So I went to Budapest…


22/03/2010 by etiennefish

So I went to Budapest. And will be offering photos as soon as I load them on to my computer. Instead, I offer you the poor substitute of my written notes/observations on the trip. Sorry in advance. I am as always, long-winded to a fault.

Day 1: Thursday

Note to self:

Dear Self,

Next time you go to a work meeting for your boss and know that you will be arriving late because you wanted to go to your play practice the night before, please remember that it is not in your best interest to be comfortable on the plane. Just because it seemed like a good idea at your 5 am wake-up to wear skate shoes and a t-shirt with your blazer for travel/personal ease, and then plan to change in your hotel room before entering the conference, does not actually mean that your hotel room will be ready upon your arrival. Instead, you might just have to enter the meeting room looking possibly younger (and more inexperienced) than your actual age in a room full of attendees decades your senior, and clearly experts in their fields. I don’t know, just a thought.

With kindest regards,


PS- trying to tuck your legs under your chair so no one notices doesn’t actually work. There are things like coffee breaks and lunches that you will likely be getting up and walking around for.

The meeting was long. It was good, I learned a lot, but I also managed to feel quite small and inadequate by the end of it. I have a lot to learn, although I suppose today was as good a day to learn it as any. It was also slightly awkward in the enforced social time of food/coffee breaks. Everyone knew each other already, and as I was not exactly considered a peer, it was a bit intimidating. I managed though, and as soon as many of my new friends realised that I was the same age of their children, the roles were soon established, and I was taken under the wing of quite a few very nice people that I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. Due to my attention-deficit-ed nature, my mind, however, did tend to wander from time to time during the speeches. I resorted to taking ‘notes’ in Portuguese in my notebook so that no one would realise I was really just making observations on life and attempting not to doodle in my notebook. This worked until I made friends with the Portuguese delegate.

(PS- Just in case anyone thinks I wasn’t actually paying attention, I wrote PAGES AND PAGES of real notes, too. I may have just done some multi-tasking…)

Selected observations (Translated to English):

Observation 1:

The hues of life in Europe, most especially in the East, tends to be a sad and faded, washed out version of what I imagine the real thing should look like. This, of course, is in comparison to the vibrancy found in places such as South America, Africa, and Louisiana. I always imagined quite romantically, that everything looks faded and slightly dusty because humanity here is old, and culture runs deep. But then a few months ago I went to Ethiopia. Clearly, this thought could not actually be true. If culture runs deep anywhere, it is in Ethiopia, and I can’t describe my time there without mentions the deep reds, the rust browns, the jade greens… Anyway, I love Eastern Europe, I do (lots and lots and lots!), and on first glance Budapest has already been added to the long list of cities where I’d like to lead a wondrous, yet slightly depressing life as a tortured writer, who creates great works of art in a haze of bohemian life, crazy adventures, absinthe, and cigar smoke (okay, nix the cigar, but it does sound good). I think I like it here because it just manages to look so sad, even when the sun is shining and everyone around me appears happy (I realise as I write this that it sounds quite emo, but I mean this in a happy way. It’s difficult to explain my weird way of viewing the world). It’s as if all the ghosts of a time past are still present, and the city is so stuck recounting it’s glory days, that it forgot to enjoy today. I love learning about the ghosts of history, so of course, this all suits me rather well.

Observation 2:

I want to be doodling on my hands, but instead I am trying to appear ‘professional’ despite my unfortunate clothing/shoe choice. I resist, although I feel as though it’s a losing battle anyway.

Observation 3:

How strange that both my plaque and my nametag say that I represent Switzerland. It’s sort of weird. Although, on second thought, what’s weirder is that I didn’t even think about how I should find it odd until I’d been here for a few hours.

Observation 4:

I didn’t have to show my passport at all when I entered Hungary. There weren’t even customs people visible anywhere. It was sort of surreal after becoming accustomed to so many security checks. I asked, and found out it’s because we were going from one Schengen country into another. What trust!

