Budapest (Day 1)

Once you start travelling and find your comfort zone growing larger or being in your comfort zone increasingly difficult, there is one big thing you come to realize. This is how flexible your heart and mind become and how they are getting so much better at trying to accommodate, to make new connections and reinforce old ones to make you more open-minded and open-hearted to whatever transformations and manipulations they are both exposed to while that physical body where they reside gets around. Another thing you notice happening to your mind and heart is that they are growing into a magical bubble where most intricate chemical reactions occur with lots and lots of bits and pieces coming together into all sorts of mixes with its smallest atoms and molecules breaking apart or suddenly colliding. And what do you have as a result of all these enigmatic and elaborate reactions? Yes, you have you but not the one you thought you knew because you think you know yourself but some intensely alive human being that sometimes doesn’t feel too much alive at all or feels these molecules and atoms jumping with bursts of life inside them… That’s how you know you are alive. If you are still not quite sure, you will know once you hit the road again to let transformations and manipulations take over. It’s not that they ever stopped taking place inside the mind and heart of yours but it is when you realize you need fuel to keep those atoms and molecules operating to generate new bursts of life that you know you are ALIVE!

Yes, I might get confused as to what it is exactly for me that provides my mind and heart with some fuel to run on. I mean I know travelling does it all for me, but as time goes by, I find my feelings caused by all of these sorts of reactions to be more and more complex to leave me doubting, rejoicing, regretting, questioning. Is that too much to being alive…? As the longest relationship we will ever have is the one with ourselves, I get to know myself through travelling and my reactions to those reactions I have unravelling in me. One thing I can’t fail to see is how apart from falling profoundly in love with the places I get to see, I become more open to infatuations and flings where I know no profound feelings and impressions will occur or even if they do, they won’t last and I find myself strangely OK with that. Sometimes you need just a little fuel probably to keep your heart pumping with the feelings that once inflamed it without any hope there will be a new explosion, a new collision changing the chemical composition of your mind and heart. That’s how I think I felt about Budapest. I didn’t feel wanting to make a lasting connection with it but as the chance came up, I thought I would grab it. Just to see where it will take me – life is too short to be too sentimental about emotional attachment and letting go. I knew that disconnecting will probably not leave my heart torn into bits and pieces that will have strangest things happening to them when I get back home. Just a quick look, no strings attached…

It was another conference but this time I knew it would be quick and as yes, I am opening myself up to fast-paced and quick relationships, I thought it would be very engaging for my mind and heart to get to go where I hadn’t thought think I’d ever be. Is Hungary (Magyarország) a country to inspire a whole string of associations the way some places that end up on lots of bucket lists do? Probably not, I thought. That was why I decided it would be a good place to make a quick connection with and to see if there is any connection at all in the first place. Of course as it was the case for me with the more familiar Bulgaria, we tend to dismiss some places as dull and not worthy of any proper touristiс attention and never care to attend to them as life is really too short and there are all kinds of places that set the magical processes in our minds and hearts running. Therefore we find it reasonable to avoid the places that might fail to float our boat and take away from that precious time we have here some of which we can spend exploring if we are lucky enough. But even though it might seem more challenging while building relationships with other humans, but I’m a believer of giving places chances even if they are far from being appealing to whatever of our senses. I did have one good reason to want to go to Budapest in particular as it was one of the few places my Mum got to visit in her Soviet-time youth when travelling outside the country was a lot more of a big deal than it is now. In this respect I sometimes find myself older than my own Mum as my idea of getting around seemed to have travelled further than hers as I can enjoy the luxury of actually being able to take in a place I am visiting rather than being too overwhelmed by being somewhere new and trying to get hold of things you don’t have back home. I can travel for impressions that nurture my mind and heart, not for things only. So my Mum’s idea of the Hungarian capital was that it was an endless array of underground kiosks where they were rushing around to get some bargains and things we would end up wearing for years and years after… Instinctively and rationally, I knew mine was going to be a different impression and I was ready to write my own story of Budapest and as I always do, I will get to write twice – with my mind and my heart.

