I was sat in the shade of these giant, leafless hardwoods with bone-white, chipped and peeling facades when I opened my journal for the first time under Hungary’s sun. I hadn’t expected Budapest in April would be so darn hot. My leather jacket I’d bought years ago in the Wisconsin Dells- such an integral part of my identity- ended up doing nothing all week except take up needless space in my unforgiving RyanAir carry-on baggage allotment. It was nice that the weather was so sunny for my visit, but I did feel a little disarmed without my favorite jacket. I take this thing everywhere. However the rest of my look was still intact- I had the cowboy belt I got in Texas around my waist and my trusty Jordans on my feet. I drew strength from these things. The kind of strength I figured I would need to travel alone, but which I later realized, wasn’t even necessary. I was surprised how comfortable I was in my own company. During a video call with my roommate Aaron back at the boat, he told me “I don’t want you slipping into the meek persona. No apologizing, no bumbling, no worrying what people will think about you. I want zero fucks given. You wear a goddam cowboy belt and a pair of Jordans for Chrissake. How many people there are gonna be wearing that? Think about what makes you unique and let it empower you. If you’re gonna wear those fancy sneakers, you need to live up to the spirit of Michael Jordan. Can you do that?”
It was time to do what I’d come here to do and swallow as much of the city as I could, for all its colors and ambient vibrations to be stored somewhere deep inside of me. So I brought this fresh journal- whose scrambled notes I am now translating into a coherent blog post. The journal seemed just right. It was a gift from my mom. She’s quite the traveler herself, and picked this journal up at a famous bookstore in Porto, Portugal called Livraria Lello, that was supposedly a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling. The paper isn’t lined, so I was free to splurge my pen directionless over that inviting, unspoiled white. I included pictures and diagrams where necessary, and within minutes the thing was covered in a hasty series of mind-maps.
The breeze that touched my skin under that beautifully barren canopy, I realized, was the same that had touched the cheeks of those Dominican nuns almost nine centuries ago. It was a religious air that carried through the trees, and landed now on the cheeks of little schoolchildren. The island had always been a place of tranquility and contemplation for the Hungarians. I decided it would be the best choice for me to start my week in Budapest with- especially since Margitsziget is so close to my hotel. I’d walk around, collect all that precious ambience I craved, before taking a dip in the island’s spa- the Palatinus Strand. The meditative culture of the island goes back to its settlement by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century. After the Mongols ravaged Hungary and returned east for the funeral of the Great Khan, King Béla IV gave his daughter Margaret to the Dominican convent on the island, believing that a child dedicated to religion would be reason enough for God not to ask the Mongols to come back. They didn’t, and the island was renamed to Margitsziget (Margaret Island). Before that, it had been known as Nyulak Szigete, which translates as Rabbit Island, or Island of Rabbits.
The first thing I noticed was that there were dog walkers everywhere. Budapest loves dogs! I saw two sausage dogs excitedly investigating a big, fluffy gentle giant that looked like a husky mix. Alongside the dog walkers were runners and cyclists. There were no cars. I could hear the birds singing, a sound that escapes the ears when in the rest of the city. I felt soothed by the sound of the bike rental woman as she swept the empty road with a wide broom. Old folks sat on benches while groups of teenagers rented bikes and scooters. The far off din of playing children. Couples strolled through the trees hand in hand. Some of the trees had bright colors, others were barren. The grass was dotted with dandelions. There were a few homeless people sleeping on the grass. On a nearby tree trunk two lovers had carved “Pau + Heni” inside a crude heart.
I walked up the east side of the island and found a miniature zoo. I let the donkey kiss my palm and moved on, going north to the ruins of a Franciscan church and the old Dominican convent where Saint Margaret had lived her entire life. I imagined her admiring the birds as she collected water from a well, looking across the Danube and gazing in wonder at the outside world. I bought a little dish of ice cream and set off for the Japanese garden at the north end of the island. I sat on a bench and made notes in the journal again as a young Hungarian couple had their engagement photos taken by the pond. After finishing my ice cream I went up a narrow path, only to find another young couple deep in love. They stood facing each other and holding both of their hands between them, talking very intimately. I wondered if the guy was about to propose so I doubled back and took an alternate route. I don’t think he did though- I’ve since come to the conclusion that the Magyar people are naturally very passionate.
I left and headed south down the western side of the island. I looked at a group of English girls peddling one of those rental buggies, giggling and screaming. For a moment I thought that I was limiting myself by traveling alone, and couldn’t help but imagine doing something like that with my friends. I messaged these thoughts to Elizabeth, and she texted back “I really think there is something special about seeing a place by yourself. Going with others limits your independence and closes your eyes to certain things. I honestly think this trip is going to be something you remember for the rest of your life as the best decision you ever made.”
She was right. My trip wasn’t lesser; it was just different. My experience of the city would have been completely different if I had gone with friends or family. Now I can go back and discover Budapest all over again through the lens of a roommate, a friend, a brother, or a girlfriend. And I would definitely take my future travel companion to Margitsziget so that I might observe their fresh reactions to the same spiritual breeze that so affected me.