Leaving Vienna for a happy Hungary

Rick Gunn/For the Appeal A Viennese man's shadow precedes him.

Rick Gunn/For the Appeal A Viennese man's shadow precedes him.

After a week in Vienna waiting on bike repair, I was prepared to ride a poodle out of town. It was confounding to me that a city of such beauty and culture could foster such a mass of miserably minded inhabitants.

In every corner of the city men scowled and women snarled. The elderly donned frowns that grazed their kneecaps, while platoons of little old ladies hunched through the streets, snapping at others like well-oiled bear traps. It was as if the entire populous had been freshly kicked in the groin, then issued an atomic wedgie.

My first act as mayor, I thought during an extended daydream, would be the immediate infusion of Prozac into the public water supply.

Despite its fun-eating zombies, Vienna still dazzled. Each morning I drifted with a kind of glorified wonder into the city center and over the former footsteps of Mozart, Freud, Strauss and Haydn.

I was not alone. At any given point I migrated with great herds of shutter-happy tourists as we trampled the well-trodden path. For me that path started beneath the muscular statues of Maria-Theresien-Platz, through the tunneled gates of Heldenplatz, into St. Stephen's Cathedral. There, in the cavernous mysticism, I'd peer up in silent awe, as golden shafts of light illuminated the over-arching domes and finely detailed baroque.

It was a place, I thought, that would break the deepest agnostic.

I watched curiously as the crowds plunked a few coins in the donation box, basked in a moment of expansive spirituality, then made their way across the street to pour obscene amounts of cash into the holy houses of retail: Georgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Cartier, Versace, Hugo Boss and the like.

As I witnessed this ironic shift from higher to lower consciousness, it sparked a certain curiosity. I slipped inside a nearby Internet shop and looked up some numbers. I discovered that in 2004, Americans forked over $211 billion to the garment industry - two-and-a-half times the United States' contribution to the UN's World Food Program. I began to wonder. What if, I thought, instead of purchasing that future thrift-store outfit or landfill item, we elected instead to invest some of that money in something crazy like, say, sustainable development, or the elimination of foreign debt to countries in crisis.

I walked a bit farther and stopped at a pair of shoes in the display window of Luis Vuitton. I peered at the price tag. It read 780 Euros - or a thousand bucks. A crazy thought filled my head.

I wondered what the world would be like if instead of dumping all that money into outward appearance, we invested it inward. That is, on psychotherapy, encounter groups, addiction programs, anger management, relationship counseling, leadership training, meditation and/or spiritual retreats.

I wondered for a moment what the world would be like if these vast hubs of materialism before me were transformed into thriving donations centers, where people excitedly came to give, instead of get.

As I was lost in that thought, I looked up to see that I was blocking a doorway. The proprietress approached, and gave me a look one reserves for soiled underwear.

"I'm sorry," I said. She slammed the door in my face.

I needed out of Vienna.

When I finally got my bike back, I loaded up my gear and made for the border like a man on a mission. Just over the Hungarian border, I witnessed something I hadn't seen in weeks - a smile. It came from a little old woman in a head scarf who was scurrying along a railroad track. Her smile was accompanied by a hearty wave as if to say, "Welcome to Hungary."

And I took to the country immediately. That afternoon I pedaled into what seemed an impressionist painting dabbed with charcoal and grays, the only hint of color being the green bearded stubble of the new winter's crops.

The day flashed into the inky black of night, and before long I was alone with my breath. I clicked on my headlight, and it punched a fist-sized hole through the night. I began to get spooked. I practiced out loud what little Hungarian I knew.

"Nem tudok Magyar rul" (I don't speak Hungarian), I pitched into the night followed by "Kozonom" (Thank you).

There was no reply.

Only the occasional pack of Hungarian motorists, driving Czech Skodas that drowned my vision with their oncoming lights.

I quickly realized that instead of the phrases I knew, I needed something like, "Pardon me, but your high beams are searing my retina to a golden brown. Could you kindly switch to your low-beams?"

Short of that linguistic cunning, I reverted to gestures from Boris Karloff in "The Mummy."

This included mouthy roars and dramatic swings of my arm over my eyes to give the motorists the hint.

Some time around 6 p.m. I reached the town of Csepreg, and pulled to the corner. I removed a small piece of paper from my shirt pocket. I studied the name written on it for several minutes, then cast upon a young boy who walked by.

"Ludvan ...?" I asked, as if casting a spell on the boy. To my surprise, his face lit with recognition and he signaled me to follow him.

I set down my bike and chased him up a spiral of stairs to the third floor of a cement-block apartment building until he stood pointing at the doorbell. When I rang it, the door opened and I was greeted by the kind smiles of Janos and Andrea Ludvan and their daughters Zsofia and Briggitta.

This encounter was no accident. Previously, I had had the good fortune of being set up with several home-stays in Hungary by my good friends Eric and Beata Jarvis in Tahoe. Beata was born in Hungary and these are her relatives.

Within moments the Ludvans defined the very meaning of hospitality. The first order of operations for any guest in Hungary was food. Tons of it. In the next three days, Andrea would whip up incredibly delicious meals that included paprikas csirke (chicken paprikash), rakott krumpli (potatoes and eggs), uborkasalata (cucumber salad with cream and garlic), and my personal favorite, almas turos retes (pastries filled with apples or cottage cheese).

After dinner, Janos drove me to the place where I would stay - their summer home located roughly three kilometers out of town. At first glance the quaint dwelling looked as though it'd been pulled directly from a Led Zeppelin album cover. The only thing missing was the little old man carrying a bundle of sticks.

The two-story cottage was perched near a hillside near a small lake and surrounded by clusters of forest that looked entirely capable of producing a fairy princess or a medieval knight in armor.

With a command of about 20 words in English, Janos showed me around the 400-square-foot dwelling. He pointed out the spring where I would collect drinking water, the cellar filled with fruit, the wood stove, the wood pile and a hatchet.

I quickly settled into a rhythm of peaceful simplicity. This included long mornings by the fire, sipping coffee, collecting fruit or just going off into the woods.

This was followed by a brisk pedal into town.

There I would spend long hours with the Ludvans, sharing meals, laughter and simple conversation. At night I would pedal back "home" and read late into the night by the red-orange glow of the wood stove. It was simply quiet, and quite simply heaven.

One morning Janos invited me to his work. He is a special-education teacher at the Csepreg elementary school.

When I entered the class, all heads turned. A quiet hush came over the room. The roomed was filled with students of varying disabilities, some merely gypsy children just trying to catch up. When Janos recaptured their attention, I watched as he imparted a special brand of loving kindness upon each and every student.

What became immediately apparent was the depth that this man cared about these students; he treated them as if they were his own. When the class neared the end, the students gathered around my bike, then gathered around my computer where they watched a slide show of America. When it came time for me to leave Csepreg, I was reluctant. I imagined a simpler life, hanging out with the family, making a living catching fish.

Janos, his family and students had shown me a larger way of giving, and I thanked them genuinely, then said good-bye.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

When: Nov. 8-23, 2005

Where: Vienna, Csepreg, Keszthely, Vezprem, Budapest

Mileage log: 5,432-5,783

Elevation: 200-400 ft.

• Rick Gunn, former Appeal photographer, is on a two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is collecting money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete journals and see his pictures, visit rickgunnphotography.com.


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