A staccato of racing engines and squealing tires disrupted our Saturday morning. After an hour, I realized the regular and repetitive noise wasn’t spawned from some random event – a few young guys fooling around and peeling out at a traffic light. So we stepped outside to check it out.
Families lined the bike path overlooking the road which runs along the Danube in front of our apartment. Police had cordoned off this section and set up a line of orange construction cones topped with bright yellow tennis balls. Streaks of tire rubber stained the pavement and a whiff of burning oil tinged the air.
A car roared out of the gates as an announcer shouted in Hungarian and the crowd cheered. The driver bobbed and weaved around the cones like a slalom skier. At the midway point, he slid the car into a 360 degree turn, fishtailing and barely in control, before shooting back to the start, repeating the jerky turn and heading our way again. This time, he raced past, swishing back and forth around the cones in a mad sprint to the finish line.
Some of the cars sported numbers and stripes –all indications driven by professional racers. Others seemed to be the family car, recommissioned by two helmet-less numbskulls, one lackadaisically hanging his arm out the passenger window. One car was a Prius-type executing more of a K-turn than a 360 degree, madcap skid.
A few cars rocked and shuddered, barely in control. One false move, one overly aggressive turn, and the car would roll into the officials perched behind a flimsy barrier at the course edge. I wanted to scream, “What are you people thinking?!”
Instead, I laughed until I wiped tears off my cheeks. I looked up at Pat who was laughing also. “Where are we? I love this place!”
As an Americans, I grew up entrenched in freedom. I embraced our right to say what we believed and accepted that others can, and will, do the same. Americans question, challenge, and attack pretty much anything and everything – especially ourselves.
Freedom of speech and the press is less of a contact sport in Hungary.
Yet, I increasingly realize America isn’t quite the “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” that we sing about. This wild and crazy drag race would only happen on a darkened city street well after midnight. It certainly would not occur under the watchful eye of cheering families, children in strollers holding balloons – a crowd by all appearances on their way to the state far.
After the drag race, we attended a party with friends from work – Hungarians. As I retold the story, I mentioned it didn’t look all that safe. “What does it matter Julie? They choose to do it. If they get hurt, that’s their choice.”
What a novel concept; participation in risky activities with full awareness of the danger and acceptance of the consequences of our own free choice. Personal responsibility. Nah. That idea will never fly back home.
In the United States, we would race down the streets, suffer the predictable crash, and become seriously injured. The next part is where the story deviates. Americans would be more inclined to sue every local and state government agency, the car maker, the event sponsor and his grannie.
Perhaps you can argue that a government should pass laws to protect its citizens. Or perhaps you could argue that the United States is governed by attorneys who build up massive fortunes representing people with no concept of personal accountability. Take your pick. After all, it is a free country.
I just think that the “land of the free and the home of the brave” might be a misnomer. Talk is cheap. Actually talk is free. Accidents are the stuff of millionaires.
If some guy in Budapest races down the city center in a souped-up car, flips, and is seriously injured, his friends will raise shots of palinka and toast the sorry, stupid bastard. His wife and family won’t get rich. Matter of fact, they will likely become pretty darn poor. That’s the fallout of personal responsibility.
Call drag racing through the city stupid, thoughtless or both. Yet I applaud the acceptance of personal responsibility- no matter how crazed the pursuit. To me, that’s a pretty darn free and brave concept.
Categories: Insiders Budapest