Check Mate in Budapest

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My winning piece in this weeks Telegraph Travel writing competition. I actually wrote this three years ago (but only submitted it last week), and have still not thought up a good name for it; ‘My new check mate’ (works better if set in Czech Rep!) and ‘You have reached your chess-tination’ (sometimes you can take puns a bit too far!) were the front runners, but I think I’ll let the good people at The Telegraph have this one…

Check Mate in Budapest

It was the first Hungarian I ever met who caused me to fall for his country. A slow train from Bratislava had brought me here, following the ever widening Danube through endless fields where men in rolled sleeves stooped, and then leaving the river and rushing through outer city suburbs of buildings scarred with graffiti. A nervous calm heightened my senses as I alighted onto the platform, a regular occurrence upon arrival in a foreign place where everything was new and still to be seen. The train hissed behind me as passengers disembarked and left with purpose, I was soon alone. Scanning the row of kiosks and coffee stalls for somewhere to exchange money, I was startled by the clutch of a hand on my sleeve. Following the slight fingers down onto its owner, it was only then that I saw them. The chess players of Budapest Keleti station.

Still grasping onto my jacket he nodded gently to the seat opposite his. Several tables surrounded the fenced off tracks, each adorned with the distinct black and white of a chess board. At most there sat a solitary figure, patiently waiting, while at others there were two heads hunched towards each other in earnest concentration. The man smiled a toothless grin at me. He was aged and well lived; coarse white hairs masked sunken narrow cheeks, while a jutted nose sloped and then fell towards a chin that stretched and curved his face into the crescent of a new moon. I realised now he was inviting me to play. I smiled back, shook my head and shrugged. I knew nothing of chess except its complexities, it wasn’t a game I could sit and hope for beginners luck with. Laughing, he shrugged as well, swept his hand above the board and offered me the seat again.

Over the next hour I watched intently as slowly he moved our pieces in turn, teaching me to play while attempting to outwit himself. Station life continued around us as we sat. Trains and their passengers came and went, the arrival and departure boards clunked through far off destinations – Bukarest, Prága, Zürich – each signalling another outpouring of emotion nearby as families reunited and parted. The cries of hawkers filled the air and the smell of a nearby Lángos stand stirred my hunger. It had been hours since breakfast in Slovakia and now the lengthening shadows and the stained station clock signalled that evening was fast approaching. With our game now seemingly at stalemate, I attempted some words of gratitude in my most basic Hungarian as I rose to leave, but the man barely stirred. Only then did I realise that my teacher was now asleep, his chin propped up on one hand, oblivious to all around us. Quietly edging back my chair; I picked up my bag and studied my map, as we both planned our next move.

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