Imagine this scene.
You’re in beautiful, historic Budapest with three of your mates on a pre-Christmas weekend break. You’re all male; you’re bright, cool, fun-loving, young English lads. You enjoy a night out: drinking, meeting new people, eyeing up the talent. You also enjoy sightseeing in the afternoons, after you’ve sobered up and arisen from the ashes of the previous night’s revelry.
And now it’s your last night. You’ve been out to a club, had a brilliant time, but you’re not quite ready to hit the sack. So you decide to have just one more beer – the famous “one for the road” – in a small, inviting bar a mere five minutes’ walk from your hotel. So that’s what you do. Except that in your case, it’s not a famous one for the road, but rather an infamous one. One that you’ll never forget.
As soon as you step inside this small bar on some quiet cobbled side street in central Budapest, you warm to the atmosphere. There aren’t many people there – just the barman, a bouncer who welcomes you most cordially, and you yourselves. The four of you, a bit the worse for wear by now, but still smiling, still having a great time, still loving this gorgeous central European city, not quite ready to shut your eyes and wake up in a few hours’ time knowing you have to go back to England, back to work, ordinary routine, end of holiday. That’s why you decide on one for the road. Completely understandable. You’re only young once, right? And you only live once, also right? Right.
“Where you from?” the amiable bouncer asks in heavily accented English. His head seems too small for his huge, muscular frame.
You tell him you’re from England; he says something complimentary about your country, one of you makes a joke, you all laugh, and so on and so forth.
“One more?” the barman asks, just as you’re finally about to make a move. He’s also a thoroughly nice guy, with dark, twinkly Hungarian eyes. How can you resist the tempting suggestion?
“What d’you reckon?” you ask your mates, and it doesn’t take much consultation between the four of you to come to a unanimous decision. One more. I mean, come on, who knows when you’ll next be back in this captivating city? Maybe never.
Half an hour later, you finally decide it’s time to go. After all, you have to get up again in three hours’ time to catch that taxi to the airport, right? So you ask for the bill.
The barman smiles at you with gleaming eyes and says, “That will be one thousand pounds, my friends.”
You all laugh. “Right,” you say, shaking your head in mirth as you reach into your pocket. “Come on, how much?”
“You heard him,” the bouncer says. “One thousand pounds.”
Your laughter begins to subside. You glance uneasily at your mates, and they at you; then you all turn your eyes back to the joker-barman. Who is no longer smiling.
“Come on, mate,” you say, more than just a little shakily by now. “We haven’t got that kind of money!”
“You English,” the bouncer says, now standing directly in front of you. “You rich.”
“We are not fucking rich!” another one of you says, his eyes widening in fused outrage and panic.
The barman quietly walks over to the door, locks it, tucks the key in his pocket, and saunters back to the bar. “One thousand pounds,” he repeats, resting his narrowed eyes on each one of you in turn.
“You gotta be fucking kidding!” you say. “Come on, mate, be reasonable – ”
Next thing you know – and you really can’t remember or understand exactly how this happened – there are two other guys behind you: big guys, taller than you, broader-shouldered, looming in dangerous proximity. It takes a while for all of you to register that you’re now surrounded by four unsmiling, mean-looking dudes who are apparently hell-bent on charging their unsuspecting British clients a thousand pounds for eight beers.
Being the brave thing you are, you try arguing some more, you try putting on a show of anger, you try to cover up the glob of sickly fear that’s steadily churning in your gut and mounting up your throat; you eventually change tack and try imploring to your hosts’ better natures, insisting that you honest-to-God haven’t got a thousand pounds between you, but …
But these thugs do not have a better nature.
Suddenly the bodyguard gets angry. I mean really angry. He is now losing patience, and he is pissed off. You do not want to be out in a small Hungarian bar at five in the morning, surrounded by four hunking, hulking, angry eastern European thugs.
He digs out his mobile phone. “You do not want me to press this key!” he hisses, forefinger hovering over an apparently dreaded number, his face mean, ugly. “If I press this key, my good friends will be here in two minutes. And then you will not leave this bar – how to say …”
“In one piece,” the better-English-speaking barman fills in.
“Right,” you say, and turn to your mates. It’s time to stop arguing, stop reasoning, stop being brave. It’s live or die time. Or spend the next few months in a wheelchair time. Or longer.
To cut a long and terrifying story short, one of you – i.e. the good guys – went out with one of them – i.e. the bad guys – into the deserted night streets of Budapest and somehow managed to scramble together one thousand pounds, using several ATMs and shared credit cards, I should imagine. I don’t know, I never asked. It seemed petty, in the light of everything else on that dark, demonic night in Budapest.
So you all paid up, and the doors were at last unlocked, and you and your friends were released from that small fated bar near your hotel that had lured you into its spurious cosy interior.
At least you were alive. In one piece. All of you. Just a thousand pounds worse off. And you got the plane back to England the next day, rather than spent the next few weeks in a Hungarian hospital with an even bigger bill to pay than the thousand pounds that you lost between the four of you, since my guess is that you probably didn’t bother adding health insurance to your flights, am I right? After all, who thinks of such a holiday nightmare happening in real life?
But it was real life. It is real life. This is a true story that happened very recently to the twenty-something nephew of a close friend of mine. It’s a cautionary tale, if you like, aimed specifically at the young and carefree male holiday makers who can’t help, by the very nature of their native English language, arousing the assumption of “rich Western tourists – easy target!” in some less salubrious location outside their own country.
So please, before going into a bar in the early hours of the morning in a seemingly wonderful East European city, perhaps first you should make sure that the bar in question has a website? The thing is, when my four unfortunate protagonists looked up the place that had robbed them of a thousand pounds, guess what? Yep, they couldn’t find it! It didn’t exist. And when they related their terrifying tale to the taxi driver who drove them to the airport the next morning, he sadly shook his head and said, “That would be the Mafia. Ukrainian or Russian. Both just as bad. You are lucky they did not kill you.”
Next time not so lucky? Be careful! I urge all of you young, fun-loving lads, next time you go to some central or East-European beauty hot spot. And that includes my own beloved Kraków, here in the undulating hills of southern Poland.
Is nowhere safe anymore?