A week in Uncle Peppe’s condo in Florida was just enough for a great honeymoon as far as Ray was concerned. He had little money, few vacation days and he’d never been to Disney World. Angie’s father had enough frequent flyer points to send the two of them to Europe but Ray had too much pride. Angie went along with his wishes and they did have a marvelous time but she continued to yearn for a more exotic trip.  It took about six months for her to wear her new husband down to the point where he would allow his father-in-law to spring for airfare to and from Vienna.


For the first four days they prowled Vienna and what they saw and did may be explored at a later juncture. By the fourth night Angie was eyeing the bus tour brochures for some day trips to nearby places.


Hungary,” she announced to Ray over their evening’s tafelspitz (a boiled beef dish they were indulging in so as to have a break from wiener schnitzel).


“Yeah, I know. They never give you big enough portions.” Ray sopped a piece of dark, dense bread into the soupy beef juices. 


Angie chuckled. Ray was just being Ray. In every place they stopped to eat in Vienna the food was abundant as well as tasty.


“No, Ray. The country Hungary. They’ve got a one-day trip to Budapest and they’ll pick us up right at the hotel. Look, it’s not all that expensive.” She held the brochure out for him to see but he waved it away. Scheduling the activities was her task. His role was to tag along after and complain about minor inconveniences and perceived tourist rip-offs. The higher-pitched the whine, the better time he was having.


“I’d like to see the Hungarian steppes,” Angie added.


Ray looked puzzled. “Hungarian stairs are different?” European toilets he had experience with, even before first coming to Vienna, from family trips home to Naples, but he couldn’t recall anything unusual about the steps in Europe. Elevators, yes some of them were old-fashioned, but . . .


“Ignoramus,” she teased him. “Steppes are plains. Flat land. Prairies, sort of. Do you want to go?”


Ray grunted affirmative around a mouthful of beef. “Whatever”.




The tour bus picked them up early, seven in the morning. The three hour bus ride did indeed take them through flat territory and Ray was singularly unimpressed by most of the scenery: oil refineries, outlet malls on the outskirts of Vienna, giving over to very uninteresting flatlands as they got out into the country.  “This could be anywhere back home,” he grumbled pleasantly.


They passed an area with dozens of windmills, tall white poles with devices on top that looked like airplane propellers. Ray had to admit it was mildly interesting. After they crossed the Hungarian border both he and Angie became bored with the flat steppes and drifted off to sleep.


The tour guide woke them up at one point to sell them on a typical Hungarian lunch the tour company was offering. “It will be at the ‘Restaurant Hungaria’” she said drawing out the name importantly, “Hun-gah-ree-ah” as though it were a location of renown. Angie decided they would buy into it, rather than go to the trouble of looking around for lunch on their own. Ray took the opportunity to grouse over the high price.


“Oh, come on Ray, how can you pass up the Restaurant Hun-gah-ree-ah? All the others are going, we may as well too.”


It wasn’t a very busy tour, being off season and on a Thursday. Besides Ray and Angie “all the others” were, in fact, a dozen very nice Japanese ladies, all of whom were wearing turtleneck sweaters.


The monotonous landscape was finally relieved by a few isolated hills as they approached Budapest. The guide explained that the city was an amalgamation of two older cities, one on each side of the Danube River. The “Buda” side of the river was hilly and the “Pest” side was flat.


As they took their preliminary drive around the city before stopping for lunch the tour guide kept  repeating, “After this drive we will head towards the Restaurant Hungaria. . .”, “In half an hour when we reach the Restaurant Hungaria . . .” and “Now after we leave this square we will head over to the Restaurant Hungaria . . .” and so on. Ray and Angie, snuggling in the back of the bus, mocked her sotto voce as they rode along.


Oooh, Ray, we’re getting close to the Restaurant Hun-gah-ree-ah,” Angie crooned, setting them both giggling.


Eventually the bus pulled over at the side of a busy downtown street. Ray and Angie looked out the bus window and, both at the same moment, burst into hysterical laughter. The very typical Restaurant Hungaria was apparently the hotel restaurant in a Best Western.


The newlyweds trooped out of the bus with the other passengers, sniggering and punching each other as they went inside to the hotel restaurant. They shared a table with four of the Japanese ladies. Looking around at the whole group, Ray noticed that each had a turtleneck sweater of a different colour and design. At their table there was a rust-red sweater, a brown one, a blue one and one grey one with a reindeer design.


The Japanese ladies spoke little English but they and the Vecchios smiled and nodded all around the table in universal expressions of friendliness. First drinks were distributed, and then the waiters served the first course which was acceptably typically Hungarian - goulash.


The soup was bright red and deeply greasy but it was chock full of meat, potatoes and veggies. The ladies at the table (excluding Angie) all eyed Ray, somehow endowing him with leader status, and waited for him to take the first slurp before starting to eat. Only the lady in the reindeer sweater, sitting to Ray’s right, paused before eating pulled out a camera. She took a picture of the soup, to the approval of the other ladies who seemed to wish they had thought of it themselves.


It had been a long time since breakfast. Ray snatched the largest hunk of bread in the table’s breadbasket and dipped it into his soup before conveying it, bright red and sogging, to his mouth. The Japanese ladies took note of Ray’s action. After a brief pause, the one in the rust-red sweater took a piece of bread and followed Ray’s example. One by one other ladies were emboldened to follow suit and soon bread was bobbing delicately between soup and mouths.


There hadn’t been enough bread in the basket. It was quickly emptied. Angie sensed disappointment at the table but also that none of the ladies were inclined to ask one of the many hovering waiters for a refill. She nudged Ray with her elbow and inclined her eyes to the empty basket.


