One of the "letters" from my travels. This one is about Budapest and the friends I met.
|Once again I've come to a place that I find hard to describe, but I'll see if I can do it anyway. Budapest is a grand city and it's one I know I'll come back to one of these days. However I know the next time I come back it might not be the same. Sure the city will be mostly unchanged, the same buildings, same streets. It's the people that will have changed. It's the people that are the reason I'll tell people, "Yeah, Budapest was one of my favorite places."
Here I am, sitting in a guy named Galen's apartment. It's a wonderful little place with a kitchen, living room, and a bathroom. In the living room there's a lofted bedroom on wooden beams. The walls are mostly stone and brick as well as the ceiling. Unfortunately the dust from the brick may be causing Galen to have an allergic reaction but it's arguably worth it to live in such a cool place. It's so "Euro". Plus we're right next to St. Stephen's Basilica, it might be a three minute walk if you turn off all the lights and lock the door on the way out. Technically I'm couchsurfing but really it feels more like sleeping over at a friend's house. Those that are curious may wonder "But Zeb, how did you end up there?" And that's where the story begins.
Way back in the days of Iceland I was chatting with my friend Camille on Facebook. Camille is one of the first people I ever traveled outside the US with. She was a trip leader when I went to Peru. Through Facebook I'd learn that she was headed to Budapest and she mentioned I should come visit. In retrospect I really hope she was sincere. Normally this is a thing said just to be said. Had she really expected me jump on board so eagerly at the chance to see Budapest? It was a plan made so far in advance, maybe I wouldn't really make it or back out. Thankfully, I think she was glad to have me here. If not, Camille, you should consider a career in acting. Or politics. Back in Iceland Hungary had seemed like a dream, something vague but a bit tangible. Maybe it was possible I'd make it there. Soon enough I was woken up as the plane touched down with a rumble. Ready or not there I was. The day before arrival I had discovered a campsite which was conveniently right next to CEU's dorms and this is where I headed after landing. I'd pay 3,000 HUF (~15 USD) to catch a ride in a minibus to the dorm about 40 minutes away. This is compared to the 45 USD I paid in Norway to go six miles. Starting off with a good impression. Camille was locked in a desperate battle with an eight hour long exam which is something I'd rather not know exists. Like the boogeyman. Who is so bold to play God and create such a beast? My palms sweat just thinking about it. Because of this she was not able to meet me when I first arrived so I headed for the campsite on my own.
When arriving at the campsite I was greeted by a beefy dog named "Titus" that decided I was a bit of an intruder. Possibly due to my working with the sled dogs I decided to ignore his barking advance and walked right by into the reception. In hindsight maybe I should have waited for the woman to come outside first. Maybe I'm lucky that I didn't spend my first few days here getting stitched up. Either way, I soon learned that reception was closed and I'd have to come back in the morning but I could pitch my tent wherever I wanted. Escorted by Titus I headed into the campsite over the "babbling brook" (sewer) and found a nice cozy spot between two trees. The campsite was agreeable but it did have its quirks. Plumbing and facilities were freshly renovated though so that's fair. One evening I was doubly glad for this as I got to know the bathroom very well. It had been a long time since I had real spicy food so when in a Chinese restaurant I discovered a chili sauce, well.... I went a bit overboard. Getting a second meal just to eat something hot. But that was another day, first meeting with Camille.
I walked back over to the dorm, conveniently three minutes away, to wait in the lobby. Soon after Camille would show up fresh out of the gladiatorial arena. After exchanging greetings and hugs I was off to meet the crew, a group of her wonderful classmates. The cast included but was not limited to: Illya, Justina, Carly, Lotszi, and more. All names are subject to being misspelled. Illya is an interesting character full of surprises and intelligence, Justina is a Lithuanian sweetheart, Carly a former Colorado University cyclist, and Lotszi a man with good humor. There were others but my memory fails me and I wouldn't run into them too much after this initial meeting. In this kitchen/lounge area I was initiated into the cult with shots of Palinka, the Hungarian liquor used as a cure all. Headache? Palinka. Too full? Palinka. Tooth hurts? Palinka. Hungover? Palinka. Just finished an eight hour exam? Palinka. Soon we'd head down to the dorm's dining hall to have some dinner (suspect) followed by a trip to the bar for foozeball (sp?) and pool. Their dorm is college in a building. But as I heard someone put it "everything you need, nothing you want". I'd later retire to the campsite after an enjoyable night with people from around the world.
The next few days I'd spend sleeping at the campsite and meeting with Camille in the morning to head into the heart of the city. Once in the city I'd spend my time wandering around and exploring. That first day is the one I encountered the Chinese restaurant. I'd also go see an island park, reminiscent of Central Park in New York. As well as the parliament building and chain bridge. Eventually I'd try to make it to find the school building to meet back up with Camille. It took me a while and along the way I found an English bookstore where I bought the Dune Trilogy. This has hit the spot perfectly for my craving of a fantasy to escape into for a bit. It also made that first night a bit more bearable as I couldn't sleep anyway. My restless night was mostly due to my spicy overdose but also to the campsite's "tranquil" location next to a train track and under airplane flight paths. But hey, they've got that new plumbing. The next day I'd make it to the House of Terror, a museum built in the old "House of Loyalty" and dedicated to Hungary's tragic past involving occupation by both Nazi and Communist forces. The museum filled with powerful imagery and knowledge gave me a perspective on this country and its people. A further reminder of how lucky it is to be an American, and of our responsibility as humans to do what we can to help fellow humans. Yikes. On a much lighter note, I'd spend many hours one of these days in the Cat Cafe. A cafe with 12 cats (4 Maine Coon, 8 rescue) that keep you company while you eat or drink. When entering you must wash your hands before touching the cats. I'd be followed to the bathroom by a black and white cat. He'd eventually hop up to investigate me much to the surprise of the staff. I felt like the cat messiah. Of course you can also meet people here as well. Like the friendly lady I met who was stopping in before a job interview. I had to add sugar to her coffee while she held it because an orange cat became interested. We talked a while and I hope she's now employed!
