Sunday, 29 September 2013

Do Not Speak Her Name

Time Travelling in Hungary

In 2008 I found myself cycling through Southern Hungary with my teenage son. It was the first part of our ride from Ireland to Japan, via the UK, France, Germany and Austria that had surprised us by its sense of being trapped in an older time. It was beautiful and the sun shone, but there was something surreal about it.

After a long day's ride from Budapest, we arrived at a river and had to wait half an hour to cross on a floating bridge (flat boat with an outboard that crossed every hour). We were nearing the town of Csongrad, the boatman told us. By the time we entered town it was dark.  It was not a large place but it was bustling with people heading home.  After asking a number of people for help, we managed to get ourselves directed to the only accommodation - a hotel. Arriving at a large old building we lifted a heavy brass ring that pulled a cord and agitated a bell inside. The old door creaked open and revealed a pale young girl. We were startled.
“Welcome inside. Step forward please.” 
We thanked her and cautiously moved towards the reception, behind which sat an elderly lady. She smiled and said something in Hungarian.
“My mother does not speak the foreign languages,” said the girl. “I, however, can speak English, Russian, German, French, Italian and Serbo-croat. Yes, yes, and Hungarian of course. Please have look the prices here. We have the hot water and bath. Breakfasts will be included please.”
We relaxed. The price seemed fair and the old lady seemed kind, as did the somewhat cybernetic daughter. "Orlovka," she said abruptly, handing me a pen.

After signing the register, we were led upstairs. Before opening the heavy bedroom door, the girl turned towards us and hesitated a moment.
“My name is Greta,” she said, her stare uncomfortably direct.

Greta was about 16, wearing a rather trendy tracksuit and narrow glasses, yet somehow she still managed to look like a 1950’s Soviet woman.  Her fixed stare held us there stiffly for some moments.  Her wide face was friendly enough, although she did not seem to smile. There was certainly something abnormal about her manner. Sinister even. I wondered what might be behind the door.  Eventually, one of her eyes began to twitch and she looked down.  With a heavy turn of the key the door creaked open.
Timorously my son and I followed Greta into a large room. It was fitted out with what seemed to be furniture from the post-war era.  A shaft of dusty light cut through a crack in the heavy curtains, giving us the sense almost that we might have stepped into the past. There was a strange smell I could not quite identify. Something medicinal, perhaps. She drew back the long heavy curtains to reveal a large sash window that looked down into a grand cobbled courtyard.  We noticed a pair of bikes standing against the wall and realised that they were our own. The elderly mother must have moved them, although it seemed unlikely. It all felt very odd – rather dreamlike. Looking out onto the ancient Austro-Hungarian courtyard, I felt that a horse-drawn carriage, or mounted soldiers with muskets, might arrive at any moment. I looked at Sam. It was not only me; he too looked mesmerised.
“This courtyard is beautiful, not?”
Greta’s words echoed in the high-ceilinged room and it was a moment or two before I realised it was she who had spoken. Pulling myself together, I turned to look at her. I smiled. The full sun on her face had revealed a surprising feature – she had one brown eye and one blue. I tried not to stare. She turned and began showing us the room, opening every drawer and cupboard as if carrying out an obsessively practiced routine.
“It is a spracious room, not?”
“Very precious, yes. Thank you,” I replied.
“Yes, much space. It is our pleasures. We have few stranger guests such days. We will try hardly to give you comfort.”
“We will try hard to be good guests,” smiled Sam.
There was a moment's hesitation as she turned. A change had occurred in Greta’s eyes. There was an awkward silence, followed by a radiant smile. Sam had thawed her. Thank God, I thought. Maybe now we won’t be tied up and held prisoner for years in the cellar.

Greta showed us into a large historic bathroom. Over a large rust-stained bath was a device I had seen before, or something similar at least. My grandmother had one when I was small.  It was known as The Geyser: a huge threatening gas boiler smelling of burning gas, that shook and gurgled when lit, threatening to explode at any moment. The fear I reserved for this monstrous device as a child was still there now. I had no intention of using it, or of allowing Sam to.

Greta had become animated and was now eager to talk, asking us what we had seen on our journey and what we thought of her country. She was also very informative. She sat down at the writing desk and began to give us a potted history of Hungary. Sam and I, meanwhile, were transformed into an attentive audience, perched on one of the beds. In addition to enlightening historical and political facts, Greta provided local information.
“I want to commend you about a very good pizza restaurant near to this establishment,” she said.  “It is very marvellous.” 
This didn’t sound particularly enticing to me – commended or not.  Eating there later, however, we found it did indeed serve excellent pizza. More surprising though were the exquisitely prepared Hungarian dishes, with very fresh fish and delicious wild game.  It was better than anything we had found in Budapest. The staff also seemed entirely out of place. The elderly waiter was dressed in black trousers and a stiffly starched white jacket with gold braided epaulettes. He was reminiscent of someone from a grand Monte Carlo hotel in the aristocratic opulence of the 1920’s. I doubt this small rural town had ever seen more than a dozen foreign tourists let alone opulence.

Photo courtesy of

As the lid was lifted on another large silver terrine, this time containing an enormous bird that could only have been a peacock or a small ostrich, it all started to seem rather surreal again. I glanced across at the hotel and saw the old woman's face disappear behind the twitching curtain. The waiter followed my gaze and sighed.
"Be careful."
"The old lady?" I asked.
"No, no, young girl. Old mother is dead."
"No old mother now. She die five years before. In the river. They say accident but... I don't think. Be careful."
"Greta?" I asked.
There was a crash as he dropped the lid on the terrine. He looked down at me. 
"Better don't to speak her name, my friend."

Short stories by Mark Swain can be found in the book 'Special Treatment & Other Stories.'
The title story won the Kinglake International Short Story Prize in 2010.
Link to short story book on Amazon

Link to Long Road Hard Lessons (cycle travel book) on Amazon


  1. whoa! This was creepy. The girl was creepy. Your bike travel sure gave you a whole lot of different experiences!
    Well-presented post!

    1. Glad you liked it. Still creeps me out. The rest of the bike trip (10,000 miles in 8 months) was just as eventful but far less scary.