In Eastern Europe, bikers sacrifice social status but gain historical inspiration
The two Slovakian policemen stamped through our crowd and confronted us in angry words we didn’t understand. Once they established our native language, they adeptly switched to English. ”Do you have a permit for this spectacle?” the larger of the officers spat down at us. Despite the tension of the situation, I couldn’t help being impressed with his vocabulary.We were, in fact, playing music on the streets without a permit. Ever since Istanbul, we had been playing on the streets for money. At the beginning of the trip, we never anticipated living off our music. However, even small European towns have old pedestrian zones. These gentrified, tourist-filled areas prove lucrative as music venues. From Turkey onward, we bought food using only money garnered from street performances.
Aside from breathing life into our ever-dwindling savings accounts, street performing provided a way to meet people in Europe, where strangers don’t often interact with each other. As we play, some passersby linger for a bit, but others sit down on the sidewalk next to us and remain for our entire performance. In this way, we met many people and even had an accidental home stay in Serbia.
Unfortunately, while street performing we sometimes found ourselves at odds not only with police, but with apartment dwellers, shopkeepers, and other street musicians. In uber-regulated Western Europe, we found ourselves pandering to paperwork. I once spent an entire afternoon in the ultra-organized city of Vienna, running from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, trying to determine where we could purchase a permit to play on the street.
Though we ate well with our earnings, we strictly budgeted our purchases and eschewed luxuries. As we slid across Hungary, we ate veggies and enjoyed the sunshine. The vast plains raced horizon-ward with wheat and corn. We often glimpsed pheasants running through the fields. As the evenings came sooner and sooner, I slowly realized I wouldn’t be able to make it back to Montana for the hunting season. Drew and I ground our teeth as bouquets of plump pheasant exploded from the roadside. Though the birds stayed out of range for rocks, we stumbled upon an excellent if somewhat unorthodox way of adding fowl to our diet.
One day, we found a completely intact hen in the road. Drew and I stopped. It looked perfectly fine. A quick prod beneath its feathers revealed it was still warm. It had been freshly hit!
Drew and I exchanged glances, and a certain song by the Ringling 5 started resounding in my head. If it’s good enough for Shields Valley ranchers, it’s good enough for me, I reasoned. Drew and I cleaned the pheasant in the bushes and stored it for dinner.
Our bike mates looked skeptical as we chopped the bird into our communal pot. However, as the savory aroma of roasting pheasant engulfed our campsite, their taste buds brought them back to sensibility.
Eating roadkill wasn’t the only sign that our social status had declined. My beard-faithful crumb-catcher and bug filter that it is-no longer associated me with piousness, as it did in India, but with disregard for hygiene and fashion. Bathing in rivers and eating in parks didn’t win us any status points, either.
However, we still found ourselves at the receiving end of much kindness. An Austrian woman let us camp on her farm. A portrait painter in Bratislava insisted on drawing us for free.
An ancient little man flagged me down in Hungary. He grilled Peter and I about our trip outside his yard. His lawn, across which artillery pieces lay strewn, resembled a museum. He ordered us to wait five minutes and retreated into his house. The inquisitive stranger soon emerged. He stumbled back to us and passed me a bag of sweets. Though we were in a bit of a hurry, I was overcome with curiosity and posed my own question to the man: “Were you part of the revolution here?” I asked. ”Wait ten minutes,” replied the man, his clear blue eyes flashing, and he led us into his home. We realized the structure did indeed double as a museum.
Edmund Pongratz was not only part of the revolution-he helped lead it. In 1956, Hungarians started a rebellion that expelled Soviet forces from Hungary in a matter of days. “They wanted to make us Russian,” Edmund told me when I asked why he had fought the Soviets and their supporters. “We wanted to be free,” he said, before demonstrating how he threw Molatav cocktails at Soviet tanks.
In the end, the Hungarian revolution was not successful. The Russians had reinforcements. They returned in force days after they had been expelled and subjected Hungary to an even harsher form of dictatorial governance. Edmund’s museum didn’t focus on the aftermath of the revolution, however. Instead, it focuses on the spirit of independence and heroism demonstrated by the rebels. That is undoubtedly the most important part of their story.
Edmund proved that he can focus on the most important things in other areas, too. “Some people might look at you and say ‘Who are those monks with big beards?’ But I look at you and know you’re good guys.” We left with a bag full of sweets and confidence that not everyone will judge us based on our beards.
Later, as the Slovakian policemen chased us out of our venue, we felt unsettled. The distaste of clashing with authority figures disinclined us from further playing. However, I thought of the Hungarian revolutionaries. They stood up to things much worse than harsh language. Not playing meant a lower food budget and less opportunity to meet people. We obtained the permit we didn’t know we had to have and played again on the streets of Bratislava. The policemen returned, but this time we responded to their gruff language with the permit. I hope I never have to face down a hostile tank. In the meantime, however, there are many small ways in which we all can immolate the valor of the Hungarian revolutionaries like Edmund.