“Yesterday I wrote in my journal: What will Stockholm be like? What will I discover in Copenhagen? Who will I meet in St. Petersburg? What wonders await? An innocent abroad”
-Don George, An Innocent Abroad
I’ve been reading “An Innocent Abroad,” which I feel is extremely appropriate as I travel about and make discoveries. It’s a series of short stories from a wide array of accomplished authors that center around the titular theme. I’ve highlighted half of the book because so many of the passages are applicable to my past and present travels. This blog post’s featured quote mirrors all of my initial excitement and trepidation about this journey. Though I’ve seen some of Hungary already, I’m seeing it this time from a completely new perspective: Will the long days be grueling? Will the information be difficult to swallow? Will I even make friends? What if I don’t find the connection I came here to look for? But what if I do?
I travel often enough that these feelings should be a nonissue, but the truth is is that no matter how many times my travels have gone well, there’s always a voice in the back of my head playing devil’s advocate. All of it disappears though when I step off the plane and take a breath of a new country’s air. There is no greater feeling than that initial second when you’ve made it and you know that infinite adventures, good and bad, await you on the other side of those airplane doors. No matter how much older and (hopefully) wiser I get, no matter how many times I’ve tread these paths before, it always feels new and different and makes me feel like an innocent abroad.
Here’s the first three days of my trip. It’s a lot of info but I’ve broken it down by day so you can read at your leisure.
Budapest welcomed us with sweltering heat. Sticky, exhausted, disheveled, we began our trip by doing the most Hungarian thing we could have done: eat. From there we took a boat tour on the Duna where the weather took a turn for the worse. One minute we’re enjoying a bit of sun on the water and the next minute it’s raining so hard we might as well have been in the water.
We dragged ourselves into the hip restaurant, Mazel Tov, a Mediterranean inspired restaurant in the Jewish quarter, where we discovered what eating meant in Hungary. The food was abundant and this meal set the precedent for how all of our meals would go. And afterwards was the greatest gift of all: bed.
I calculated it: by the time I went to bed, I’d been up for 36 hours. Though we were all nodding off trying our best not to be the people that fall asleep in public, I was quite pleased with my efforts as I’m not sure I’ve been able to stay awake that long since my college days. Really the only good thing about having been up that long is that I not only slept through the night, but slept at appropriate hours so I was pretty much cured of my jet lag immediately.
Apparently my dorm doubles as a sauna because when I woke up after 12 glorious hours of sleep, it was about 9000 degrees. Not even an exaggeration. 9000 literal degrees of sweat, tears, and melting flesh. Ok, ok, maybe just the sweat and tears are the literal part. In any case, it was hotter and more humid than my delicate princess self has ever had to experience and I was not pleased about it. If this was only the first day of Budapest, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it for two whole weeks.
Our first activity of the day, aside from the essential breakfast and cappuccino, was a scavenger hunt that took us all over Pest. Fun fact: Budapest is divided by the Danube (or Duna) making one side Buda and the other Pest. Also, S in Hungarian is pronounced SH, so really Budapest should be pronounced Budapesht. Anyway, we were asked to do several things like order typical pastries from the market and take pictures of us eating them, find a poem in a subway and translate it, take a selfie at the top of St. Stephen’s basilica, see who is guarding the entrance at the opera house–bonus points for writing down who built it, count how many chandeliers are upstairs in the former Paris department store, etc. When my team, Winner Winner, finished early, we gave ourselves our own bonus of a drink in the cafe at the top of the Paris department store.
The idea to kick off our trip with a scavenger hunt was brilliant because it gave us a chance to get to know each other while scrambling about to read maps and to learn fun facts about Budapest. It also felt so much more fun and productive than being lectured by a tour guide as things were pointed out and also gave us a better sense of the city as we took the subway the wrong way or had to ask a local to help us translate a poem. Final fun fact of the hunt: team Winner Winner won because…duh.
After that we took a tour of the Hospital in the Rock. The Hospital in the Rock was a hospital built into the underground caverns that are beneath the Buda Castle and spans several miles. They were primarily used during WWII but also served as a nuclear bunker after the war. The museum is very well put together, though a tad creepy with all of its wax figures. They feature a lot of original equipment, including a machine that had its 15 minutes of fame in the movie Evita (omg~*~*~*~), and makes you feel like you’ve walked through a time machine. Our tour guide was also very knowledgeable and kept us entertained for the two hour tour that barely felt like one because even though we’re all adults, we apparently also have the attention span of a bunch of five year olds. As five year olds, we got to wear costumes for the duration of the tour, wrap each other in gauze (where we found out who definitely didn’t have a future in medicine), cover someone in camouflage face paint, and lift each other in stretchers. From a historical perspective it’s fascinating feeling like you’re back in time but from a personal one, it’s a little eerie seeing pictures of the Hungary so many of our families left. It also makes me so grateful that my reality isn’t filled with air raids, curfews, and constant threats on my home and life. However, it’s all part of the learning experience though and why we’re here.
