I visited Budapest two times before moving here. The first time was in 1999 with a certain Emily J. Farmhouse. After our previous two stops, London and Amsterdam, Budapest felt like the end of the world. It wasn’t prettified or squeaky clean. The train took us past blackening communist block houses, and boarded up factories. The old mansions we saw were crumbling in the heat, the streets were wide but quiet, empty. There were graffiti murals—good ones—on the cement trainyard walls. Because I am a sucker for anything that smacks of Indiana Jones, we laid down good money to visit the Labyrinth, a maze of secret medieval tunnels hidden beneath the castle district. All there really was to discover down there was a series of awkward life-size “spiritual” dioramas (for instance, “The Court For Shadows” and “Spirit Hunt”). Mud-colored mannequins tried desperately to look medieval while tinny speakers piped in synthesized flute. It was all fun and games until the lights went out. We were caught in the pitch pitch dark, groping along walls and calling out for help. After a half hour I was convinced we’d have to spend the night down there. Luckily the resourceful Farmhouse located some German tourists who had paid extra for the Lantern Labyrinth Experience. They took pity on us and lighted our way to the exit.
I’m making the city sound horrible, but it actually just felt undiscovered, off the map. The second time I visited was last summer, when Rick and I stayed with Ben, who was in his first year of the master’s program at CEU. Living alone in a palatial apartment, he was eating and drinking very little, but reading and smoking a lot. He took us on a series of long curlicue walks—really jogs—through the city. Down to the Danube, back up to city park, over to the synagogue, to the island park, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Crazy outdoor club/sculpture garden, bar in a bombed-out warehouse, talk, talk, talk. Medieval guilds, Derrida, Palestine, Artaud, Is Johnny Depp Actually a Good Actor—it was hard to keep up, both mentally and physically. Ben had done no sightseeing and had no interest in starting. We brought him to what may have been his first Budapest tourist attraction, the communist sculpture park. It turns out that after communism, the city tore down the bulk of its soviet monuments. They would have been sold for scrap metal, but luckily one enterprising businessman bought them all up, put them in a fenced-in park, and started charging western tourists money to see them.
Those two big trips were all about big differences. Now that I’m living here I love the process of discovering the small but subtle differences. We’ve gotten used to living a couple blocks from the Danube, seeing eye-bleedingly beautiful buildings on every corner, walking to the 19th century thermal baths—now it’s the small things that seem exotic. A partial and incomplete list:
-Budapest is full of ice cream. Everyone eats it, and it is dirt cheap and good.
-People have no understanding of how to walk in crowds here. They ride bikes through huge crowds of people, don’t watch where they’re going, stop dead in front of busy metro doors.
-Because it’s so cheap to fly to Budapest from London, the city is full of British stag parties every weekend. Often, the bachelors dress up in matching t-shirts (“Craig’s Last Stand”) or even outfits (superheroes, transvestites, janitors, deer.)
-The school next to our house has no bell; it signals the end of periods by playing little opera arias on what sounds like a car horn.
-Cherry juice, cherry soup, cherry soda. Paprika in everything.
-Dixieland is everywhere.
-Fooseball in most bars.
-Some Budapesters (I’m reluctant to even write this) put ketchup on their pizza. Eeew!
-Assigned seats in movie theaters.
-Underpasses not crosswalks. Most underpasses have casino/bars.
-Dental Tourism. It’s major.
-All apartments have lofts.
-Exhibits on theater history in multiple metro stations. (!!)
-If you want to find the closest violin store (like, say, yesterday) just walk out your door and head in a general direction. When you see someone with a violin case (and you will, guaranteed, within 10 minutes) just ask them where the nearest violin shop is. They will give you 2-3 options.
Why must posts have an ending? This one could go on for months.
6 months ago