5 or 6 p.m. The sun is fading, but it’s only 50 miles to the hotel so I’m not really worried, even running in the dark. We’ve taken the bike from Vienna to Piestany to Zvolen to here, about 270 miles, and everything has gone smoothly. Even on the two-lane Slovak roads, which gave me the most foreboding, present no difficulty. I’ve been careful to move to the right when cars want through and drivers pass us with care.

Two-lane roads weave through the countryside that Slovakia and Hungary share. It reminds me of southwestern Pennsylvania. The towns are small and dimly lit and rear up in front of us as we approach and fade away in my mirrors as we sweep through.

It’s dark by the time we cross the border, marked by a ghostly abandoned station that I would stop to examine if it weren’t so late. It’s easy to imagine barriers and soldiers with rifles, the whole Checkpoint Charlie thing.

But that was in the past. Tonight we speed through unhindered.

We reach Miskolc a short time later and Linda guides me from the passenger seat as we move through town.

We’re making good time and I have only to cross one intersection and make two left turns before we’re at our hotel — the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel és Étterem. The intersection is just ahead, a four-lane city street with a flashing yellow light so naturally I slow a bit to look for crossing traffic…

…and two cars from nowhere rocket through the intersection in front of us. I jump on both brakes, front and rear, and the BMW noses down and Linda slams into my back as we skid to a halt. I’m standing over the saddle with both boots on the ground and twin deathgrips on the clutch and brake levers. Below me, the bike is idling quietly at a thousand rpm but the adrenalin is surging. “Jesus Christ! What was that?” I yell inside my helmet and a few more cars race by.

“I don’t know!” Linda yells and I look at the lights and realize there are flashing yellow lights for the entire intersection. What is this, a malfunction?

Then I see the triangular YIELD sign, big as a billboard, on the street post. Instead of a flashing red to make you stop, the Hungarians use a flashing yellow and a yield sign.

I didn’t see it.

I didn’t see it, and by not seeing it I came within seconds of sailing us into oblivion in the intersection, where we would have been broadsided by Hungarian Speed Racers in black BMW sedans. It would have been my fault. I could have killed us both. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t, months later, where the memory of those cars still makes me wince.

I thought I was doing pretty well on these European roads, but if I missed that, what else am I capable of missing and with what consequences?

We arrive safely at the Öreg Miskolcz Hotel a few minutes later and the night clerk is very kind and opens a gray gate and has me bring the bike inside. The building is old and Old-World elegant. Our room is on the fifth floor and is warm and stuffy so we leave the window open and I’m tired but can’t sleep and lie awake for hours, listening to the traffic rushing through the Hungarian night.

Night Wind Points Motorcycle Over Lost Country Road in Angel Zen Adventure

Other than a near-crash or a breakdown, there are few things as panic-inducing as getting lost on a motorcycle in a strange place. Especially in a foreign country.

I got us lost in Slovakia after crossing the Mária Valéria bridge over the Danube River from Estergom, Hungary, into Štúrovo. We were heading for Zvolen, running in the dark and looking for Highway 76.

We were due at my second cousin’s house in Zvolen that evening and we were already late.

We want 76 because it’s a two-lane state highway but I take a wrong turn and end up on 564, which serves tiny towns and is more like a country road with lots of twists and turns … no open gas stations and no streetlights.

It’s a damn dark night, broken only by the distant lights of 76 and the occasional car that sweeps past us. No markers that we can see, even when I have the bike’s high beams on. For a while I have only the vaguest idea of where we are.

That’s an odd feeling. In between towns, it feels as if we are still and everything else is moving around us, like a rock in a black river. The worst part happens when I go left when I should have gone right and we realize I’ve lost 564 and have to turn around. Now I really didn’t know where we are.

I pull into the first narrow sideroad I can find and have Linda get off so I can turn the bike around. I’m so frustrated I lose it and start cussing through the open helmet visor at everything and as she gets back on Linda says, “there’s a woman standing over there.”

And so there is, a nameless Slovak woman doing something in her yard in the dark, staring at us as if we’re madmen.

Which I am. Doubtless she heard my American English. So now, in addition to getting us lost and making us even later than we were, I’m on the verge of creating an international incident.

Linda taps me on the shoulder, indicating she’s securely on the bike, and I get the hell out of there. I am so ashamed I think of going back to apologize but I’d probably make things worse so I keep going.

Eventually we hit 75 and take it west to connect with E77. I see gas station lights in Tupá so we stop there to refuel.

The gas station is a BP and I need to call my cousins in Zvolen, but the station is playing American music — “Two Hearts” by Phil Collins — on the pump loudspeakers and it’s really loud so I have to take the cell phone to the edge of the parking lot just to hear.

I get hold of my cousin Lubicka and after some translation she kindly tells me not to worry about us being late and just to continue to Zvolen.

So we do, riding up E77, passing late-night crowds of kids congregating on small-town streets who turn to watch us zoom through into the dark. It is nearly midnight by the time we get to Zvolen, but we are welcomed all the same.