Eventually we'd arrive at a long weekend starting Wednesday night. This weekend is when a few others entered the picture. Rachel the friendly Australian, John the (when inebriated) direction challenged Irishman, Arturus boyfriend of Justina (and now good friend of mine), and the friendly and charming Galen. Also briefly on Wednesday night I'd be introduced to Thomas and Johnathan, more friends of Camille. These two she met on a bus near her host mother's house. We'd have a fantastic dinner with them at a small restaurant where I had the best lemonade I've ever had. I wish I would have met them again during my stay here. This weekend I was also incredibly spoiled. Camille and I would go to stay at her host Mom's house where I had my own room. No more Titus, trains, and planes. It was a longer commute but totally worth it. Complete with two home cooked meals my first day there. The first of which was prepared by the host grandmother. We'd go to her house in an old communist block style building (I'd always been curious about going in one of these) and have a great meal. Later that night I'd get another. Forever I'll remember the kindness of this Hungarian family that let me, a stranger, into their home. I'll also always remember Balint, the host brother. A goofy guy that played on the Hungarian hockey team. One of the days that weekend we'd leave early and stay out late so he could have some privacy with a lady. He might wish we would have stayed. That morning while she stayed in his room, and he ate breakfast with us, he told us the lessons he learned about online dating. 1. Always have at least one conversation via phone. 2. Never invite her to your house. It's easier to leave that way. And of course the lovely sister whose name I shamefully have forgotten. She showed us my favorite restaurant here and was a joy to talk with.
The following days were filled with eating and drinking all over town. Slowly (actually pretty quickly) I'd begin building strong friendships with those around me. Arturus and I would quickly fall into a "bromance" as Camille called it. One day I hope to visit he and Justina's home country of Lithuania. This friendship developed over many good meals and late nights (one of which Camille and I didn't make it back until 6am) eating gyros and pizza from restaurants lining the streets. A guy named Eddy with an aggressive personality and John the Irishman also became some of the regular folks I'd see. We'd find ourselves in a number of locations from a karaoke bar to a left leaning "underground" bar which had reopened in a new district after a mysterious closing. Spending time with these folks all over the city has been an absolute joy. One evening spent at Galen's drinking mulled wine and eating apple pie is how I came to find myself where I am. In one of our conversations he mentioned that he's an avid couchsurfer, both host and guest. It was Saturday night and school would be starting back up so we'd be leaving Camille's host family soon. I asked him if he might be open to having a guest. Despite his heavy workload with school he agreed and I'd leave his house that night with a set of keys in my pocket.
And so the next few days I'd spend in the comfort of his apartment crashing on his couch. From here I've ventured out in the city to see Castle Hill, home of a nice second-hand English bookshop as well as some nice old buildings. I've also been to see Gul Baba's tomb, the only Muslim pilgrimage site in Christian Europe. Which too be honest was a bit of a sad place, neglected and with its outer walls covered in graffiti. Budapest is full of surprises. But most of all, as I've constantly been reminded, it's the people I meet that define my journey. I came here to meet a friend and now I'm leaving with many more. There's no better souvenir. On my final night here Camille, Carly, and I finally fulfilled our vows from the first week and got on the massive ferris wheel. Despite our worries we made it back down safely. After saying our goodbyes I walked back to Galen's where he, Lina and Justina were wrapping up some schoolwork. I'm glad I was able to see them too for a farewell. It's not really a goodbye, just a see you later. To them and the city, even if I don't see both at the same time again.
P.S. I should mention that it may appear I've glossed over many details about what I've done while here. I feel that I certainly have anyway. But I knew I'd risk doing that by putting off writing the post for so long. Maybe I should have broken this up into two? One after each of the five days I've been here. So here's a brief list of others things I loved in the city: The affordability, food is cheap and I like that a lot. Public transportation, some of it looks scary (graffiti, dirty, etc.) but it works and it gets you there and it's cheap. The architecture, many of the buildings are beautiful and old. Walkable, you can really walk anywhere if you have the time and don't mind. And surely much more that I'll remember at an inconvenient time. If you have any questions about what I did please feel free to ask! I recommend Budapest (and Hungary!) to everyone.
Also, since I've been in the city there have been protests against an internet tax. Today's is claimed to have had over 100k participants. Not only that, but I've also learned about protests over monuments put up also. Like the one that represents all Hungarians (not just the Jewish ones) as victims of the Nazis despite many Hungarians supporting the cause. Hungary is an interesting place in the world and they have many problems (their current government) to overcome still. And it's a place that has captured a place in my mind. I hope the very best for the people here.