After the meeting I went on a ramble, despite being absolutely ready to fall face first into bed (See me for stories about a couple weeks of sleepless nights, nightmares, ridiculous French tests, and necessary green beer). I didn’t take a map, have any intended destination, or have any idea where I was. I just chose a direction and set out in a straight line. The idea was that I would just turn around and head back from whence I came, when I was bored. Of course this didn’t happen, as like a moth to a naked light bulb, I chose to chase shiny objects (i.e. buildings, interesting shop fronts, parks, and weird people, etc.) up and down side streets. I eventually found myself in what was clearly a part of town more down on its luck and quite a bit rougher than what the average tourist is meant to see, completely lost, and in failing light. Awesome. I saw some cool things though, that I wished I had photographed (I was a bit wary about pulling out my camera. I had already stashed my ipod in a pocket, as it was gaining the attentions of passers-by). There were loads of buildings crumbling away into vines, grass, and dirt, great arched doorways holding doors that leaned askew and/or partly off their hinges into empty lots and abandoned buildings, shops with dark dingy fronts, that clearly held amazing treasures I should have perused, parks full of dead and dying plants yearning for the sun, young boys playing basketball on cracked courts with hoops that had probably never held a net, park benches full of couples in love/lust, and people, mostly elderly and walking in pairs, who looked up at me with sad eyes, from faces that were weather-beaten and heavily lined. I wondered if they were actually as old as they looked, or just worn out after a hard life. I found buildings whose walls had caved in, full of old and middle-aged men in moth-eaten, tattered clothing, sitting on long wooden benches chatting and smoking fragrant cigars. I saw pile next to pile of what appeared to be absolute rubbish along, and in, the streets- piles full pieces of things that had been reused until all that was left was unrecognisable or so broken that I was sure it could never again be used in its original/any intended manner. These graveyards were solemnly watched over by men and women in grey and dark clothing of a similar state. They didn’t speak to each other, or to the odd person sifting through the refuse for their diamonds in the rough.  I assume that these vendors were Roma people (the marginalised, but highly visible minority of Hungary and elsewhere), both from the style of their dress and their features. I also found shops and stores that are common in the US and UK, but not at all in Switzerland. And of course, there were a lot of McDonalds (but only ‘imitation’ Starbucks, as someone pointed out). Blah.

Luckily, the people of Hungary are nice, friendly, and easily convinced to help a lost foreigner who speaks not one word of their ridiculously difficult sounding language. Thanks to their help, I made it back to the hotel in time for the organised supper. And it was amazing. We went to a place called Café Rustico, and it was outfitted in a very traditional looking way that reminded me a lot of last year’s visit to Romania.

So then they fed us. As in astronomical amounts. Along with multiple glasses of wine that I literally was thinking about bringing back to Geneva to use as decorative fish bowls for my goldfish.  There were courses upon courses (when the main course finally arrived we thought we’d already had it and that they were going to bring the dessert). The most notable of the courses included these wafer ‘boats’ that held what turned out to be creamed goose liver covered in a greenish sauce and ‘soap bubbles.’ I tried it (I had no idea what it was I was eating at the time), but, um, it wasn’t so much to my taste, so I didn’t finish it (they love their goose and their liver in this country- both of which I fastiduously avoider thereafter). They also brought out these bowls that contained some veg such as peas, and carrots, and other unidentifiable plant-like substances, and these gelatine-like cubes of red and brown. Then they came around with tureens of boiling water and poured it over the food. Voilà! Instant and delicious soup! Needless to say, between the food, wine, and palinka that they fed us, it was a struggle to go back to my room and run through my speech for the next morning without toppling over into satisfied unconsciousness.

Day 2: Friday

The second day of the conference went well. I was the first speaker of the day, and gave the speech that my boss was going to give were he able to make it. Afterwards, I just sat back and listened as people gave presentations based upon the viral hepatitis situation in the countries they were representing. I had more to talk with people about as well, which made things more enjoyable overall. In the evening, I met up with some of the conference members who were staying longer in town. There wasn’t an organised supper, but someone made arrangements with a restaurant based upon the hotel’s recommendations, so I went along with no idea as to where I was going. It was quite posh. There was ‘gypsy music’ played by a live band, although they wore suits and ties (clearly if that doesn’t scream Gypsy, I don’ t know what does), and while the food was good, it was expensive and clearly there for the benefit of tourists. And, as I was mostly out with doctors and well-established professionals, they had not chose their dining establishment based on the student/intern budget. Sigh. It was definitely more than I’d bargained for. At least there were some good conversations to be had.

Day 3: Saturday:

I slept in (yay!). Well, moderately, anyway. I had to wake up in time for the free breakfast. 🙂

A few of us met up for lunch and to do some exploring.  Budapest is actually the combination of what was once two cities, Buda and Pest, joined together when bridges were built to span the powerful Danube river (Longest river in the EU, second longest in Europe after the Volga). We spent some time taking in the sights on the bridges, climbing Castle Hill via funicular, and wandering among some old churches, castles, museums, and other pretty buildings. It was a beautiful day, and the open markets were lively and bright, full of people, chatter, live music/dance, and the delicious scents of food cooking in huge open vats (which I found slightly thrilling/terrifying). We sampled this fry bread like thing, that was actually grilled on a spit. It ends up looking like a long empty cylinder, covered in sugar. As you eat it, the bread comes off in a coil. Delicious and fun!

