Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Drive to the East

We took advantage of our strategic placement in Munich to visit relatives in Hungary this Christmas. After all, we were just a hop, skip and a jump away.

It ended up being not quite that simple. First, EU-expansion notwithstanding, most rental car companies in Germany still will not allow you to drive to Eastern Europe. Thanks to some obtuseness at Expedia, we had to trade in our rental car twice before we finally got one without this restriction.

Second, as the heavy Saturday pre-Christmas traffic ground to a halt on the autobahn between Munich and Salzburg, the planned 6 1/2 hour drive seemed likely to stretch well into 2008. We took evasive action through the scenic backroads of Bavaria, but every glance at the map told us how far we still had to go.

Fortunately, Miles was a trooper and helped out with the driving. Once finally made it to Austria, we had smooth sailing all the way to Vienna and then the Hungarian border.

As we crossed the frontier, it occured to me that Miles, at the tender age of 1, had now been to six countries. I did not surpass this number myself until I was 21. That was 19 years ago, on my first trip to Europe.

Coincidentally, that was also the first time I crossed the border from Austria into Hungary, the land where my father was born. It was 1988, Hungary's last winter under Communist rule. I was a student in France and drove over for Christmas in an old VW Bus with a dying clutch. At the time, Hungary and the East bloc were still shrouded in mystery and a bit of menace -- I had no idea what to expect as the Austrian autobahn petered out into a two-lane road approaching the border. From my father's stories about the Communist regime, I had the vague sense that despite my American passport, arrest was just around the corner. Stern-looking guards with red stars on their uniforms scrutinized my papers and grudgingly sent me on my way -- into silence and darkness. The road from Vienna to Budapest had scarcely any traffic, and but for the last 50km or so you wouldn't have guessed it was an important highway. Once I arrived in Budapest, the welcome from my relatives was exceptionally warm, and it also became clear that the climate of fear that had gripped Hungary for the last forty years was melting away -- though no one imagined at the time how quickly the ice would break in less than a year.

Fast-forward 19 years. The once-ominous border checkpoint had been completely dismantled (all border controls were finally removed between Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and a handful of other countries just a few days before we arrived). The empty countryside around it was now full of outlet stores and truck stops. Instead of a quiet two-lane road, the autobahn now steamed through uninterrupted, jammed with travelers heading home to Hungary, the Balkans and further East.

In fact, Hungary had built out its autobahn network sufficiently that it decided to emulate Switzerland and Austria by requiring each car using it to buy a "vignette" (or windshield sticker) as a sort of toll. Compliance is monitored by infrared cameras mounted above the highway (apparently freedom from this sort of surveillance was a short-lived thing).

Having imposed this requirement, Hungary apparently gave little thought to the crush of travelers arriving or passing through for the holidays, for every service station for a hundred miles had a line of cars backed up onto the highway, waiting to buy vignettes. The scene began to resemble something out of a Mad Max movie, with cars abandoned at odd angles along the road, their drivers setting out on foot in hopes of somehow evading the endless queues. Anyone hoping to buy gas was completely out of luck, as access to the pumps was obstructed by rows and rows of motionless vehicles.

With our journey stretching late into the evening, we pushed along (vignette-less) to the limits of our tank. Fearing a different type of trouble with the law than on my first visit, we finally found an exit and an uncrowded rural gas station to purchase our precious vignette.

Miles maintained his patience until the very outskirts of Budapest, finally melting down in spectacular fashion just as we saw the lights of the Danube bridges.

But we made it. There would be a Christmas after all.


No comments: