I was 27 years old and heart-broken having just split from a long term relationship and my first love. During our time together we travelled extensively. We stayed in homes with hosts we’d only just met who offered us a bed or a meal or a lift to the next town. We made lifelong friends as well as having fleeting encounters that enriched our experiences and deepened our knowledge of the places we visited.
I wanted to be able to continue my intrepid travelling but needed to build up my confidence of going away on my own. I was working in the airlines and entitled to travel concessions. I decided on a jaunt to Budapest as a first step in my rehabilitation and ease back into the world as a singleton. My ticket was standby and I was delighted to be handed a business class boarding pass. What a good start.
I found my seat, sandwiched between two suited men. The older gent, with his bald plate and pale clammy skin, reminded me of someone but a name wouldn’t come to mind.
He started up conversation as the complimentary champagne was served. Was I travelling for business or pleasure? No one wants to hear that the person next to them got their seat for free. So I told him how I loved to visit European capitals, that I’d never been to Budapest before and had always wanted to. All true and then a fib. My heart was heavy as I spoke about a boyfriend who couldn’t join me on this trip, but if I liked what I saw would come with me next time.
He was a doctor working in a hospital in London and attending a conference in Budapest.
We spoke for most of the trip. I gave my fictional boyfriend the attributes of my ex and I found it comforting to talk in the present tense about someone I’d just lost.
He was the perfect gentleman. A driver was meeting him in arrivals and taking him to his five star hotel in central Budapest. I could share his ride. Why not save myself the hassle and expense of a public transport system I wasn’t familiar with yet. I could make my way then from the city centre to my budget hotel. I graciously accepted his offer.
Sitting in the black limo he pointed out some landmark sites in Budapest. He told me the city looked magical lit up at night. He would be engaged with conference matters until six but if I met him at his hotel at seven, we could dine at his favourite local eatery and there’d be time for a spin around the city too.
I said my boyfriend would be delighted to hear I’d made friends with a local and would be having a tour later.
This solo trip was going better than I could have imagined. I caught a tram to my very modest digs, freshened up and made my way back into the city centre, visiting some of the places he had recommended.
At seven I waited for him in the foyer of his hotel and when he appeared he greeted me warmly. He suggested we take in the night sights first. Budapest has earned its moniker as the Paris of the East and sparkles at night. We drove past Buda Castle and over the chain bridge which straddles the Danube ending up in a local eatery where he was known.
I was offered wine but declined. It was over Goulash soup that I first began to feel uncomfortable. He was steering our conversation into murky waters. He talked about the foreign hospitality that’s offered to a businessman like him. I heard of a banquet he attended in Cairo where young boys crept under the tablecloths. I will leave it to your imagination to guess what was on offer though he didn’t leave it to mine. I was shocked. Other experiences in Asia and the Middle East were recounted. I didn’t want to listen but felt trapped. I didn’t know how to get him to stop. Any chance I got I changed the conversation back to innocuous tales from my travels with my ex.
When dinner was over we were returned by car to his hotel. Thankfully ‘normal’ chat resumed. He asked If I’d come in for a drink. I didn’t want to and made excuses. He pleaded. He’d insisted on paying for dinner so I thought I should stand him one quick drink at the bar before I’d scoot off. Once in his hotel however he suggested we head to his suite and have our drinks there. I declined and offered again to have one for the road at the hotel bar. He placed his hands on my hips and said “No,come to my room”. In that moment there was no ambiguity about his intentions. Finally. I said a firm “No”. Before releasing his grip on me he said “Well a kiss then?” I mentioned my boyfriend and his wife.
I gave him a peck on his cheek and wriggled myself out of his clasp, turning on my heel as I shouted back “Thanks for dinner” and sprinted for the hotel’s revolving doors. I was shaken and incredulous. I ran over the events in my head. Had I given him any encouragement or anything he could have misconstrued as interest? On the contrary I thought. And what of the age difference. I couldn’t get my head around his audacity. How could he think I’d be romantically interested in him? He was well over twice my age and looked like Gorbachev.
I don’t believe I was in any real danger from him but I shouldn’t have had to endure his dirty talk or his indecent proposal and I wish I’d have been able to walk out on him over dinner. What would I say to my younger self now? Well done for staying true to who you are. If I became more guarded and wary I would have missed out on many wonderful experiences and friendships with decent people subsequently. Oh and sometimes it’s OK to say F**k off.