In the Bus


In a gloomy December, it so happened that I found myself on a long-distance bus twice in a row. One was a night journey of 16 hours right through Europe, among travellers with predominantly dark-pigmented skin. The other was a daylight excursion, with German eurocrats.


That sounds like a cheap comparison. As chance would have it, I spent the same amount of time with both groups.


The night journey, operated by Eurolines, took me from Bratislava to Brussels. A summary: Brr! I board in the dark, at 6 o'clock in the evening. The journey runs from the early onset of night in the east to the late onset of day in the west. We drive deeper and deeper into a damp, foggy winter night.


Nobody turned the reading lights on. In the bus there were Slovakian Roma, single travellers from far away, two Indians, certainly a few migrant workers. In front of me sat a loving couple of few words under hoods, he Slovakian, she a Russian from Kazakhstan.


In Vienna a young blonde girl got in. She sat behind me. She had a lot of dinky bags with her and brought in the scent of cinnamon. I was convinced that the beauty with the puppet face had rounded off her Christmas shopping with Glühwein.


The night became stiller. I couldn’t sleep yet and I involved the blonde in conversation. She was Hungarian. She had the same name as the last empress of Austria-Hungary, but with an O. She was a beautician, 31 and Zito's cinnamon scent was due to her use of essential oils.


She spoke German with a lilting Hungarian accent and answered “wow!” to the majority of my statements. She had been living in Brussels for seven years – “seven meagre years”. Notwithstanding Hungary's "collapse", as she called it, she had returned to Budapest. We soon came to the big themes. It was over with her French boyfriend. Unabashed, she explained that a new man would come in handy.


The bus stopped in front of an Austrian motorway restaurant. We sat at the bar, glancing nervously at the clock. I mentioned that we happened to be in the area I was brought up in. “So if we were to miss the bus”, Zito said, “would that be a sign from God?” “You mean”, I replied, “that I could introduce you to my mother straight away?” She formed her newly made-up lips into a smile. My leg was stroked by her knee.


Back in the dark bus, it had become colder. The others were prepared and Zito had a blanket with her. “Cover yourself with your coat”, she said and gave me her kidney-shaped travel cushion. We slept, great Germany was dark. Zito’s cushion helped me through the night.


The day excursion, operated by the “Europa-Union”, went from Brussels into the eastern Belgian provinces. Zito hadn’t known that the EU had Commissioners, but my new fellow-travellers knew that only too well. They worked for the Commission and for German agencies in Brussels. One was an intern at the "district heating lobby". "Why does district heating need a lobby?", I asked her. "Well, for a start, so that people know that there is district heating."


The cheerful tour guide gave out Christmas gingerbread on several occasions, but it wasn't all that personal. The talk was of connecting flights and about the fact that referenda weren't appropriate to the Lisbon Treaty.


It so happened that there was a blonde Hungarian woman in the bus, albeit with accent-free German. As the conversation turned to Christmas presents, she let slip "Women look forward to every present anyway." The others reacted astonished. She blushed. That was the most intimate moment.


Well, it is a cheap comparison. German bureaucrats are perhaps just as tender at night. I didn't ask Zito for her number and I gave no present to the second Hungarian. But I bow my head to the bus-travelling Hungarian girls of this world.