I had to cut down on the time I could set aside to do some research as I knew there wouldn’t be much of it to make any proper connection with the city, let alone the country. But I did remember what the American professor we got a chance to meet back in Nice said about Budapest being one of the most incredible European capitals he’d ever seen and he said in that very enigmatic voice of his while munching on some magnifique French food under the sun of the French Riviera. So I made a conscious choice to take a quick dip into the Hungarian life without much prior investigation with the sound of that American voice ringing distantly in my mind. We will just see how it turns out. That was going to be a long trip as straight after Budapest we were to head to St. Petersburg, our capital of the North. So my touristic lense would have to go into two opposite directions to produce what I hope would be a comprehensive image to my mind and an endearing stray of memories for my heart to behold. I did download a few travel guides on Budapest to scan through on my trip to Moscow from home to give me a quick introduction into some of the major sights and their history. As I said above, as with any formerly communist state, we do tend to get too negligent of any of their prior history focusing more on their relatively recent past instead, which is a huge shame indeed. As I was aware of that, I took time to learn a few facts about the country’s Ottoman past and Habsburg rule that preceded what would be just a few decades that for us came to define the whole country casting it into a group of a few more that comprise what is known as the Soviet block. As much as I expected Hungary to bear a somewhat dull and tedious imprint of its Soviet past as the rest of the places ultimately have, I wanted to get a taste of its unique flavor and its even more unique varieties, something I have grown to believe through my travelling experiences every country and even all the places in it have on a varying scale. Of course with me being me, I did have a sneak at some videos teaching elementary Hungarian and watched a few videos showcasing the capital’s main attractions because yes, it is not just about the impressive Neo-classical Parliament building after all. To wrap this all up, on the final night before my ten-day trip I watched a video of the lovely song that represented Hungary at the Eurovision and tried to get my ears around the sound of the language and feast my eyes on the romantic views of the city. Something for the mind and heart and Budapest, here I come!

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Just as we normally do, we had some time in Moscow before our flight and this time we got to spend two days here exploring the places we grew to love in the course of letting all the transformations and manipulations happen to us and two nights at a hotel in a quite sketchy area. Someday I might be able to go on a proper trip to our capital city and write about it. Twice – with my mind and heart as I usually do.

The more you travel by planes, the less of a big deal this kind of travelling becomes and this comes as a surprise for me to think that I don’t actually have much of a recollection of my flight to Budapest apart from a few Hungarians I saw on board and some final reading of my travel guide before I ditch it to experience the actual city. Of course I had some images of the streets as I was reading and through the course of my flight, Budapest seemed to be losing its Soviet flavor to it more and more. As someone who is not a student any longer but deeply engaged into this realm for a living, I know that yearning desire to get out and experience something rather than spending days on end swatting and reading about it, in the end you can’t possibly read up for life, it is going to throw you lessons that you would feel you haven’t read up for anyway.

The thing I was looking forward to most when we arrived was to get my first look at some quirky Hungarian words. I’m always on the lookout for linguistic signs of being somewhere away from home and I didn’t have to look far to see a few graphic images of the Uralic language that is a very distinctive spot on the vivid linguistic landscape of Europe. I was actually relaxed about the linguistic prospects of the next few days as I knew for sure there was no point in even attempting to understand the language and the beautiful thing about it was that being unable to do so wasn’t going to do any harm to my self-image as a professional. I’m making a lot of progress in acknowledging things I have no idea about and getting better about feeling good about it as well. Venturing out into the known is becoming fun now! What we had to do first was to find the taxi that we had booked beforehand, which we realized might be a bit too tricky. It took me surprisingly little to see a man holding a paper with my sister’s name written both in English and Russian on it (I was instinctively more drawn to the Russian image I guess). I took a moment to be proud of how our Cyrillic alphabet sets us apart from people using Latin letters and lends us that enigmatic charm that so many people pursue to get hold of while travelling. We were welcomed to Budapest but didn’t get much further in our conversation from there as the taxi-driver seemed to be really struggling with English after he attempted to tell us something about his family I guess. I wonder how many more stories we would have available to our minds and hearts if we didn’t have languages tearing us apart. I don’t advocate for the common language for all because that would obviously leave me without a job and inspiration but at that particular moment on that hot August afternoon outside the Ferenc Liszt International Airport I do think I wished we had one… Not to get confused by the silence that was due to the linguistic barriers, I took time to look around to get my first glimpses of Hungary keeping in mind that I might never come here again. During such rides from the airport to the city is when you get this very complex feeling of collision of mind and heart when the mental image of home gets outlandishly interrupted by the visual image of a new land that had been here long before you knew you would ever come. We will never have the privilege to know exactly how Columbus felt through the course of his discovery of the American continent but we might feel the tentative Columbus arising in us at moments like those… It was through linguistic signs (phonetic and written ones) that I got in touch with what is home to at least about 2 million people. How can you help falling in love with languages and this way they have to stimulate minds and hearts…?

