Monday, January 02, 2006

When in Hungary, Do What the Hungarians Do!

To fully appreciate this posting, here's some background info:
  • I won’t swim in a hotel pool because I know every kid in the lower 48 has peed in it.
  • I don’t like buffets, because I can’t stand the “community” aspect of the food. There is always some item that has been dripped/dropped/dragged into the food item I want to eat.
  • I consider a hot tub to be one giant petri dish for the cultivation of some virulent strain of bacteria/virus/fungus (take your pick) for which no antibiotic will kill or cure, and which most assuredly, will attack the very parts of my body that I wouldn’t want a doctor to examine.
  • Dan and I live (some of the time) near the Pacific Ocean, but I refuse to so much as dip a toe into it, because I have seen what the homeless guys at the end of the OB Pier use it for.
  • I haven’t put on a swimsuit in over 3 years.
  • Dan is, quite possibly, one of the shyest people I have ever met. (For those of you struggling with this one, it is very much true!)
  • Dan hates to be in unfamiliar situations about as much as he hates to be in situations that he can’t control. (I doubt any of you are struggling with this one!)

Before we left for Budapest, I bought one of Rick Steves’ travel books and there was an article on the famed Hungarian Baths (which are basically centuries-old pools fed by thermal water piped from wells 3000 feet under ground). Dan and I kicked around the idea of going to the baths - which explains why he packed a swimsuit – and we decided that we would play it by ear. I no longer trust my ear.

Once in Budapest, we had some spare time and decided, at the very least, we would go to the Baths and give it the old look-see. For reasons I still can’t understand, much less articulate, we did not go to the Baths described in Rick Steves’ book as a “near spa-like” experience. No, we opted for the Szechenyi Baths – “where the locals go.” (Note for future reference: "spa" always trumps "locals".)

We stood outside the Bath Complex, in the freezing cold, for about 10 minutes debating whether we could actually go through with it. I don’t know if it was curiosity or the fear of frostbite, but we finally agreed to go in, so at the very least, we could say that we had been “inside” the Baths. We opened the doors and stepped into a huge foyer. No view of the “baths”. Still not knowing what to expect, we walked around reading signs - lots of time in front of the one listing the chemical components of the waters - and trying to talk the other into and/or out of going through with this whole crazy experience.

Twenty minutes later, we overcame, through delusion, denial, persuasion, or otherwise, the above-listed impediments and convinced each other that we could do it. Dammit, we were players in the game of life, not just spectators! After we paid our money and gained access into the inner doors, it hit me, I mean really hit me --- I didn’t have a swimsuit.

Fortunately, (or unfortunately as the case turned out) the Complex had swimsuits. We were directed to a little counter where I met Helga, the Hungarian swimsuit attendant. (I’m sure whatever visual image the name “Helga” conjured up for you, is close to being correct!)

Helga brought out 3 swimsuits – a small bright blue one, a medium blue one and a large black one. In the parallel universe in which Helga lived, I was clearly a “small.” In this real world of Belgian chocolates, waffles and fries, I was definitely a “large.” I quickly sized up the situation and snatched the black bathing suit off the counter. Helga, whose cat-like reflexes belied her big-bonedness, was able to grab just enough of the swimsuit to prevent me from making a clean escape. Although I had a death-grip on the suit, I knew I was no match for Helga, who probably held a world wrestling title (male or female) in a former life. Helga kept pushing the blue suit towards me; I kept pulling on the black.

I’m not a fighter, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I gave Helga my best “It’s-a-sheer-act-of-God-that-I’m-even-in-here-so-if-you-think-I’m-squeezing-my-big-fat-white-ass-into-that-teeny-weeny-bright-blue-swimsuit-you’ve-got-another-thing-comin’-sister-because-the-only-way-you-are-getting-this-black (i.e. slimming)-swimsuit-back-is-to-pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands” look. Helga, having stared into the eyes of a woman on the edge, let go. I turned around, feeling a little like Rocky at the top of the steps, and headed towards our changing cabin.

As I was savoring my victory, Dan looked at me and said, “You know, you can’t even return a swimsuit in the US and you just rented one!” The victory dance ended -- abruptly.

Trying to draw as much comfort as I could from the line in the travel book that said the water was green for “medicinal purposes”, I stepped into my first Hungarian Bath. Standing in algae green water with complete strangers, many of whose personal hygiene regime may very well have consisted of nothing more than a dip in the town bath (i.e, the very one I was chest-high in), I tried to distance myself from the fact that 2 million people a year visited these Baths - probably in their own swimsuits!

Having reached the proverbial point-of-no-return, Dan and I went from pool to pool, checking out the various waters and the crowd. (Although I should be ashamed to admit this, or, at the very least, embarrassed, I was relieved to see that most of the women in the Baths had at least 100 pounds on me, placing them firmly in the obese category.) We even went outside - barefoot, in wet swimsuits, in the freezing weather - to check out the outdoor thermal pools! At which point, Dan, always the engineer, looks at me and says, "This place needs a swim-up cocktail bar!"

We spent almost an hour with the locals. All-in-all, an interesting experience!

[For the record, perhaps there is something to be said for the "medicinal" properties of the water, as it has been 2 weeks and we have not caught anything communicable or come down with anything that needs IV antibiotic treatment!]

© 2006 Cindy Lane. All rights reserved.


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