Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport, Montreal, Tuesday November 6th 13:30
Are plane seats getting smaller and smaller, or am I get bigger? I mean, I'm not a big person, but the width of my shoulders spills out past both edges of my seat. Sitting on a Delta Airlines flight from Montreal to New York - the first half of a trip to Budapest for the World Science Forum, thanks to of UNESCO and the World Academy of Young Scientists - I'm in a aisle seat (utterly necessary, as I get up as often as prescribed by my claustrophobia and small bladder), near the middle of the plane. Oddly, I'm in a very good mood, though I'm uncertain as to why exactly. I found a great power suit foraging through my Dad's old closet that turned out to be a perfect fit, the weather was beautiful, I'm looking rather dapper if I don't say so myself, and the very cute, latin-looking flight attendant keeps smiling at me. Preparing for takeoff, she approaches the people sitting a couple rows in front of me...
Her: Hi, you're sitting in an exit aisle. Are you aware on what you need to do if we have an emergency, or would you like me to give you instructions?
Them: No, thank you, we already know how it works.
Me, looking right at her, totally deadpan, from about 3 rows back: Actually, I would like to hear instructions.
The middle-aged guys in front give out a good laugh, and she smiles and her nice cheeks turns bright red. We make small talk every time she passes by after that.
This seems like the start of a nice trip. :) The nice lady at the Delta Airlines counter had even gone out of her way to change my seats so that I would have more legroom on all my flights.
I've only got one person next to me, a friendly and quiet chap from Morocco who now lives in San Diego and speaks some Spanish. We talk about our travels in English, French and Spanish, and I try my best with some Arabic phrases I know. After the take-off, I start reading Anthony Bourdain's "Around the World on an Empty Stomach", the excellent photo journal of his "No Reservations" show. I've barely been out of Montreal an hour and already a photo of poutine gives me an instant craving for some fried potatoes smothered in semi-melted cheese curds and thick, dark gravy. Weak, weak, weak Steven.
JFK Airport, New York, Tuesday November 6th 16:00
The flight is over in less than two hours, and I'm wandering around the sterile hallways of JFK airport in New York looking for a bite to eat. Airport food is second only in crappiness to Airplane food, and with my flight's departure only a short while away, I'm forced to choose between two evils: Chili's or Burger King. I stop in at Chili's and have a salad - along with an enormous glass of beer to drown the terrible salad. Actually, it's not that it's terrible: it's just completely monotonous and devoid of any real 'taste' or identity, like every other food chain in the US. The placement of every grain of cheese and shred of lettuce seems to have been decided by old, balding white men in matching suits to cater to some meathead from the American Midwest named Chad who drives a modified SUV with chrome wheels.
The overnight flight from New York to Budapest was slightly less comfortable. I cannot, for the life of me, fall asleep on a plane. The night before, I purposely slept only about 3 hours so that I'd be dead tired enough to sleep on the flight. No dice - my co-passengers made sure I'd be wide awake for most of the flight... featuring such lovable classics as the 7 year old laughing hysterically at the not-so-funny in-flight movie, the guy behind me sleep-kicking my seat presumably during a bad nightmare, and, worst of all, the big old lady with indescribably thick makeup coughing up a lung without covering her mouth. I suppose people like her are the European equivalent of the crazy, neon-colored 300-year-old American grannies you find on most flights to Las Vegas.
I manage to pass the time on the 8-hour or so flight with a combination of getting some work done, writing notes, listening to Gotan Project, Thievery Corporation and Nouvelle Vague, and playing Advanced Wars on my Nintendo DS.
Ferihegy Airport, Budapest, Wednesday November 7th, 09:30
I arrive at the shiny, sparkly, modern Ferihegy (which I inevitably mispronounce "Ferengi") airport in Budapest, just as I remember it when I was here exactly two years ago for the same conference. It's basically like being trapped inside a giant iPhone: rounded corners, glass, sterile cheap plastic and brushed metal, maddeningly abstracted icons and logos, smudgy fingerprints, bad design and fascism. ;)
They had one line open for the passport check, which meant about an hour waiting in line. They spent lots of time interrogating everyone, but when it came to my turn, I just said I was here for the Science Conference, and the girl stamped my passport and sent me on my way. I guess she mistook me for some sort of foreign dignitary or something. Hell, I mistake myself for that sometimes.
The ride in the spartan minibus to the Mercure Buda City Centre hotel was, thankfully, uneventful. I checked in, paid $20 for a 5-hour slow-ass internet access card, made my way upstairs, and crashed in the comfortable bed. Six hours later I woke up feeling much, much better than I did when I arrived. I put all my stuff away, tidied up a little, and snacked on some peanuts and cookies stolen from the plane. Before any of this, though, I plugged in my laptop (using my horrible, horrible home-made hack of a european power adapter that somehow didn't cause my laptop to immediately explode upon plugging it in), fired up Banshee, and spun some Dinah Washington and Antonio Carlos Jobin. I took a nice shower and got dressed - triple black, if you want to fit in on a cold, rainy, Gotham City-esque Budapest November night - with Dinah Washington's "Trouble in mind" still playing on my laptop's great Hi-Fi speakers. I looked in the mirror, and it was one of those moments when you say to yourself, "This is close to who I'm supposed to be. This is me."
Everyone has a telos.
I wandered out into the grim, gritty Budapest night, the light rain slowly turning into a hazy mist that hangs just above your head. Only neon advertising signs and the occasional fashion posted broke up the monochrome, faded walls of steel-grey and dark pewter.
Then, suddenly, two very attractive 20- or 30-something girls stopped and started talking to me in Hungarian, then in English, asking about me, where I'm from, what I was up to, if I want to go for a drink. Now, it was pretty clear to me that they were escorts, and I have a mental block with that sort of thing. I always imagine the girl as someone's sister or daughter, firstly, but more importantly, the idea of paying for sex is completely unfathomable to me. I would never degrade myself or someone in that way, and I can't ever imagine myself being emotionally bankrupt enough to bribe someone for companionship.
Funny thing is, the exact same thing happened two more times, with two other couples of girls. It goes something like this:
- [unintelligible hungarian question]?
- I'm sorry, I don't speak Hungarian.
- Oh, I sorry! Where is you from?
- Umm, from Canada.
- Ah, Canada, I like! Toronto?
- No, um, Montreal. I'm sorry, I have to get back now.
- Do you have map Budapest? We looking for some place like pub to go.
- I don't, sorry... ummm, don't you live here?
- No, I speak Hungarian but from Italy... you like Italy?
- Sorry, I really have to go, have a good night.
I suppose I could've just ignored them completely and kept walking, but I find it's a pretty cold thing to do, not to acknowledge another human being, even though they're obviously trying to get something from you. I have to say that the last girl that spoke to me before I got back to my hotel, though, was stunningly beautiful - an Alicia Silverstone look-alike with darker hair and light blue eyes. To have a little fun I said I was from Cuba instead of Canada, to which she replies "Que bien! Hablas espanol? A Donde va?".
Totally called my bluff.
I then stopped into the "Havana Cafe" (no joke), and had what may possibly be the second-worst mojito I've ever ingested. How do you fuck up a Mojito? It's rum and mint, fer crissakes. I chased it down with some mediocre Hungarian beer and a much better gulash.
Now I'm back in my hotel, procrastinating on work, and listening to Lil Rob... realizing that somehow, even the best reggaeton doesn't make me feel as badass as some smooth, wailing jazz from long before I was born.