Hanging Out in Rockford: Two Sándors—part two

My son Drew and I are traveling to visit the mayor of Taszár, then on to Pécs, a university and vacation spot, and then Villány in the wine region of Hungary.

We set out early in the morning to catch the train to Pécs. Actually, we are not going all the way there at this time, but it is the first step in our journey. We have to transfer to another train at a country stop (Kaposvár, I think), and then we pull into Taszár, and the mayor is waiting for us. Tall and slender, he is a very nice-looking man the same age as my son. He takes to my son at once, and they really chat it up in Magyar. He does, however, speak enough English to keep me in the loop.

He drives us to the city hall in his fancy new French automobile. We get introduced to everyone there, including another man who is some sort of regional mayor. Then, Sándor (by now, we are all on a first-name basis) takes us into a conference room, where he presents me with some gifts from the city to our mayor (which I bring back to Rockford). We talk about the airport and its genesis. It was originally a Soviet air base when Hungary was part of the Soviet Union. When the U.S. became involved in the Balkans War, we spent a lot of money to refurbish it. Now, it sits there, largely underutilized.

The Hungarian government is spending millions of florints (Hungarian currency) a year to maintain this asset. I did not get the exact amount because of my unfamiliarity with the language. Sándor tells us he has had a personal conversation with Andras Simonyi (the Hungarian ambassador to the United States) about the airport. So it looks like things are proceeding, at least from their side. He takes us in his car again, and drives us out to see the terminal. We all pose for pictures in front of the brand-new terminal, the terminal that, as of yet, has no furniture or equipment. My son takes a picture of Sándor looking into the sky, looking for the planes that are to land here someday.

He takes us to lunch at a restaurant in another village not far from the airport. It is a wonderful country restaurant, the kind of restaurant that seems to abound in these little villages. There is an emphasis on wild game, and the dining area inside the restaurant is covered with the skulls of small game animals. I cannot help but think of how this would throw the stateside PETA people for a loop. We sit in the covered outside café and order. I have the venison gulyas (what we call goulash). Drew has venison with wild mushrooms. Sándor has the beef version of gulyas with galuska, the Hungarian noodles that are similar to spaetzle. The galuska are bright yellow and obviously made with a lot of egg yolk. I want to try some, but wind up being too polite to ask. It is absolutely one of the best meals of my trip.

Sándor was a mechanic on the Soviet fighters. He jokingly tells us the Soviets used to tell him he had to hate us. As I sit there in this lovely restaurant with my son and this charming man, I cannot help but reflect on how governments and religions ruin our world. He confesses to having a love for Pálinka (the Hungarian fruit brandy, sort of like grappa), but orders a Coke because he is on duty. Drew and I are undeterred, and order the ubiquitous Czech beers.

By the end of lunch, Sándor tells us he is having a very good time, and he would rather just spend time with us, but he has things he has to attend to. We agree to get together in the future, just to hang out and have a good time. I really feel we have become friends. He drives us to the bus station in Kaposvár, where we catch the bus that takes us through rolling hills of countryside that remind me of Galena. We arrive in the bus station in Pécs and walk to our hotel, the Amstel (after the beer of the same name).

We walk and walk. I am getting very tired by the time we get there. The final jaunt is up a fairly steep hill and, even though I have been in Hungary for more than a week at this point, I would still have preferred a cab. A beautiful (they are all beautiful, these Hungarian women) young blonde checks us into our room. The room itself is tiny, but very well organized and damn cheap at about 90 euros for our two-day stay. Strangely, they do not accept credit cards, and we will have to pay in cash.

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District

.from the July 5-10, 2007, issue

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