There comes that moment when you are bound to ask the inevitable question, “How did I get us into this mess?” We were stuck in an ice induced traffic jam on the M1 in western Hungary and there was little hope of going very far. The cause of our current situation was my own chronic impatience. It had led me to ignore the gray bellies of cloud that had begun to loom on the horizon just beyond Gyor. The sky soon began to spit pellets of sleet and snow onto the motorway. Instead of stopping before nightfall and prior to a thin sheet of ice covering Transdanubia, I stubbornly forged onward. I did this in consultation with myself and that is exactly who I now had to blame. My lack of forethought had led to the moment of no going forward and no going back. We were stuck.
In a matter of minutes, I went from having visions of Debrecen dancing in my head to hoping we might make it to the next exit and find a warm hotel room where we could wait out this winter weather. I suspected that the hundreds of cars in front of us were asking themselves what next as well. They had a better excuse than I did for being out in this weather. This was their commute, whereas it was my crisis. Fifty kilometers ago the road had been clear. The wind was fierce, but that need not detain anyone. This had been the bluster before the storm. Then the situation had gradually gotten worse, until I suddenly realized that we were in danger of ending up in a ditch.
Dwindling Options – Hungary’s Version of the Highway Patrol
In defiance of fate, I decided that we should continue heading eastward. I began making ridiculous calculations in my head, such as how long it might take to get to Debrecen going 60 kilometers per hour. The thought of a nine-hour drive in an ice storm was not exactly energizing. We soon passed close to the city of Tata, which lies in a valley between the Gerecse and Vertes Mountains. As such, the topography had become increasingly rugged. This only served to heighten the danger of driving in the increasingly treacherous conditions. We were now on suspect terrain, inching our way towards Budapest. The Hungarian capital now seemed like an unattainable fantasy. From where we were sitting on the M1 to the city center would have taken less than an hour in normal conditions, now it was hours away at best and that was only if we wanted to risk our lives. My stress level increased exponentially with each tap of the brakes and slip of the wheels. We kept hoping to come upon an exit. What we found instead was almost as good, the green and blue illuminated neon of an OMV (Österreichische Mineralölverwaltung or Austrian Mineral Administration) gas station. Here was our proverbial shelter amid the wintry storm.
Pulling into the OMV was a welcome break from keeping an iron grip on the steering wheel in a futile effort to exercise a modicum of control over the car. To our surprise, we found several officers of the Hungarian version of the highway patrol standing inside. They had decided to make this station their evening hangout. They stood around sipping coffee while seemingly oblivious to the fact that the motorway had turned into a chaotic morass. These men had that look of complete indifference which is the eternal resting face of every Hungarian police officer. They affected an attitude of genteel neutrality, which might also best describe the face they present to the world. These officers have never failed to impress as well as perplex me with their willful nonchalance. I have never once seen them get excited. Perhaps their stoic demeanor is a way of keeping the enemy guessing. There were no enemies on this night, only beleaguered travelers contemplating their rapidly dwindling options.
Opposites Attract – A Winter Haven
I coaxed my wife to ask the officer’s their opinion of the road conditions closer to Budapest. I watched with bemusement as an officer and his colleague answered without a hint of emotion. Watching the officer talk was fascinating. He offered up an emotionless monologue, a neither here nor there kind of conversation. He would have made a great poker player. Though he gave little outward hint of negativity, I could tell by the length of his monologue that he did not think travel was a good idea. This was rather obvious since he and his colleague were not on the road either. My wife reported back to me that one of the officers said traveling to Budapest was only in a madman’s best interest. The road was a sheet of ice and conditions were only going to get worse. I had the confirmation now needed to start imagining an evening spent in some roadside inn. At this point, any roadside inn would do, the nearer the better. The officers pointed out that there was a hotel connected to another OMV station. It was very close, hardly a kilometer away as the crow flies. There was only one problem, it happened to be on the opposite side of the motorway.
A plan was soon hatched. We would head eastward in search of an exit that would allow us to do a prolonged U-turn and get back on the motorway in the opposite direction. We would then head westward, back the same way we came for a few kilometers. This would bring us to the OMV where had a hotel stood nearby. The hotel would turn out be rather quiet and quaint. Amazingly, we had little trouble getting to the hotel and procuring a room. The ad hoc plan worked to perfection. Probably because I was not the one making it. Dinner was procured at the OMV. There is something quite wonderful about having a fistful of dark chocolate bars for supper. The fact that we were now safe brought an unspoken elation. It is comforting to be in a nice warm room after fearing for your life only an hour earlier.