Fragments of Memory: Remembrances from a Road Trip

Suggested aural accompaniment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e11h73WhqK4

Neon sign, Budapest. Photo by the author.
Neon sign, Budapest. Photo by the author.

I’m driving down an empty road and it’s all black. We didn’t get maps for the Czech Republic installed in the navigation system, so the little screen below me buzzed with empty light and an arrow pointed southwest. A fog had settled ahead of us looking like a huge wave rolling in through the valley, a robust wall of grey against the black night. My high beams don’t break through this cloud and I switch to my regular lights, barely reaching 10 meters before me. Signs fly by that I can’t read. I see lights up ahead, maybe break lights, or a car switching lanes. Before I know it, a wall of blinking traffic cones block the road, signaling for a change into the lane of oncoming traffic. I cross the median and the occasional car rockets by me, only a meter to my left. I wonder how many accidents happened on this road at night, how many people who don’t react quickly enough to the change in traffic pattern dangerously switch lanes or barrel through the traffic cones. If I were back home, driving on the interstate at night, there would probably be streetlights above me, and at least three warnings before I would hit the roadwork. But not here.

Twelve hours packed into our tiny rental car and we’ll be in Budapest in just 20 kilometers. We had been waiting for this moment all day – not for our arrival in the city, but for the music we were about to play. What better way to roll into a city than with the windows down blasting the entirety of “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” for the whole city to hear. No one saw us, but we made an entrance in our own way.

View from Citadella, Budapest. Photo by the author.
View from Citadella, Budapest. Photo by the author.

Stopped at the border between Slovakia and Hungary. The first border control we have encountered the whole way. There are a few cars waiting, their windows rolled down, engines running. The guard waves me over and taps on the windshield and starts speaking, though I have no idea what he’s saying. I ask if he speaks English and in his broken sentences I gather that we didn’t purchase the proper permit to travel through Slovakia. We would have to pay a fine if we wanted to cross into Hungary. I ask how much and he says 33 Euro. I tell him this is a bit expensive, we didn’t know that we had to purchase the “vignette” as they’re called. He glances around inside the car, and then looks around the border control station. He says, “Ok. I make compromise. 33 Euro official – 20 Euro unofficial.” We hand him a twenty which makes its way straight into his pocket. He says “ok” and we speed off into the Hungarian night.

The line for pizza is long. The little shop is right next to our hostel and the smell of freshly fired pizza billows out onto the street. Nor could we ignore the mass of smiling faces sitting on the curb as they tear apart a whole pie in minutes. We get in line and wait with the crowd of partygoers, no one has time to wait for their turn. New customers keep walking in and cutting the line, only to be yelled at by everyone in the shop. Some don’t really care, others turn away in embarrassment and walk down the street to a more friendly spot for grub. We order a whole pie with chorizo and rucola, douse it with a healthy amount of the traditional Hungarian paprika-garlic oil, and run up to our hostel room as quickly as we can. We sit in silence, eating ravenously. It’s almost 4am. We even found some oregano to top it off.

Szabadság Szobor, Budapest. Photo by the author.
Szabadság Szobor, Budapest. Photo by the author.

Second to last stretch of driving. From Vienna to Leipzig in a day. We thought this time driving through Prague would be much easier – we had no plans to stop, just power through until we made it back to Germany. But signs on the highway as we approached the city had other ideas for us. One wrong turn and we were on the western tip of the city, along the river, pulling down a dirt driveway that lead to horse stables. A young mother sat at a picnic table and looked at us strangely as we hopped out of the car to ask for directions. Her daughter sat atop a pony and was riding in circles around the ring. I asked if she could help us, and she laughed when I told her we had no working GPS or maps. She proceeded to write down the directions for me, but midway through, we heard a loud ‘neigh,’ and the pony started to act up. She turned around quickly and ran for her daughter who started crying. She screamed to me, “just follow the directions, you’ll see signs for the freeway!”. With only the first two turns I was supposed to take written down, we piled back in the Renault and hoped for the best.

Innere Stadt, Vienna. Photo by the author.
Innere Stadt, Vienna. Photo by the author.

I’m standing in front of a wall of sound. Amplifiers are stacked as high as each of the musicians on stage. They called everyone up from their seats to stand up close, only about 20 of us accepted the offer. The set starts off slowly, with only a gong resonating through the theater for about 5 minutes. Slowly, the rest of the band makes their way on stage and droning guitars begin to make their way into the mix. I pop in my earplugs and while the sound is muted, I feel the decibels reverberating through my stomach. Gira jumps and on his landing cues the rest of the band stomp their pedals and drown the air of any stillness. I’m mesmerized by their concentration, the seriousness of their sound. Swans plays for about 100 minutes. I sheepishly buy a poster after the show and ask Gira if he can sign it. With a fake smile he nods at me and thanks me for coming. I leave the venue walking into the cold Leipzig night, sad that we have to leave so early in the morning.

“Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn” over and over again. For twenty two minutes. Arguably one of Kraftwerk’s strongest efforts, dipping into a more experimental and evolving sound than they had established through their ‘pop’ records. It’s the only music suitable for the moment. I’m constantly astounded by the speed at which cars fly by to our left. I see them coming in my rear view and get out of the way even while they are still several hundred meters behind us. I thought I was going fast. An open stretch of the road presents itself, with no cars behind. I hop all the way to the left lane, and floor it, seeing what the Renault can do. I think how much fun it would’ve been to say “yes” to the car rental agent when she offered an upgrade to an Audi for only 80 Euro more. The speedometer climbs to 150 and I grip the wheel harder, my palms getting sweatier by the second, constantly checking the mirrors. 160 and the pavement beneath shoots through my frame of vision, moving too fast to even make out the lanes on the road. I push all the way to 172 and release the gas entirely, coast for the rest of the stretch of road, pull to the right, and a BMW flies by to the left. It takes endurance to drive fast.

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