Getting Kicked by a Homeless Man in Budapest Broke My 20-Year Nail-biting Habit
On the floor of an underground train station in Budapest, I sat sheltered from the rain, biting my fingernails. I was waiting for a bus, but I wasn’t entirely sure it would show up. My head was spinning, throat was dry and I felt alone and sorry for myself after a typically heavy night out in Budapest.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man stagger towards me. He reached my side, standing uncomfortably close; his heavy, boozy breath wafted up my nostrils. Looking up and meeting his gaze, feelings of vulnerability and nerves began to spread throughout my body. He started speaking in Hungarian and pointing at me. I could tell by his tone and body language I’d done something that pissed him off. After a few moments of confusion, he kicked me.
He didn’t prepare for the kick with a big swing; it was more of a lazy, last-minute movement. His chunky, old boot making contact with my leg hadn’t hurt much. But like, what the fuck? Why was I kicked by a homeless man in Budapest?
Hungary, like most of Europe has a harsh and eventful history, which has led the country and its people to be as they are today. More recently they’ve claimed to be negatively affected by the stringent rules in place to remain part of the EU, leaving the population serious, bitter and pessimistic. There are few jobs available and an unemployment rate of around 4.5 per cent.
Due to its geographical location, Hungary has now, unavoidably been affected by refugees fleeing surrounding war torn countries. Amidst all of this, there is me – one among thousands of others travelling from all over to Budapest to whittle away small fortunes on booze, drugs and good times. Suffice to say, it’s ripe territory for a culture clash. At the time, it hadn’t even crossed my mind to spare a thought for the Hungarian homeless, who are now forced to compete for tile space at the train station and other public spaces with the influx of refugees.
Back at the train station, the homeless man’s domineering presence combined with the boot had still rattled me. Too stunned to react, I stared at him blankly, starting to feel more than a little nervous. If he’d had too much to drink, was angry and not in complete control, I was half his size and already sitting on the ground, definitely an easy target. I searched the crowd for some kind of reassurance; I wasn’t getting anything from anyone.
He eventually turned and began walking over to a couple of middle-aged men with messy facial hair, wearing shabby clothes, clinging to bottles covered by brown paper bags. He only got a few steps before looking back at me, continuing to mumble, while shaking his angry head. It was still unclear to me why I had attracted this negative attention, but I soon realised it was most likely because I had been absent-mindedly biting my nails, a life-long, nervous habit. Subconsciously, I’d bitten off a piece of fingernail and spat it out next to me.
For a moment, I had forgotten where I was: that the dirty, fluorescently lit train station I’d taken refuge in for a couple of hours was someone’s workplace, someone’s daily work commute, even someone’s home. Travellers often find themselves on the wrong side of local etiquette, and it became clear that I’d inadvertently committed a serious offence. This man had probably had enough of ignorant travelers like myself, acting like we owned the place.
After a while of him being back with his pals, I was still somewhat on edge, but more relaxed with the distance between us. I thought I’d heard the last from him. 10 minutes later though, he was once again by my side. He’d had a slight sway in his step and had trouble standing still. This time, he wanted to know my name. My mind went blank and before I could think of an undercover identity, I’d given mine away. Great, I thought. I’ll surely be spending the night in a Hungarian prison.
Despite my fears, he didn’t take the issue any further. To be honest, I didn’t wait around to find out. I quickly found a more suitable sanctuary in a coffee shop across the street. It’s quite possible he was just angry given his circumstances, and I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nonetheless, as a traveller, it is important to understand that’s what’s considered polite and what’s considered rude varies depending on where you are in the world.
The man may have been an angry, homeless drunk, but it was his country and his home. Sometimes, we travellers do deserve a bit of a kick in the arse, and mine just so happened to break my 20-year nail biting habit.