The central part of Budapest where we arrived some thirty minutes later seemed a bit different from that quick image I got of it and yes, the legendary Hungarian Parliament on the bank of the Danube was nowhere to be seen! Károlyi utca where our hotel was located looked packed with beautiful and very imposing buildings that mentally took me back to Vienne. They seemed a bit rundown but also erased the thoughts I’d been having of Budapest as the capital of a former communist state. I seemed to be enamored with seeing faces on facades peering into the infinite space we are physically sharing with them. I saw some scars on them as if the past had its sharpest knife in its hands and brutally cut through their medieval beauty but I felt no hint of pain but just some sublime breeze of lots of lives lived accompanied by a faint sound of a classical violin piece. Our hotel looked quite chic and we were greeted at the entrance by a porter and I was the first to start the conversation with my humble “Jó napot!” (Good afternoon). Recently I’ve been feeling drawn by some magical spell to move beyond the increasingly international horizons of English that feels like my comfort zone so I knew this very phrase would be said there and then… We were able to check in quite easily. We made our way to the elevator to take us to the third floor accompanied by the porter carrying my suitcase. That sweet young man attempted some small talk and complimented my accent. I said “Thank you!” but explained that I teach English for a living and I’m paid to have a sort of a decent accent after all. But it turned out it wasn’t my English accent that he complimented but my Hungarian accent that caused him to think I was Hungarian first! How on earth could it impress a native speaker? Well, if that was something they were trained to say to anyone attempting to say a few words in Hungarian, it certainly worked well for me as any compliments pertaining to linguistics to me seemed to go a longer way than any relating to the physical appearance. He also told us that not much English was spoken around here but according to him as well, that was “enough” to get by at least. I found myself thinking a moment after the porter had left about whether we were supposed to give him a tip but we had no Hungarian money on us yet so, well… Tipping culture is not what we are big on anyway. A new country, a hotel room – another blissful day in the life of a traveler! As we looked at the map of the city to estimate how far we would be walking from the hotel to the conference venue, we got a bit appalled as they seemed to be at the opposite ends of the map. Well, we considered we were still physically fit for this after all.

After a while we set out on our walk, which we hoped would take us two hours or so with a little break to get something to eat. I love those first moments of being in a new place on your own feet not just in a taxi. I knew I would have to disconnect long before I might even consider connecting so I was just living the moment peering at the imposing facades without even bothering too much about not knowing what they housed. There were lots of places with traditional Hungarian food in the area and I loved being exposed to this superficial feel of the country that tourism marketing specialists are working so hard at creating in a way appropriate to generate more profit and draw more visitors. These Hungarians working in these dining places might not know or even care to know what kind of thoughts we as tourists were having in our heads as fuel to inspire our feelings that will still be shaping up when we get back home… We got a glimpse of the first attraction on our right, which was St.Stephen Basilica. At that moment all we knew was that it seemed a bit too expensive and touristy to eat here (we already had some local forints on us). We kept walking as my sister reassured me that we were approaching the Danube and the Parliament.

