Why you absolutely should not get a concussion in Eastern Europe

It’s a matter of personal – well, not pride – but I guess interest that for all three days of my life I’ve spent in Budapest, I’ve seen a member of the public bleeding from their head. I know, what a world we live in …

The first of these bloody Budapest bungles occurred in December 2011, at about 4:30 am. My mate Josh and I had just arrived on a night train and were wandering the cold, dark city, hostel-less and looking for some kind of food/Wi-Fi combination. We’d successfully found the first component of our goal and were enjoying an unidentified pastry in an all-night bakery when we heard an almighty THWACK outside.

Naturally, we poked our heads out to see what was going on. What we saw was a middle-aged, definitely drunk, probably homeless man groaning in the gutter, blood oozing through what little hair he had remaining. Standing over him in stunned hopelessness was a slightly younger man who was clearly the driver responsible for hitting him. There was no one else around.

What unfolded over the next hour or so was pure Tragicomedy™. We asked the driver somewhat ambitiously if he spoke English, then upon receiving a bemused shrug in response, mimed the internationally recognised hand-to-ear signal for “telephone” while slowly and loudly saying variations of the word “AMBULANCE”. Nothing. Nada. Realising that the guy was too dumbstruck to apply even the most straightforward common sense to the situation, we went back into the bakery to ask for some help.

The conversation with the bakery woman went something like this:

Us: Do you speak English?

Woman: Little.

Us: Could you please call an ambulance for the man outside?

Woman: No.

Us: What? But he’s been hit by a car and is bleeding from his head!

Woman: No.

Us: Fuck’s sake!

Back outside, the dimwitted driver had still failed to grasp the idea that he should probably do something to help the guy he’d knocked over. A few more attempts at cross-cultural communication ensued, culminating in something along the lines of “CALL A GOD DAMN AMBULANCE YOU FUCKING SPANNER!” That worked …

Hungarian funny
Hungarian: hard enough to understand at the best of times …

Unfortunately the concept of ‘urgency’ doesn’t seem to have a translation in the Hungarian language (actually, according to Google Translate it’s sürgősség. Seriously …). So while the poor victim lolled around in the gutter, probably concussed and definitely still bleeding, we waited for 40 excruciating minutes. I wrapped my jacket around the homeless guy, endowing it with a potent odour that to this day remains ingrained in its lining …

Finally the ambulance rocked up and the driver got out, with a look in his eyes that said “You thought this was a farce? You ain’t seen nothing yet!”. He proceeded to STEP OVER the victim, shake the driver’s hand and engage him in a five-minute chat so friendly that I surmised they must actually be mates. Then (and I will always remember this moment ‘til the day I die) he went over and INSPECTED THE CAR FOR DAMAGE WHILE THE VICTIM LAY ON THE GROUND, STILL BLEEDING. Josh and I protested by asking “What the fuck are you doing??”, which I assume the medic translated in his mind as “Is the car okay?”. Finally, the ambulance driver gave the victim the most cursory of examinations, told him to get up and made him GET IN THE AMBULANCE BY HIMSELF while he finished chatting with his mate.

This introduction to Budapest taught me to never, ever call for a Hungarian ambulance unless I wanted to put my worst enemy through pure hell …

***

Having spent only the one day in Budapest in 2011, I returned in 2015 for a couple of days with my family, determined to see the city in a fresh, less blood-soaked light. That optimism lasted for approximately eight hours …

After dark had fallen, I decided to take a stroll around my inner-city neighbourhood, not realising that I was in Crack Central. This soon became apparent when I saw a couple of druggies having that kind of loud, public argument that transcends the language barrier. I instinctively swerved away from the shouting match, but just before I could make a clean escape, the female addict performed an absolute 10 out of 10 body slam on the poor, innocent ground.

Damo and Darren
Gotta love a good old druggie argument.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s reflexes give up so thoroughly as hers did in that moment. Within a split second she’d gone from perfectly vertical to perfectly horizontal, in as smooth an arc as the minute hand on a clock. She wasn’t pushed; she fell as rigidly as a plank of timber, with her drugged-out mind not even capable of thrusting her hands out to break her fall. The crack of her skull hitting the pavement still rings vividly in my mind.

