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About Budapest

As the privileged people who email me regularly might already know, Kelly and I spent the weekend wandering Budapest, which is around 200 km away from Vienna. We’ve been wanting to get out of the city for some time now, and since Europe, especially Eastern Europe, essentially shuts down for four days for Easter – almost every store in Vienna closed its doors on Thursday night and didn’t reopen until Tuesday morning – we got a four-day weekend and the perfect opportunity to do so. Let me tell you, it was epic.

This seems like an aside, but bear with me. I promise it’s pertinent. Ever heard the Barenaked Ladies song “Never is Enough?” It’s about how you don’t need to do things like backpack around Europe to lead a fulfilling life – the refrain is “never is enough, you never have to do that stuff.” Throughout the weekend my meandering brain kept returning to dwell upon those lyrics, especially the verse which goes “I could go to Europe, travel with my friends / I could spend a thousand deutschmarks to get drunk in a pub with some Australians / buy a giant backpack / sew a flag on the back.” Substitute Hungarian forints for deutschmarks and lose the “giant” and bit about the flag, and you’ve basically summed up my weekend in Budapest. I don’t mind being a stereotype, but “American kid backpacking through Europe” isn’t one I’m sure I’m quite ready to embrace. However, after encountering countless young people doing the exact same thing, in hostels, bars, and train stations, I don’t have much of a choice in the matter. We did all the things a stranger would expect us to after a single glance and perhaps five minutes of conversation: stayed in hostels, visited tourist attractions, made friends with Brits and Aussies, carried all our possessions around on our backs.

It always strikes me as interesting that by defying convention – ie: doing something outlandish like hitchhiking to Budapest (more on that shortly) – you necessarily fall into another – namely, all the other people defying convention. This is a problem not only with every subculture that has ever existed, be it punk, indie, anarchist, hippy, or what have you, but also with nearly every eccentricity imaginable. It’s a quandry that crops up in my life with increasing frequency, and I haven’t yet found the solution. But, as I allude to above, it occupied my thoughts as I walked the streets of Budapest.

Whiney post-adolescent philosophy notwithstanding, the trip was amazing – a worthwhile experience to say the least.

It began on the outskirts of Vienna, as far out of town as the subway would carry us, with Kelly and I poised on the side of a thoroughfare, holding a sign reading “Budapest bitte”. We had planned to take the train, but the night before we left, Kelly met around 70 people our age from London who had been hitchhiking from there over the last week or so, leading us to believe that we could easily save some money by following their example. It was my first time hitchhiking in any country, but Kelly had enough experience with it in Mexico to qualm my fears. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being picked up by a sociopath and then chained into a dank cell in his basement; I just didn’t expect it to work. For around an hour and a half, it seemed like my pessimism would prove correct. No one stopped during that interval, even after we’d made an additional sign reading “Autobahn” to attract those not bound for Hungary. I was getting tremendously bored with the whole exercise and about to ask Kelly if she wanted to just take a train instead when a Mac truck flashed its high beams at us and its young driver bid us to enter. We struggled into the cockpit, eight feet off the ground, as he urged “schnell, schell!” and then we were off. Kelly speaks very decent German, definitely enough to make affable smalltalk, and so took that burden off of my own dumb lips. As I arduously pieced together, he told Kelly that we were standing in a bad spot for Budapest, and so drove us around ten minutes to a better one and roared away. We only had to wait around a half hour there before being picked up by two Hungarian repairmen in their truck, who were kind enough to drive some 20 km out of their way to deposit us at a huge shopping center on the Austrian border – if we couldn’t catch a ride there, we couldn’t anywhere. Sure enough, we had our sign out less than fifteen minutes before a Hungarian man in an Audi pulled over and signalled us to come over. He spoke less German than Kelly, but they had a pleasant conversation which I didn’t try too hard to follow all the way into the Budapest. I’m glad she was there, as I don’t know how I would have handled the situation with my German skills alone – that, and it’s doubtlessly easier to get a ride when you have a cute girl in your party. I haven’t tested that one yet, but it seems reasonable.

Hitchhiking isn’t so scary, in the end. Kelly sums up the experience best: it’s only hitchhiking for the first five minutes, and then it’s getting a ride from someone you don’t know very well – a subtle difference, but a huge one.

He dropped us off near a Metro station, and from there we spent a bewildering two hours exchanging money, riding subways, asking kids in backpacks where in God’s name we were, begging maps from information booths, and finally successfully finding the hostel the London kids had told Kelly about, a place called the Yellow Sub. They were full – apparently, it’s a good idea to make reservations for those places on the busiest tourist weekend of the year – but found us a room in a seedy hotel on the other side of the Danube. We got dinner at a Chinese restaurant and then crashed into our squalid beds, placed less than two feet away from each other in our squalid room. What do you expect for $10 a night?

