Reporter/tourist sees Europe in a different light

By John Toth
Bulletin Publisher

I’m driving along a major thoroughfare in Budapest, Hungary, when we come up to a red light. I look to the left, and in the median, there are a couple of young men with squeegees washing car windshields while the light is red.

I haven’t seen much of this since the 1970s when I lived in New York. I could hardly drive a block back then without someone wanting to clean my windshield.

I’m hoping the light will change, and I can just slip past the windshield cleaners. They’re closing in on me. One more car, and I’m it.

I don’t mind a clean windshield, but this is uncomfortable. Plus, the guys are rushing it. I can see that they left streaks on the windshield of the car before me.

How much is this shoddy job worth? What if I don’t have any change or small bills?

Come on light, change already.

The driver of the car in front of me is getting ready to give the guys some change for their unsolicited trouble. I am next. The light changes. I’m out of here.

This is a hard way to make a little money. Actually, it’s begging. Not the type of begging where you just sit on the street corner and hold a tin cup out, but it is begging.

Beggars were common in the cities in which I was visited. In Vienna and Budapest, I saw them every day. They worked the subway and street cars as well as the streets.

In Budapest, a woman laid on the ground in a downtown shopping plaza and prayed with a tin cup and a small child by her. I dropped the equivalent of a couple of dollars in the cup.

My cousin told me that she probably works for someone who puts her and other beggars out at certain spots each morning. At the end of the day, he said, she gets picked up and gives all her money to her boss, or whatever they call the guy who oversees the beggars.

“She looks so desperate,” I said. “I wanted to do something.”

You can’t give to all of them, he replied, and told me to just go past them.

I’m enjoying our first day in a nice lakeside resort town. After eating breakfast, I start up a conversation with the lady who attends to the guests in the morning.

I talk about how poor I was living in Hungary in the 1960s, and how nice it is now.

She is very friendly and begins to tell me about how there is no opportunity in the country, how her paycheck barely covers bills. Her grown children are working in Western countries in Europe.

At the end of the conversation, I take $20 from by wallet and try to give it to her. She refuses.

“I didn’t say it because of that,” she says. “I tried to let you know how the average person lives here.”
I like the service, and I’ll be here for a few more days, so consider it a tip, I said. I put it in her apron pocket. I could see tears swelling in her eyes.

So, European countries have their own problems, as we have ours.

As I’m writing this, London, right in the middle of the tourist season, is burning nightly as looters are confronting police.

A few days after I landed back in the U.S., Anders Behring decided to blow up downtown Oslo and then kill a total of 93 people, including 85 youth in a summer camp.

The European Union is trying to figure out how to pull some of its member countries out of a huge financial mess. Some of the biggest banks are in deep trouble. Europe’s crisis is dragging our stock market down, like we really need any help when it comes to doing that.

The immigration problem in Europe is out of control. Gas is more than twice as much as here. Except for major highways, many of the roads I traveled on were poorly maintained and very bumpy.

I’m not putting Europe down. I enjoy visiting there, and I’ll be back many more times. But the grass is not greener on the other side. It’s just different.