I wasn’t psyched about Siófok’s underwhelming Pálinka festival, but it turned out to be a worthwhile trip after I bought a hand-made drinking flask from the most famous bank robber in Hungary.
The festival was a collection of booths displaying local crafts, alcohol and food scattered among a few aging fair rides. We wandered the grounds, shouting over slightly out-of-date pop music, and sucking in the sweet smell of warm dough. I cradled a styrofoam cup of forralt bor, constantly sipping the hot mulled wine to fend off the November chill. As I pondered why Hungarians always insist on serving their otherwise fantastic alcoholic concoctions out of disposable cups, Eszter nudged me.
“Look there,” she said, pointing to a wooden booth displaying an assortment of garish ceramic crafts. A friendly looking man in a silly Hungarian fur hat stood behind it with his hands shoved into his pockets.
“There is the most famous bank-robber in Hungary,” she said, pointing to the man.
“What, the dude in the hat?” I asked as he waved and smiled at a small child
“Yes,” she said excitedly, “he robbed maybe 20 banks in Hungary.”
I studied him harder, noticing his distinct lack of crazy-eyes and kind, weathered face. He fished a small a ceramic whistle out of his pocket and handed it to the child, giving her a goofy grin. He looked like he might dress up as Santa Clause to entertain his nieces and nephews on Christmas, not go on a mass crime spree.
“What the hell is the most famous bank robber in Hungary doing in Siófok?” I asked, trying to gauge Eszter’s expression.
“He must have been let out of jail,” she said smiling.
Great, another strange Hungarian practical joke my Canadian brain will never fathom, I thought as we approached the booth, there is absolutely no way that guy just got out of jail; nobody wearing a hat that absurd could possibly be a criminal.
But of course he had been. Later I would look him up and discover that in the 90′s Attila Ambrus pulled off 27 robberies in Hungary while working as a professional hockey player. He became famous for dressing in outlandish disguises and being a consummate gentleman during the heists. By the time he was finally nabbed he had forged himself a kind of twisted Robin Hood image and charmed nearly the entire country.
“He’s called the Whiskey Robber,” Eszter told me, “because he was always drinking in the bar nearby before he robbed somewhere,” and I half expected her to start jumping up and down squealing girlishly.
We approached his booth and Eszter started chatting with him in Hungarian. After a few minutes she filled me in on their conversation. Apparently he had learned to make crude ceramics in prison, and was now cashing in on his reputation by hawking a line of self-branded “Whiskey Robber” ceramic drinking flasks at out-of-the-way community fairs.
I looked at the man in disbelief, picking up a bulky flask with a cartoonish man holding a gun and a big sack carved into it. The whiskey robber took it from me, pulled out a sharpie, and with smile lingering between sheepish and proud signed the bottom.
Still smiling, he said something like “for you, 5000 Forints,” and handed it back to me.
I couldn’t dig the money out of my wallet fast enough. I handed him the money, thanked him and shook his hand. As we turned to leave he started speaking rapidly in Hungarian, gesturing to the flask. I turned to Eszter for help, and as he repeated his message she smiled.
“He says it’s very important you know that it is 100% usable,” she said, and the Whiskey Robber let out a slight chuckle and flashed me a big, dumb thumbs up.