We saw a place offering a nice view of what I learned later on was Liberty Square (Szabadság tér) and a new monument commemorating German Occupation of Hungary with splashes of fountains and some messages with what might be some attempts to address important social issues facing the country. We come and go while all these places and their people are dealing with their lives sometimes in languages we can’t even dare to make sense of. On the left we had the building of the former Stock Exchange Palace and somehow this area had a bit of a sentimentally gruesome edge to it and matched the salty taste of pickled cucumbers that looked like fresh ones unlike those back home as no vinegar is used for them that we had served to us after quite a bit of waiting together with some local variation of pasta and chicken. There was some lonely deserted feeling in the air and people weren’t smiling too much but some happy couples walking by or people with cute dogs did bring back memories of the squares I’d had inspire my feeling of happiness and a desire to belong there. I had to refer back to my knowledge of the place as being the capital of a communist state again and switch back on to its aspirations of the European future. That had to be a bit hurried meal as we didn’t want to be late for the conference opening. Stepping a bit into the square, we felt a breath of home on us as we saw the last monument dating back to the Soviet era in the middle. It felt like a mix of the Austrian influence of the imposing buildings and the Soviet one that wouldn’t let go (for us anyway as we had brought chunks of it on us all the way from Russia) was here.

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We kept walking squeezed between arrays of enigmatic and rather deserted buildings featuring a few memorial tables on their rather dull facades. The Hungarian history was attempting to murmur something vaguely to me but just as back at the airport, the conversation was really happening as all I could see were some images of words I couldn’t make out at all for the reasons I stated above. It seemed like a really foreign place and the feeling is always more acute when you are in a non-touristy area like this with people going about their daily routine and working while you are out here travelling. One or two crossroads later, I got reminded what exactly I was here for when I saw a part of the Hungarian Parliament Building on the left! Just like this! How come it is here and no one is pushing their way to get a couple of breathtaking photos? Will it be just me standing here in sheer awe with this rather unexpected first encounter with this marvelous Hungarian landmark piece of architecture? I felt as if it had been abandoned by the rest of the tourists and I was giving it its due attention there and then. I just couldn’t believe I could have this building I’d seen countless times in photos all to myself!

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We knew we had to keep walking a bit further to get to the Danube bank and get better views from there on our left. There were a few casual eating places, flower kiosks here – nothing to impress a traveler. The first of Budapest’s seven bridges we got to walk was Margaret Bridge (Margit híd)  built between 1872 and 1876. From here we could see Margaret Island, a popular recreational zone right in the city center, spanning on our right. Of course still on my left I could take in the iconic view of the Parliament. That was a real “moment of truth” every tourist gets to experience at some point as my mind got busy matching the actual view right in front of me and what I’d seen in photos. There is invariably a bit of an element of disappointment to such experiences as these two images rarely match. The real Parliament looked a bit smaller but its architectural details looked a lot more majestic against the humble Danube that looked even smaller. I had to mind where I was going as the bridge was very busy with people moving in both directions and it was quite hot up here. None of these people seemed to be bothered much with the Parliament and I felt I was the only one who kept looking back to get another look.

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What followed as we crossed the bridge was a very long sweaty walk across a rather dull residential part of Budapest. We were not sensible enough to estimate how long this walk would actually take us as the Árpád Bridge (the longest one in Hungary), which was just near the conference venue, seemed so close but oddly enough, we never seemed to approach it. Even though that wasn’t definitely a touristy walk and a myriad of the city’s attractions was right there behind our increasingly tired backs, as I go through manipulations and transformations travelling generously awards me with, I find myself being content to have to have a few walks like this. Just an ordinary life, yes, the Soviet feel is there despite being extinguished for a while by my travel book back on the plane a few hours before. It is fascinating to be trying to see if there is anything that would catch a tourist’s eye here and I have to conclude there wasn’t much. But at the end of the day, isn’t that a taste of life that we travel for? In combination with an array of touristic stuff selling in shops and experiences that locals might never cared about, these walks make for a spell-bounding substance that keeps the zest for travelling beckoning us back on the road again and again. Some two (!) hours later (they felt even longer than that), we finally reached the hotel after mistaking it for a few other hotels on our way. Yes, we had just reached from one end of the map to the other! The five-star Aquincum Hotel is set where there are now ruins of ancient city of the Roman Empire. As one of the luxuries offered by the Roman civilization, local people could enjoy public baths and that would be another highlight of Budapest that we would get us completely soaked a bit later on this trip!

