Travel Right

    Officer Opie is alive and well
    and working in Budapest

“. . . but I was innocent.”

by Don Beil (Somalia 1964–66)

    IT WAS TOO COLD to walk.
         I was in Budapest working on a project with a group of fellow American teachers of the deaf, and we had spent the afternoon shopping and absorbing the beauty of Vör     At first impression the subway system seems to be free. There are no ticket takers, no turnstiles, no coin or token drop boxes, no floor-to-ceiling iron-fingered gates; instead, people just walk on and off the trains. But that isn’t really the case. The Hungarians I had traveled with had been sliding 90 forint (about $0.40) tickets for each of us into machines at the subway stations. The tickets — well, I don’t know how one could really call them tickets — are flimsy strips of paper — they bear a great resemblance to those little bits of paper that you tear off the corner of a newspaper when you are in desperate need of a bookmark. Anyhow, the “tickets” are to be inserted into ticket-validating machines — to have a small bite taken out of one corner. The machines look like a junior version of our parking meters or golf ball washers but are mounted on much thinner posts. You don’t notice the machines, for even at a very large station there’s only one or two at the entranceway at the top of the escalator. You also don’t notice them because most Hungarians buy a pass good for unlimited travel over a several month period of time that they carry with them, ready to present on demand if they are requested — which they never are. Instead, all just walk freely on and off the subway.ösmarty Tér (square) near the center of the city in Pest. It was time to return to our hotel across the Danube in Buda up atop the hill in an area know as the Castle district. All agreed they were too exhausted to make it back on foot.
         We could hop on the bus — or, I suggested, we could take the subway, which I loved to ride. It’s always a challenge to be certain you’ve chosen the right direction on the right line, and even if you don’t, so what, as we were never in a real hurry. When I asked Hungarians for help by pointing to where I wanted to go on my map of the city, a man or woman would often take the time to lead me by the sleeve through the labyrinth, up and down stairs until I was at the correct platform.
         I’d been to Budapest several times before for the project, and had ridden on the subway with several of our Hungarian hosts. In doing so, I’d learned the secrets of the ticketing system, and felt quite confident leading this group of Americans.
         Tourists and Hungarians who only rarely travel on the subway are expected to buy single tickets or a booklet of tickets, and use them one-by-one for each ride. Those who use the tickets often find themselves standing frustrated, repeatedly trying to stuff the small bit of paper into the machine, hoping to work the magic necessary for the ticket to be recognized and punched.
         Although only teenagers seem to speak English in Hungary, and although I know only a few words in Hungarian, once I learned the process, I prided myself on my ability to find sales windows, and buy and use the tickets. And I frequently found myself acting as tour guide to other Americans (it’s that RPCV blood that makes me comfortable navigating in new locales), and I would purchase tickets for all, patiently prod the machine with tickets, and then we’d go on our way. No one ever collected the tickets, no one ever stopped us to ask for our tickets, no one seemed to care. But, I was about to find out differently.
         I was carrying a half-dozen tickets in my wallet — which I had torn out of a ticket book I’d purchased earlier — so I treated for the ride back to the hotel, and went through the usual annoying ticket-validation process for all. It was as we were just getting to the bottom of the long escalator deep inside the subway station that my love of the Budapest public transportation system came to a temporary end.
         As we stepped off the escalator, a man in street clothes motioned us aside and asked for our tickets. I showed him the tickets with the correct corner clipped and with what appeared to be the proper date and time stamps. I was raised to follow the rules – a regular Mr. Law-and-Order. The man asked me — I should have known that he of all people would speak English — where the ticket booklet was. I had a sinking feeling. It was in my hotel room. God forbid I should have to carry around the excess baggage of a small ticket booklet!
         “But, I put the tickets in the machine. Look at the tickets!”
         “Show me the booklet.”
    “But you can see that I put the tickets in the machine. They are punched and stamped for this ride.”
         “Where is the booklet?”
         There was no talking him out of the jam. He pulled a ticket booklet from his bag and showed me the tiny words on the inside cover. In English — the only place in Budapest that I’d seen English except on the pastry menu at the Marriott Hotel — and Hungarian, it directed travelers not to remove the ticket stubs from the booklet. I could only think of “Alice’s Restaurant.” I was not getting away. Then the man asked for the fine to be paid in cash, 1300 forints, approximately $5.50, from each of us — right there on the spot. Yes, it was starting to feel like a scam, but then he pulled an official pad from his bag with cash receipts for the fines he levied.
         We paid.
         In discussions with many Hungarians following our run-in with the ticket police, all agreed that they had not seen anyone being stopped and asked to present a monthly pass or a single ticket in at least the last six months.
         I was left with a problem for “The Ethicist” from the Sunday New York Times. Should the fine be submitted as a travel expense? I had the receipt. I decided it should — with an explanation.
         Now I know “The Ethicist” wouldn’t like the next part. Feeling unfairly treated, during the rest of that visit to Hungary I strode confidently — doing my best to look Hungarian — onto every subway in sight without using a ticket. And I was in love with the transportation system again.

    For the past 27 years, Don Beil ( and has been teaching computing to deaf and hard of hearing students at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester NY. NTID was a partner with the Hungarian association of schools for the deaf in a grant from the Soros Open Society Institute to improve information technology education in the schools for the deaf in Hungary.