My Budapestful Journey

Trip Start Apr 01, 1979
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Saturday, July 8, 2006

I'll admit the phone call was somewhat surreal. But what isn't surreal in my life? In fact, I probably use surreal to describe the ways things are going with me more than any other word. I guess that in and of itself is also surreal. So to sum up, it's surreal that my life is so often described as surreal. Now back on topic... My friend from Arkansas was on the other line. We're close chums, and he had told me a few weeks before about his upcoming wedding. The wedding would take place in Romania, of all places, to his bride that he met while working across the pond. I had called him to tell him that my ticket was booked. My girlfriend (or traveling companion) and I were going to spend a few days in Budapest then head to Romania for a few days and arrive in time for the wedding. Then we would hang out with him and his new family before going back to Budapest and back home. I asked him who in his family was going to make the trip. He replied that his Mom and her friend would be coming, but no one else could get away.

Then he asked me, "Will you be my best man?" I can't say that I was 100% shocked given the paucity of other options, but it still hit me pretty hard. I was honored. "Of course," I replied. "I'll start drafting a toast immediately!" Toasts are the best part about being a best man, at least if you're into that sort of thing, and to be fair this was going to be my third time as a best man, so I was decidedly into it. My first best man venture was for my Dad when I was just a wee pup of 8 years old. I didn't give a toast then, but if I could go back and do it now it would probably be something like this (forgive me this aside):

"I tried the caviar, it was good. Now you two crazy kids go out there and try the marriage thing... again! (hold for laughter and applause) No seriously folks, so glad to be here. Really, really glad to be a part of all this revelry. I especially like the harp player. She was hot! Grrrrrrrr! Anyway, call me later baby. As in ten years later when I'm legal, okay? (hold for laughter and applause) Anyway, wow, love is crazy thing, isn't it? I mean my Mom and Dad didn't work out, whatever. But love has brought these two together and I am just tickled pink to be a part of it. And that's not the cheap champagne talking... get it? Pink? (hold for laughter and applause) Well, let's just say I'm glad some people find their match, and I'm glad to be a part of that, having played soccer when they first met. Yeah, that's right, my dad the soccer coach (hold for laughter and applause that never comes as it's only funny to me) cut such a dashing figure that this lady, watching her daughter play, just had to get some of that. And what this lady wants, she gets. Anyway, I love you all. So let's raise our glasses to the bride and groom! Fayetteville NC let me hear you! Now let's party!"

I imagined my toast in Romania might be a little different than that, bitterness aside (I try to invoke bitterness no matter the occasion), but it would still rock the house.
So that's what set me off on my journey to Eastern Europe. And I tell you kids, looking back as I write this, I'm darn glad it happened because I absolutely loved it. My girlfriend and I chose to go to Budapest as a jumping off point for the adventure for several reasons. First, it was cheaper to fly there than Bucharest. Also I've heard Bucharest is an absolute dump. And since the wedding was going to take place deep in the heart of Transylvania, it wasn't that much closer to take a train from Bucharest than it was from Budapest. So all in all, our first destination made a lot of sense.

We arrived a day before the World Cup Final, or as German fans know it, the day of the third place match between the upstart Germans (hard to say that, but they were facing some serious adversity with a very young squad) against the whiny Portuguese. Anyway, we were flying Alitalia from Washington through Milan to Budapest and although the flight proved to be nice, there were concerns at the beginning. First, the old Boeing aircraft we used for the first leg was in absolutely atrocious shape. Many seats would no longer recline, armrests were broken, missing or taped on, and my girlfriend's tray table no longer had a latch to hold it in place. We asked for some tape and got some, from one of the three flight attendants looking after the couple hundred or so onboard. They also provided us with absolutely no water, and although we eventually got our meals, they were cold. My girlfriend also got the Muslim meal, but through no fault of the airline, I had secretly ordered it for her. Of course, I ended up eating it after the laughter subsided. Nevertheless we made it to Milan, and after a brief layover, to Budapest. And that's where the fun began...

First off, I have to say that I think I'm pretty smart. I've traveled a bit and studied a bit, and I can speak a language or two when I need to. But just when I really start to believe that, something like Hungarian hits me in the face. I once studied Chinese, and found that no matter how much I studied, I was getting better at it so slowly. Eventually, I gave up and wrote off my difficulties as an anomaly. I mean, Chinese has tones, and there is no alphabet. You have to learn a whole new language and then memorize a million characters so you can write that language. That's hard! Hungarian, though, is written with the same latin letters as most other European languages, and although it comes from a different group, I figured I could at least get the basics. Wrong! I had the hardest time even remembering hello, goodbye, and thank you. Even after I asked people I still didn't quite get it, and I would forget completely after a couple of hours. Then when I looked at a menu I couldn't even figure out which sections were beverages or chicken or appetizers or desserts or any other things that would at least allow me to pick something in the right genre. It makes me feel un-smart I tell ya', at least just for a little while (Romanian, luckily, would prove much easier. I love latin-based languages!).