We were released to the surface level and got to run around the Buda castle area for a bit, then went to dinner at Deryne. Dinner was amazing. Usually on trips like this, the food is quick and mediocre at best, but they are really trying to get us to connect with our Hungarian love of food by taking us to nice places. I had duck, I had wine, I had great company. We even celebrated a birthday! This might have been my favorite meal of the whole trip mostly because it was not only so delicious but it was the first real meal we had together where we weren’t dying of exhaustion and were finally able to have a fun “family” dinner.
I like to call this the “let’s get down to business” day as it’s the first day we had to embark on scholarly endeavors and actually look presentable. Also, it fits into the running Mulan theme of this trip because all I keep hearing in the back of my head is the “You’ll bring honor to us all” song where Mulan is clearly not bringing honor and neither am I.
The first item on the agenda was meeting the state secretary for diaspora relations, Arpad Janos Potapi. This was also the first day we were followed by the press, which was something I needed getting used to. I dealt with it by hiding behind the tall people, which to me is (thankfully) everyone on this trip. Mr. Potapi gave a speech about why what we’re doing in Hungary is important, and finished off by commending us for being so attentive as at our age he would have hated standing there listening to his speech. Afterwards we got to go through the “We, Hungarians” exhibit where we learned about Hungarians who have played an important part in world development, tried on costumes, walked through history, played with a Rubik’s cube (because Rubik was Hungarian, obviously).
I of course brought more honor to my family by gladly participating in all of their interactive exhibits, because again, I am five years old. The most important part of this excursion was the reception filled with pogacsa, which is basically a cheesy puff pastry and my favorite thing in Hungary, maybe even the world. Honestly, I wish I could tell you more about this morning but the only thing I cared about was the tray of pogacsa that waited for me at the finish line.
The next non-food related item on the agenda was a visit to the Kesztyügyár community center. The community center was built as a place to encourage local youths, who are primarily from Roma backgrounds, who come from impoverished homes or are falling behind in school, in order to help them achieve their full potential. I grew up hearing bits and pieces about the Roma community but didn’t really understand the full extent of their struggles as a minority community. The guy who runs the school told a story about a little Roma girl he worked with when he first started who was extremely intelligent and capable but wasn’t working to her full potential. When he asked her why, she responded, “what’s the point? Let’s say I do work hard all my life, then if I even get into university, I’m not awarded the same opportunities because I am Roma.”
The treatment of minority communities is a common theme in most countries, it’s something we see a lot in the U.S. as well, and something that I wish there were more being done about, especially when it comes to education. I’m fortunate I was awarded all the opportunities and that the importance of education was ingrained in me at a young age, but the same can’t be said for everyone. Having a good education can open so many doors and is the best armor you can have in life. Though this is just one small step, it’s a step in the right direction and I hope to see more of these types programs not just here, but in the U.S. as well. I know that the Roma community tends to be a sensitive subject here so I’m grateful it was included in our program as it’s important for us to learn about all facets, good and bad, of Hungarian history and culture. It was also great that post discussion we got to interact with the kids and see it all firsthand.
Fun fact of the day: I had my first full Hungarian conversation with a little girl who followed me around for a bit.
Little girl: do you speak Hungarian?
Me: no. Do you speak English?
Little girl: no.
*proceeds to run away*
I’m still pretty pleased with myself.
After a serious day of learning, it was time to wind down at the famous Szechenyi Baths. What word can I even use to describe the magic that is over a dozen swimming pools of varying temperatures where I could swim to my heart’s content? Well I guess I just did describe it….magical. This is a tourist hot spot, sure, but there’s a damn good reason for it. The complex is huge with three large connecting pools in the middle, then labyrinth of rooms filled with more pools, jacuzzis, and saunas inside. We hopped from pool to pool trying them all before settling outside and swimming until we transformed into sun kissed raisins.
Second best dinner? Our dinner was at Kertem with an incredible view on a small lake. There was bread with garlic butter and a pitcher of lemonade on the table waiting for us. If that had been our entire meal I would have been very happy. Have I mentioned the lemonades are amazing here? They’re lemonades with a mini fruit salad mixed in and there are always about half a dozen flavors offered wherever we go. I can’t get over how good all of our food has been.
Today was also the first day we mixed with the people from group 1. While it was cool to have a bunch of new people to meet with, it was a little overwhelming as we had barely started to get to know our own group before throwing another 20 people to the mix. They were all really nice though and I was excited to have new friends to adventure with for the following week.
And with all that, our first week ended and we were pushed out of the nest into a free European weekend.