Evening Standard, 8 February 1999
A scream of a weekend
Monica Porter was expecting a romantic break in Vienna with a smooth and seductive Hungarian businessman…what she got was more like something out of Psycho Meets the Third Man
IT WAS the sort of offer no red-blooded woman could refuse. “Let me take you away for the weekend. How about Vienna? It’s beautiful, and so romantic.” That’s what he said. Romantic. But boy was I in for a bummer.
“He” is Laszlo, a Hungarian businessman based in Budapest. We’ve known each other a few years, and on my last visit to that city our friendship bloomed into an incipient affair. He was smooth and seductive as we sipped drinks in swanky bars and sailed around in his shiny Mercedes.
So a weekend in Vienna sounded a pretty good deal. Candlelit dinners in art-nouveau restaurants. A room in a cosy hotel, perhaps an evening at the opera, and loads of Sachertorte.
The arrangement was that I would fly there from London while Laszlo drove from Budapest and picked me up at the airport. When I landed he was there to greet me with a kiss. So far so gut. Then we strolled out to his car and my spirits sank. Instead of the Mercedes, he put my case into a rusty old Lada, explaining that the Merc was out of action because of engine trouble so he had to use his “second” car.
I groaned as I got in. It was grimy and smelly. Worse still, it made alarming noises as we set off towards the city complemented by flashing red lights on the dashboard. Laszlo looked worried and stopped to peer under the bonnet. I was relieved when we finally arrived (about an hour late, as Laszlo got lost). It was early evening.
“Where’s our hotel?” I asked.
“Oh, I didn’t book anywhere,” he replied nonchalantly. “Don’t worry. Vienna has lots of hotels. We’ll find a room easily.”
We spent the next two hours spluttering around in the decrepit Lada, searching for a place to stay. Thanks to some mammoth international convention, all the decent hotels were full. Then, down a narrow sidestreet, we spotted a dingy hotel with a “vacancies” sign and went in. The drab foyer was empty but for a creepy-looking receptionist who eyed us warily.
“Forget it,” I hissed at Laszlo. I had no intention of checking in with Norman Bates.
In the end, we drove back to the airport and booked into the Novotel beside the terminal building. We were shown to a characterless, white plastic room. I didn’t care. By now it was 10pm and I was exhausted, and starving. Weakly, I led the way down to the restaurant.
“I’m not hungry,” said Laszlo, “but you have something, if you like.”
I ordered a meal and a glass of wine, while he asked only for tap water, which I thought a bit odd.
Afterwards, as I headed for our room, he said he was popping out to the Lada to get his “things”.
Within minutes he returned, carrying two bulging plastic bags.
“What’s all that?”
“You’ll see.” With a knowing smile, he proceeded to empty the bags of their contents: heaps of salami sandwiches and fried chicken (all wrapped neatly in tin foil), soft drinks, pastries, apples and bananas. He laid the stuff out on the table, then started scoffing a greasy drumstick. I was speechless.
Laszlo had brought enough food from home to last the weekend.
Amazingly, he expected me to share it with him. Picnics in a hotel room. What kind of cheap date did he take me for? Then he told me about his problems. Business was bad. He had the tax authorities on his back. Useless employees. A grasping ex-wife. Threats from gangsters … For the next two days I had to listen to his woes on the tour bus, in the parks, on the giant Ferris wheel (while I tried to concentrate on that scene from The Third Man). In Sacher’s I had a slice of the famous chocolate cake and he consumed another glass of water. By now you get the picture.
But, you might ask, what of the (dare I say it?) nights of wild passion? The raison d’etre of any romantic weekend break. Well, as every woman knows, when a man behaves badly there’s only one thing for it. You let him see the gates of paradise, but keep them firmly shut.
Laszlo thought he’d get me on the cheap. But I made him pay, big time.