We saw just a sliver of Budapest in those first couple of days. We arrived on a Saturday morning, and by the time we had traveled from the airport to the city, found our very nice hostel called the Mandragora (I definitely recommend it to anyone, so please visit their website. http://www.mandragorahostel.com/index2.htm It's quite centrally located and the staff is very friendly), and taken the much needed shower, it was already the mid-afternoon. Choosing to walk and stay awake, we strolled through the city and up to Castle Hill on the Buda side of the city (which is more or less the side West of the Danube). In crossing the great river on a foot bridge, I sent my obligatory droplets of spittle into the water below. This is a stupid tradition I have about spitting in the great rivers of the world. I don't know why I do it, but I do. Thankfully, none of the rivers has as yet spit back.

When looking at Budapest from Buda Hill, you see what has captivated many a visitor throughout the years. The view is amazing. The Danube splits the city in two, and on each side of the river rises architectural treats. I nearly peed myself in ecstasy. Actually, I peed myself a little, just a few drops to be fair, but it was necessary. Our stroll atop the hill would not last long, as fatigue and nightfall slowly crept in. We walked back down and across the Pest side and found a nice patch of green grass in a small park beside the river. I laid down in the grass and nearly fell asleep instantly. The mosquitoes then began to bite us. Strangely, the poison from the bites, apparently unfamiliar to our systems, made the bites stay with us throughout the duration of our time in Europe (about two weeks. I showed the bites to everyone we later encountered along the way, whether friend or stranger. It was a nice topic of conversation, but I was generally concerned. I mean, are bites supposed to stay that long? If I would've known the words for hypochondriac in Hungarian and Romanian, I would've probably heard it thrown back at me a few times).

That evening, we watched the World Cup's third place game in a bar. I barely was able to stay awake. Eventually, we plodded back to our hostel and went to sleep, only awoken periodically by our German roommates who came in at all hours and generally were noisy little krauts. I imagine actually, that they were pretty nice people and trying to be quiet, but our fatigue led me to believe otherwise at the time. And by the way, I love Germany and Germans, so don't let my joking slander fool you. Or do let it fool you, but then you're the fool and that's just foolish. Okay? Anyway, as I said the place is actually pretty nice, and we slept decently. Sure it was a bit hot, but it was also a bit July so we knew what we were in for.

The next day was, obviously, a Sunday. In Europe, if you stateside readers aren't aware, Sunday means everything is battoned down. I had planned accordingly, and since we were already leaving Budapest on Monday morning (at least that was our intention), a nice leisurely Sunday might be what the doctor ordered to cure a bit of jet lag. I read in some guidebook somewhere that Margarit Island was essentially a leafy park in the middle of the Danube. It seemed a perfect location to pass a lazy day of rest. And it was indeed. In fact, the island was not at all a tourist attraction in my opinion, rather it seemed a place that locals went to relax and unwind. Since the day was absolutely marvelous, we bought some foodstuffs at a grocery store and headed out. The island is quite large, and has it share of paths and roads, as well as some ruins from the various inhabitants throughout its long history. We casually walked around, spending a few hours alternately soaking up sunshine and shade. We saw the ruins of both a nunnery and a monastery, and witnessed a fantastic golf cart accident in which all the riders bailed out at the last moment before crashing into a tree. I also partook of the free fountains, which supposedly has water from the famous Budapest springs. The healing power still failed to do anything to my still quite itchy mosquito bites.

After strolling, we decided to research the next day's voyage toward the wilds of Romania. We had decided to go to Timisoara, a city I'd heard a bit about from friends. When we finally arrived at the proper train station, the ticket buying process was actually quite painless. Budapest, concrete filled and hot on that mid-summer day had been kind to us. It would continue with a nice dinner under the stars while watching the World Cup Final on a large screen tv at what might have been a fusion Indian-Hungarian restaurant. Zidane's coup-de-boule aside, it was quite a night, capped with a good bottle of Hungarian wine (in my opinion, this is quite a rarity. Generally speaking the wine there is atrocious, despite the insistence of many that there is a burgeoning market for the Hungarian vintages. I guess even swill is popular somewhere.)

The next day we were gone. We would return soon enough, after some time in Romania, nevertheless I will add here my thoughts on Budapest. It is a beautiful city, full of life and energy. The Danube splits the city and, to paraphrase the Dude, really ties the place together. But Budapest didn't have that certain something for me. It didn't have that feel that makes me say, "yeah, this place is just something special." That 'feel' is what I look for in a city, what makes me want to return again and again. Some places have it, some places don't, and it's a highly personal thing of course. For me, Paris has it, Washington has it, San Francisco has it, Boston has it, and there are others. But Budapest and New York and Chicago, etc don't. Strange how that works, huh? Anyway, if I do return, perhaps I'll change my mind. Perhaps I'll even start to like the wine.
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