Ray knew no Hungarian and the fact that these waiters also spoke English mattered to him not at all. He simply seized the basket and brandished it aloft while the Angie beamed her approval and the Japanese ladies smiled shyly down at their soup bowls. Within a few minutes they had a new basket piled high and continued with their group dipping and munching.


Ray felt like such a hero he didn’t even bother to complain that the roast pork was dry, the potatoes underdone and the dobosh cake for desert was stale.


Each course was duly recorded on film by the lady in the reindeer sweater. “I wonder if we should ask her to mail us prints.” Ray asked Angie mischievously and she answered by slapping him, lightly, upside the head.


Ray declined coffee upon learning that there would be an extra charge for it. This earned him another loving punishment for being cheap.


After lunch two new city guides joined their bus tour: one that could speak English and one that could speak Japanese. Thus did Ray and Angie acquire a private guide for the rest of the afternoon. Their English-speaking guide shooed them to the back of the bus where the three of them could hear one another easily.


They were still on the Pest side of the river and the tour bus drove them past gothic churches, impressive squares left over from the Soviet era, and the world’s second largest synagogue.  As they drove, the new guide intoned the same spiel she would have given a busload of tourists, even though only Angie and Ray were her audience. From time to time one of the Vecchios would interrupt her with a specific question. It took three or four of those interruptions before she relaxed and just chatted with them as they drove along. The sounds of the Japanese-speaking guide instructing his dozen very nice ladies formed a constant gentle background music.


About 2 pm the bus crossed the river to the Buda side of the Danube. Ray and Angie enjoyed the view of white stone lookout points of classical design and impressive statues up on the rocky hillside. There were also neighbourhoods of expensive houses and the obligatory castle. The bus let everyone off near a castle/museum complex. The Japanese-speaking guide led his charges off down a cobble-stoned street. But Ray and Angie’s guide motioned them to stay back.


“Do you want to go shopping?” she asked them.


Both Vecchios shook their heads. They wanted to sight-see. Their guide nodded sagely and led them off in an opposite direction. She walked them through the old city on the hillside, pointing out the most interesting of the churches and then took them to a look-out point called Fisherman’s Bastion.


Angie squealed with delight when they first saw it and even Ray had to admit it was a charmingly little place. It was a series of white stone terraces with small towers and balconies looking out over the Danube and across to the other side of river, giving a view of the graceful bridges and church spires below. It seemed too new and clean to be very ancient. The guide told them it had been built in 1904 for tourists. Wide stair cases led up to the terraces and down to little sheltered spots.


“Stay here,” Angie ordered her husband and dashed off to one of the stairways. She fairly flew up to the nearest balcony. Ray smiled to himself. She was having so much fun, looking so happy and child-like.


Angie got up to the first level and leaned over the balcony. It looked like she was perched on a wedding cake with balustrades all around. She waved to Ray to come closer and pointed to a spot on the ground just below her. Ray wandered over and took position just under the balcony.


Angie leaned over the railing and held her arms out towards him theatrically. “Oh Vecchio, Vecchio, wherefore art thou Vecchio?” she called out, laughing.


“I art here, Ange!” He called back, matching her laugh. He clasped one hand to his breast and held out the other to Angie in a melodramatic pose. The guide stood by taking in the little scene and thinking her own thoughts in Hungarian.


Angie giggled and beckoned Ray to her. He ran up the white stone stairs to where she waited. They hugged and kissed and then went over to the other side of the balcony to look out over the city together.


The guide left them alone for twenty minutes to enjoy the scenery and each other before calling to them to come down – it was time to walk back to where the bus was waiting.  The dozen Japanese ladies, led by their guide, arrived a few minutes later from another direction, chattering happily and clutching their shopping bags. Everybody got back into the bus.


Back down the hill and back across the river to the Pest side they all went and the bus stopped in a large city square surrounded by hotels and coffee shops. There, their private city guide explained that she was now leaving them and that they would have about an hour and a half of free time before heading back to Vienna. She pointed in one direction and indicated a pedestrian street that would be good for shopping. Then she pointed in another direction and told them the main city market could be found about ten minutes walk along.


They said their farewells to the guides. Then the gaggle of Japanese ladies drifted off to the pedestrian mall. After brief consultation, Ray and Angie decided to check out the market instead and see what kind of Hungarian wares were on display and how low a price Ray might be able to haggle to get some.


The Market building was a full block in size. Ray and Angie stopped to admire its beautiful mosaic tiled roof before heading into the drafty old building. On the main floor were produce, meat, and paprika. Bunches of dried red peppers and garlic hung from the outside of most of the stalls. Paprika was displayed in every conceivable size of package in powdered and paste form. Angie couldn’t resist buying a tube of spicy red goo.


The meat stalls fascinated them. Huge geese hung by their necks all around. Several of the butchers were selling drumsticks the length of Ray’s arm. Angie stopped beside one such display and stared, amazed.


“That wouldn’t even fit in my stove,” she marveled. “How would you even cook that?”


In the basement were stalls selling fish. The fish were also huge to Ray and Angie’s eyes.  The very top level, however, was given over to dry goods – embroidered tablecloths, clothes, crystal, souvenirs of various kinds. By this time both Ray and Angie were too tired. But the prices, even before haggling, were much lower than those in Vienna.  They paused over a display of tablecloths. Angie picked up one of white lace with pale green embroidery.


“Ange, we’ve got a million of those from my mother AND from your mother,” Ray protested.


“I don’t have a green one like this. It’s pretty,” Angie countered. “It goes with your eyes.”  Then to make him feel all manly and in control she asked him to do the bargaining on her behalf.


Finally they realized it was time to head back to the tour bus and they toddled off. They were half way back to the bus when Angie realized that Ray had put the lace tablecloth in the same bag as the paprika paste and rescued the former from any chance of defilement by the latter.

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