We also went to the baths (there are a lot of hot springs and baths in this city). Yes, dear blog, I spent my Saturday late afternoon/early evening soaking leisurely in a Turkish Bath. Yep, it’s true. We were at the Rudas bath, which is supposedly the most authentically Turkish of all the baths in Budapest (maybe also the oldest?). It was basically one huge room. There was a maybe octagonal bath/pool in the middle, set between towering columns and underneath a huge dome full of cut-out holes to allow shafts of light to penetrate the dark space. Other smaller pools of varying heats surrounded it. Off to one side there were dry and wet saunas. The first thing that hit me upon entering the large space, was the almost tangibly solid scent of sulphur. Clearly these were natural springs. Surprisingly, the baths were not just full of fat old men in very tiny speedos, but young people of all ages as well, and a number of men who clearly spend most of their time in weight rooms and under UV lamps. My two adventurous companions and I went around and around, from pool to pool, to sauna, to pool, as the temperature and inclination tempted us.

Thoroughly limp, soggy, and much refreshed, we finally emerged back into the outside world, just in time to catch the last of the fading light. A twisting walk back in the direction of the hotel, led us to discover a magical place known only as Janis’ Pub, where Janis Joplin appeared to reign supreme in name, décor, and musical selection. Of course, it was necessary that we consume a drink on her behalf.

We found a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in which to eat supper (5 of us eating an appetizer, main course, a shared dessert, and beer or wine came to less than the price of one person’s meal the night before). The food was absolutely amazing, and when I remember where I put the card they gave me, I will add the name here. I had something that I’m trying to remember the name of, but it included Hungarian pasta (yes, they have their own variety), potatoes, cheese, mushrooms, and other things. It was sort of a stew, but more solid. It was Amazingly delicious, yet extremely filling.

After finishing supper, I found that my aspirations to check out the club scene in Budapest were quickly dwindling to ‘unlikely,’ and after a nightcap of palinka with the others, all hope was lost (rockstar points= -2). I again fell into bed (i.e. Lesson of the day: when in Budapest, don’t go to the baths before clubbing, go clubbing at the baths. No joke. At Rudas, they close on Friday and Saturday night at 8pm, and re-open at 10. They don’t close again til 4 in the morning. It’s true. They turn on disco lights, and music, and there is a bar. I was a bit too scared to try that on my own, but if I make it back with a travelling companion, it mostly sounds like the setting for the best/worst drag show ever…).

Day 4: Sunday

Last day in Budapest. 😦 I wandered around again with some more of my new friends. The highlight of the day for me was our tour through the Dohany Synagogue. It is the largest synagogue in terms of actual air space in the world, and is second in seating only to the one in New York. It was gorgeous, and unlike any temple I’d ever seen. Apparently, 25,000 Hungarian Jews (they are mostly neolog Jews here) funded the building of it, despite the fact that it only has room for 3,000 people to sit, and 3,000 people to stand (only, because you know, that’s clearly not very big). It is closer in style to a huge cathedral or church, although the motif of course is all Jewish. Behind the actual synagogue there was a nice memorial garden, the ‘winter’ synagogue (used in the winter when the congregation that comes is much smaller- and believe me, after visiting Dohany and some of the churches I could see why- apparently such things as central heating are not an integral part of Hungarian places of worship. Even in the warm-ish spring air, it was fa-reezing inside), and the reception hall. Off to one side were the mass graves of the Jews who died in the Budapest ghetto during WWII due mostly, I was told, to the bitter cold, and because of starvation. The burial place wasn’t considered exactly kosher because it was too close to the synagogue and didn’t have a body of running water or anything to separate it from the temple building, but the Russians (who where in charge at the time) basically said, ‘we’ll help you dig here, or you can deal with it on your own. You’re choice.”  The history lessons I got there were quite fascinating, and the guide engaging. We also went to Eszertergom Basilica which was also enjoyable, although we didn’t take the guided tour. I had a delicious tropical beverage to treat myself after.

All in all, a great trip to Hungary. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun in my off time. I’d definitely like to go back and spend more time there. Budapest has just the balance of grime, grit, classical elegance, and dirty history that I find attractive in a city. It also perfectly appeals to my life goals of tortured writer meets lifelong student.

One thought on “So I went to Budapest…

  1. […] My work adventure in Budapest: Budapest in Photos. For those who are interested,  more on the actual ins and outs of my trip can be found here […]

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March 2010
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