Driving in the old country is tougher than I remember

By John Toth
Bulletin Publisher

I’m in Budapest, Hungary, driving alongside some crazy people.

There are rules, but it seems like no one is bothered by them. Motorcyclists are all over the place, weaving in and out of lanes. The lanes are narrow, and often shared by street car tracks.

I’m back here after 17 years, driving a stick-shift Fiat that is small, but it will do for a while. There are very few large cars here, mostly because gas costs around $9 per gallon. Parking in the center of the city also is very expensive.

This is an old city not built for driving. The streets wind in all directions. There is no telling where you may wind up if you make a wrong turn.

I’m used to cities being laid out in grids, or like Lake Jackson, in circles (well, almost circles). I’m used to being able to make a few right turns and get back on the right road.

This is a nightmare for American drivers (like many European cities). I’ve done it before, and I am having a lot of trouble trying to figure out how this game is played.

The top unofficial rule has to be that everyone must try to be first to reach the next traffic light. The winning car with the most aggressive driver then gets to collect his winnings, which is to sit at the light until it changes. Men here drive more aggressively than women, but that’s everywhere.

Once a car is stops at the light, the next objective is to set a new record as to how fast the car can cross the intersection. The light helps here a little, because from red it goes back to yellow, and then to green.
The yellow allows engines to be revved in expectation of the green, and then it’s off to the races.

I feel like many of these drivers are closet Speed Racers or reliving daily their failed dreams to be NASCAR drivers.

And, there are the pedestrians. Some of them think they can one-up the race car drivers by very slowly crossing the road while licking an ice cream cone. It took this guy forever, and he was crossing at an angle. By the time he reached the sidewalk, the cone had to have melted.

I was patient at first, but even this even-tempered American driver had enough. I started beeping my horn and gestured with my hands as if saying: “Hey, if you walk any slower, you’d be walking #%@ backwards.”

I don’t know what he said back, but judging from his ice cream-covered moving lips, it must not have been anything pleasant.

I would have just waited him out, but my cousin had rubbed off on me. I let him drive the car for a couple of days when we went site-seeing. He is a retired city bus driver, so I thought if anyone would be able to handle this city, he would.

Let’s just say that I am glad to be alive. Now I know why the car has a handle above each window. A smart passenger hangs on to it all the time, and for good reason.

If someone cut him off, or came too close for comfort, this jovial, even-tempered man took the law into his own hands. And, it doesn’t help that he is showing us the sites while we’re approaching a line of cars waiting for the light to change. The brakes work good in this Fiat.

At least I didn’t have to worry about where we were going. The street signs here are posted on the buildings, not at the corners or hanging above the intersection.

They are hard to see during the day, and next to impossible to see at night.

Unless you are from the city, there is no way to know which street is which. That’s why I brought a GPS. Downloading the European map for $100 is the best decision I made before embarking on this trip.

But, there is a penalty to pay for using a GPS. It’s very accurate and never failed me, but to a local driver, a GPS is like giving in – amateur hour.

“Why did you turn it on? I know where I’m going,” my cousin asked.

“I just want to play with it, to see what streets we’re on.”

“I’m not taking directions from that thing.”

We’re making a few turns downtown and come to an intersection.

“Which way should we go? I don’t come down here that often,” my cousin said.

Why don’t you turn right, I said. That street will take us to the bridge.

Silence - although just for a few seconds.

A victory for the tourist.