The interior of the hotel looked very impressive and took us a few decades back with its chick décor all around that splendid extravagant massive space that had the air of luxury and opulence lingering in there. We were just in time for the conference opening and even had some time to spare to stay in the lounge and watch some of the hotel residents. It’s a very different lifestyle we adopt once we check in at a hotel and it’s interesting to think that we wouldn’t have all ended up in this space together otherwise. The opening was a bit hasty and rushed with some quick speeches in a really bad English… We stuck around for a bit more for the reception and had our first try of the local wines and snacks at least watching some people we could see through the glass enjoying their spa sessions. Our stomachs were in need of some fuel after that long sweaty walk, even more so than our minds and hearts.

In spite of going out of her way to convince me we did need to try to overcome a few possible linguistic barriers and try to get a taxi back to the hotel, my sister agreed it would be good to have a more relaxed walk back as it hadn’t got dark yet. Or was that the effect the wine had had on us…? The area seemed to have lost its dull and depressing edge and I felt more like a local headed somewhere past these residential buildings. But unlike one, I was also more relaxed to stop for a tiny bit longer to see through the lights coming through some of the windows contemplating how lives behind them were different from those back home. The first difference that I could think of was that the evening news someone was probably watching was in the enigmatic language of that country – linguists would be linguists, I say…

It was really extraordinary to see the Parliament building again just like this somewhere in the distance while we were still surrounded by these residential buildings. That felt like two contradicting echoes attempting to merge into one to make where we were now – Budapest. We started our way along the Margaret Bridge again and were able to do some more relaxed evening-time people-watching. The views of the Parliament lit up in the distance were a far more delicious treat to our senses than the wine! I get some moments when I develop a quick fondness of photography and spend a while just playing around with my camera. There was too much to play around with in this surreal view, surreal enough to build up beautiful expectations about the next few days!

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The streets were getting deserted even though it was just a bit past nine. It was really odd and made Budapest feel like an abandoned destination altogether. The same buildings we walked by earlier that day were now like a part of a silent numb jungle that didn’t even bother to break its crunchy silence for us. Where were any people at all…? That was a puzzle we knew we might not get enough time to work on solving.

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After a while, we did find ourselves outside the silent jungle as we reached St.Stephen’s Basilica celebrating the Hungarian king who founded the country in 896. We decided it would be nice to stay in this square in front of the church and ponder on our first night here in Budapest. We got some coffee at one of the places and I found the girl at the checkout so delighted when I said “Köszönöm!” (“Thank you!”). She smiled and said something sounding very complicated that must have been “You are welcome!”. It’s how one little word can make you part of a regular everyday conversation… As my sister left to find a bathroom, I had a moment all to myself sitting in the corner of this square sipping on my coffee looking at the gorgeous façade of the basilica and I needed nothing more to tell my mind and heart that I was in this part of the world that I probably need nothing else to compare with to know I love best! Just this combination of people, a string of sounds they make as they speak their languages (or trying to use other ones), this saturated nocturnal air, this church and me in this cozy straw chair with a chocolate muffin on the table…

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We found our way back to the hotel safely and really loved the area around it even though it didn’t seem too busy. I had a few glances at the Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd) named after Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” (the one we encountered on our brief trip to Vienne) just on the right as we were approaching the hotel. I loved its white cables against the capital’s starry sky. We walked for a little bit more to find some small bakeries right across the corner closing for the night. There was a lot to want to wake up to see the next morning. We were ready to experience our quiet first night in Hungary. Of course I couldn’t resist browsing a few tourist magazines I had lying on my bedside table. I love that comforting and yet empowering feeling they give me to inspire me to want to pursue my dreams and keep on writing. Good night, Budapest!

Author: Olga

An English teacher and translator, a keen traveller

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