Singing for their supper

Two musicians take a road trip across eastern Europe - and the result is madness

Radio 4's The Goulash Archipelago (21 November, 11am) was a captivating documentary that followed two musicians as they travelled from Budapest deep into Transylvania's Carpathian mountains without offering money for their food - only music. The British jazz bass player Arnie Somogyi was the convivial narrator, but his companion, Zsolt Bende - a Hungarian guitarist - emerged as the star, a wry figure fond of the word "actually" and forever discovered doing things worth commenting on.

So Arnie might say, "Zsolt is currently using a small rubber pipette to blow air into his ears", or "Zsolt is now doing close to 100 miles an hour full of soup", and I found myself standing closer and closer to the radio trying to detect sounds of this Zsolt, really wanting to catch his mood, as the pair spent hours in a hire car scouting for restaurants that looked obliging.

On day two they headed towards the Carpathians over a soundtrack of lightly anxious jazz. Off they went, past, one imagined (because this was radio as beautifully and weirdly visual as can be described), fog banks and old discarded buses, on the kinds of roads littered with little crosses at the sides where drivers were busy changing the tape when it all went wrong.

Soon they came to the River Tisza. God, this land is flat, says Arnie: "It's a bit like Norfolk. Have you ever been to Norfolk?" "No, actually," says Zsolt. "I might check it out. I hear the people look like sheeps."

I am by no means a well-travelled person. In fact, I haven't been anywhere much at all. But I did once follow a man to Romania to basically watch him eat potato wedges at the top of a Carpathian mountain and then ski down it, and stayed at a Ceausescu-era hotel that dripped mould into its basement swimming pool, around which handsome ex-Olympic gymnasts in white coats gave the kind of massages that challenge the spine while at night doubling as whizz barmen who turned all the drinks neon blue with a delicious food dye otherwise developed to blow up the world.

As romantic as all this was, I can safely report that by far the best thing about Romania were the dogs that hung about at bus stops. I say dogs, but really they are benign monsters (the locals called them urs - bear) with icicles hanging off their kindly beards and eyes that stared tragically into the inn they'd just followed you at a polite distance for two hours through the forest to get to.

Well, it's at precisely this kind of dog-surrounded, tree-dark inn where Zsolt finally has his first free soup and the programme sped into a glorious madness. "My belly is full of soup, you know? And meat. It's got soup and meat and beans. In that order!" (More driving, jazz noodling in the background.) "La laaaaaa la la la-la-laaaaaurr," sings Zsolt, lightly. "Hungarian plains, and depression and suicide. And coffee and sadness and aggression. And all that . . . la la."

Some time passes. "It's absolutely rubbish here, isn't it?" says Arnie.

"Erm, I like it, actually," says Zsolt. "La la la laaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaa.''

"How can you be so lively after the amount you drank last night?"

"LA LA LA LAAAAAAAAAAAA!" (Who is this guy, and where the hell do I get one?)

Pick of the week

All White Now
22 November, 7pm, Radio 2
Forty years of the White Album, and we still haven’t done it in the road.

The Goulash Archipelago
28 November, 11am, Radio 4
The second, and final, part in which the musicians Arnie and Zsolt stay at Dracula’s castle.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess