Somogy Tales: The bats of Marcali

The list of bats in Hungary includes: Bechstein’s bat, the Lesser mouse-eared bat, Brandt’s bat, the Pond bat, Geoffroy’s bat, the Greater mouse-eared bat, the Whiskered bat, Natterer’s bat, Schaub’s myotis, the Giant noctule, the Western barbastelle, the Lesser noctule, the Gray big-eared bat, the Mediterranean horseshoe bat, the Northern bat, the Greater horseshoe bat, the Serotine, the Lesser horseshoe bat, the European free-tailed bat, the Nathusius’ pipistrelle, and this little guy, the Common pipistrelle. Photo by Mnoll (from Austria) via Wikimedia Commons.

The skies were darkening over Marcali as I walked around the bus station. The two sports bars nearby showed the early minutes of a football game as patrons quietly watched, still in the socializing phase of their evening ritual of beer and bad calls by the referee. I walked past, wondering if my lack of fascination with the sport was causing me to miss out on some part of life (I had been an avid Seattle fan in basketball and the American version of football, so I already knew what sports spectatorship was about).

I started back toward the terminal to sit out my two hour wait for the last bus home when in the twilight tiny wings buzzed inches from my head. I didn’t think anything of it as birds would do the same to me during the day, particularly when I got close to the cherry tree on the farm in Gadany. But then as I got to the bus entrance drive, where the big green Kados Volan machines come in to park while they pick up passengers, I saw that in fact these little wings I kept hearing weren’t birds, they were bats.

The novelty of the situation, bat wings buzzing inches from my head, made me think whether I should go into some sort of defensive mode or not. Since Bram Stoker, during an afternoon’s rainy day storytelling, introduced the concept of a half-human half-bat vampire in the late 1800s that somehow came from that former Hungarian region in Romania called Transylvania, it has been engrained in English-speaking people’s heads that the middle and lower Danubian countries share some sort of supernatural vampire curse, and these little guys cutting it a bit close on the echolocation were not really doing that much to dispel the myth. I had a group of four that were buzzing me as I walked up to the edge of the terminal.

Then I started thinking, really, out of all the people in this area, I should be the least concerned about these bats. I’ve been in Mendoza, in eastern Argentina, where vampire bats are real, and I knew this much about them:

  1. They don’t like cities or towns, so you aren’t likely to encounter them walking home on a city street.
  2. Their preferred “prey” is not the human, which can flail two arms and flick them off the back of the neck generally at will, but the sleeping cow. So, in order to attract a real vampire bat, you have to somehow resemble a sleeping cow (being prone after drunkenly falling on your face on a lone stumble home from the bar in a cow field away from street lights – well, that might almost do it).
  3. There have to be no real sleeping cows around (nothing resembles a sleeping cow like a sleeping cow).
  4. Even if you were bit by one (which you wouldn’t know about probably until the hangover headache was gone and you had the chance to shower), you wouldn’t turn into a vampire bat, though the required rabies shot might make you howl like a werewolf.

In this situation, in the Samogy county of Hungary, far from the territory of any sub-tropical vampire bat, these little guys weren’t after me. They were after the bugs near my head, many of which were in fact after my blood. These were my little buddies, coming to rescue me from mosquitoes that were following my trail of carbon dioxide exhale. I had to smile – how cool is that, I thought.

I sat down on a waiting bench in a dark part of the terminal to watch them, and as the stars came out twinkling above, the bats were doing their aerobatic maneuvers below. Then came that already familiar station wagon with light bars, the local police, who were on a routine cruise of the bus station. I didn’t mind that so much – they had already stopped me to check my identification on Sunday, when what was likely a suspicious parishioner called them in after this dark-clothed foreign stranger attended mass at the little 18th century church in Gadany (that was a cultural interest – I wanted to see if there were any detectable differences in the catechism between the Spanish, Polish, and English versions, and the Hungarian version) – what I really minded was the headlights.

Of course the two cops stepped right on out of their vehicle and expressed their interested in what I was doing alone on a darkened waiting bench in a mostly empty station. I responded in English that I was just watching the bats. I wasn’t sure whether it was the content of the answer (presuming they understood me) that scared them off, or the fact that my response was in English, but they just looked at each other, said “okay” and moved along. Unfortunately, by the time they had left, my four little bat buddies had moved along as well.

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