After finding a place to stay, Budapest became much less hectic, and we spent quite a bit of time wandering over the city, seeing the sights and ogling the merchandise. Everything is dirt cheap there once you leave the main tourist drag, especially food and alcohol, and we sampled a good deal of both during our explorations. And of course, the city is absolutely beautiful – a fascinating variety of architectures, landscapes, and decorations. In general, Budapest can be compared to Vienna with the following summary: the escalators are twice as fast, things cost half as much, about one one-hundredth as many people speak English, and there is around twenty times as much graffiti.

We filled our days with a good mixture of cheap attractions, like climbing a huge hill on the Buda side of the river, and spendier activities, like visiting the bath house and museums. As usual, we slept not enough and drank too much, and took our time doing most other things. We did so many things that I have a hard time recalling them all, and can’t be bothered to chronicle them all here, but I will write about two experiences which I feel are fairly characteristic of the trip as a whole: the pub crawl and the bath house.

Our second night in town, Saturday, we joined a local guide agency, the Yellow Zebra, for their tri-weekly pub crawl. Around seventy young adults, most of them English speakers, assembled at a local church near the city center to be led around to the city’s finer and not-so-finer drinking establishments. Because the group was so large, there were two guides on hand to, you know, guide us. Ours was named Cole, a tall, 31-year-old anarchist dressed all in black with an 18-inch blue and pink mohawk. Kelly of course took one look at him and fell desperately in love, but I’ll let her speak her own piece where that’s concerned. He took us first to a pub called Wichmann’s, where we got all the Hungarian beer we could drink for 90 minutes. Everyone drank quickly or very quickly to get their money’s worth, myself included. I managed to polish off almost two liters – quite a lot for a guy of my size and drinking habits – and meet most of the people in the group who looked interesting before time was up. It was a lot of fun, mostly for the opportunity to find so many people our age who could speak our language in the same place. The copious amounts of alcohol simply acted as a social lubricant for that scene. We went to six bars total, getting various free drinks at the first three, but I only made it to five before stumbling home. I think my performance was admirable. Kelly gave me the OK for this, but apparently forgot that I had the only key to our hostel. I think she was planning to call my phone, which I’d brought along to use as an alarm clock, so I could let her in, but she couldn’t figure out how to use her phone card, and neither of us knew if my phone would even ring outside Austria. I don’t know what we were thinking when we separated – my dad, as he reads this, is at this very moment shouting at his monitor “you weren’t thinking!”, an old standby from my youth. She made it in safe and sound in the end with help from someone else, so all was well.

The next morning Kelly and I both were nursing vicious hangovers, so we decided that the best cure was a few hours languid soaking in the bath house, to which other guests at the hostel had recommended us. Kelly was excited beyond words for the event, for which purpose she had come to Budapest in the first place. We found it in the park, and after the single most confusing series of transactions with cashiers and washroom attendants I’ve ever had, met inside in the pool. The baths are wonderful. The one we attended had three pools, lukewarm, cold, and hot, between which we divided our time with the other three hundred or so people in attendance. The best attraction was a donut-shaped pool in the lukewarm bath with powerful jets around its circumference which created a whirlpool current for people to ride, but a close second was the hot bath in and of itself – very relaxing, like a huge hottub that comes up to your neck. The whole experience was very fun, but not as effective a cure for a hangover as we anticipated, since being in hot water for hours actually takes a surprising amount of energy. We came without towels, and I came without a bathing suit, but as usual we succeeded in everything despite our lack of preparation and foresight. As I said, we had a good time.

We left the city on Monday afternoon. We took the train – another first for me – because neither of us had the energy to try hitchhiking again. It took about the same amount of time as hitchhiking, including the waiting on the roadside part, but was more pleasant on the whole. The strangest part of the journey was how glad I was when the signs started to be in German again, rather than in Hungarian. My German is far from fluent – far from workable, where that’s concerned – but it still felt like coming home. I expect that sentiment to grow and blossom as I spend more time here, but it was very strange to feel the relief I have, up until that point, only felt when returning to Washington State. I surprise myself with how quickly I adapt. We both crashed that night and slept the deep sleep of exhausted travellers the world over.

If anyone wants to call between 3am and 3pm PDT, my phone number is actually (43) (06991) 043 3488. The parenthetical numbers are necessary outside of Austria and the One World Mobile network, respectively. I left the first group off my previous attempt to give a phone number, which is why it didn’t work, for those that tried. It will this time, cross my heart.

Posted in Musings.


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