I’d like to say I responded heroically, but in fact my first thought was “Are you fucking kidding me? Do I really have to deal with this?”. I saw a clearly sober woman who’d seen the incident walking briskly through the square, so I stopped her and asked if she spoke English. “No,” she said, not breaking stride. As she hurried off I wondered if she was some horrible reincarnation of the bakery woman …

I was bracing myself to deal with more Hungarian head blood, more miming and the even harder task of trying to some kind of sense out of a non-English-speaking junkie when my saviour arrived. From across the square, a police officer – clearly bound by his job to offer help as unenthusiastically as possible – arrived to look after the woman, who was alive and moving, although probably still in some unfathomable alternate reality. I felt obliged to ask the officer if I could help, but when he told me it was all under control I pretty much jumped for joy and headed straight off to get some food. For some reason I felt like a jam doughnut …

***

Another day, another Hungarian head wound. By the time I saw this third incident I wondered how I still didn’t know the Hungarian word for “HELP!” or have the emergency services number saved in my phone.

Actually, this was the briefest but saddest of all my Hungarian headscapades. I was heading down the escalator of a relatively crowded metro station when, a few steps in front of me, an old woman totally stacked it and hit her head. Another woman – I’m assuming her daughter – helped her straight up. She was conscious, but was bleeding from her scalp and was clearly dazed and disoriented, to the point where she must’ve had some kind of concussion.

At the bottom of the escalator, a German girl and I tried to help the women who, of course, didn’t speak English. I was quite shaken up by how clearly disoriented the head-woundee was, but her daughter seemed completely unalarmed, almost jovial about the whole incident. Before we’d had time to gather our thoughts, the daughter was leading her blood-soaked mother down to the platform, and the German stranger and I were left wondering how anybody can survive a day in this fucking country without wearing a helmet …

extreme grannie
My standard travel attire from now on.

The reason I’m writing about this today is that, about two hours ago, I saw a large crowd gathered outside the pizza joint on the main street of my neighbourhood in Belgrade. A 50-something man was lying on the ground, breathing but essentially unresponsive, with a welt of red blood spreading through his short grey hair. I didn’t see him fall, but my assumption is that he fainted from the heat and whacked his head on the way down.

At least 10 people were gathered around the bloke, but it was clear that none of us really knew what to do. Several women were fanning him with pizza boxes, while others tried splashing water over his face and body. One woman was holding his hand and calling out to him: “Gospodin, gospodin!” (“Mister, mister!”). Nothing worked.

The longer we went without a response and the longer it took for the ambulance to arrive, the more worried I became. I also realised how completely useless I was in this situation, with no understanding of what the man required from a first aid perspective. My Serbian vocabulary for dealing with head wounds was, I discovered, non-existent.

Of course, an ambulance had been called, but it seemed to be operating on the ‘Budapest’ level of urgency and was taking an eternity to arrive. To add another element of ridiculousness to the situation, we were about 300 m from a hospital. It would’ve literally been quicker to haul the guy into a shopping trolley and take him there ourselves.

Thankfully, this story ends as well as it could. After a wait of at least 20 minutes, which seemed more like 20 hours, an ambulance finally arrived. Like a sleeping princess awakened by the kiss of a charming prince, the victim started to move and talk upon the arrival of the plain-clothes medics, who moved him onto an incredibly unstable-looking stretcher and into the back of the ambulance.

As the crowd dispersed, relieved, I wondered if the incident would stop me from enjoying the ice coffee I’d been so looking forward to (it didn’t). If anything, it was a sobering reminder that, as much as I love this part of the world, there are certain things that you just don’t want to have to deal with when you’re overseas, and a concussion is high up on that list. So you’ll understand if for the rest of my travelling days you see me sporting some protective headgear, like the trend-setting fashionista I am …

Love, peace and joy,

TT

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