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The Crescent City Diaries #7

As I stated in my previous post, I was anxious not to waste any time in this city overflowing with creative inspiration. When traveling solo- especially staying in a city for five days- you have to make your own fun. Even in a place as rich and exciting as New Orleans- you have to investigate what’s on offer and do a little research about how best to spend your time there.

I woke on my second day in the Big Easy from a peaceful sleep undisturbed by Bourbon Street belchers, Halloweeny pranksters, or glass-shattering Creole orgasms. Saturday, August 4th. The only day of my trip I had anything booked. A swamp tour in the afternoon and some raunchy nightlife entertainment in the evening. However, the spaces in between these engagements grew suddenly large in my mind.

I had time to fill, and I sure as heck wasn’t gonna spend it in my hotel room chipping away at the “Sith Triumvirate Raid” on Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes. My tour didn’t start until noon, and with three hours to kill I decided to go for a walk. I had heard that the 19th century Creole mansions of Esplanade Avenue were a hidden treasure. I set off with my camera, relishing the opportunity to photograph this scenic, quiet part of the city.

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I’d barely walked three blocks however, when it started raining. And when it rains in the Big Easy, oh boy does it pour. I placed my camera back in my bag and continued walking. I reached Esplanade and caught a glimpse of the colorful mansions through the steel threads that poured from the sky. It wasn’t what I had planned. I love rain for its ambience and its poetry, but this time I was bummed out. What a lousy morning, I said to myself. I kept going down the deserted street, maintaining a watchful eye on the truck that had slowly driven past me twice, my mind recalling all sorts of sinister things from my days binge-watching Crime Investigation Australia.

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I turned right on Decatur Street and headed back into the Quarter. I was looking for a place called Crescent Park, and at the time I wasn’t sure where I was in relation to the Mississippi River. Hopefully when I reached this green place the rain will have stopped and I could have some photographs to show for my excursion. The rain didn’t let up, however. If anything, it only got more furious. I stood for a while on a street corner, under shelter, reviewing my map. The edges of the roads were beginning to flood, and the rain was so violent that every pedestrian stopped walking and took shelter. It was like Antony Hopkins had told us to “freeze all motor functions” while he tried to fix this rain glitch in our simulation. The proprietors of the stores we stood outside- a mix of souvenir shopkeepers and Italian bakers- came out to join us, standing with hands on hips.

My eye caught sight of a café across the road and I made a snap decision to sit down and have a drink while I waited for the rain to die down. I think it was called The Market Café. It had an outdoor patio that was covered. People sat eating brunch at bistro tables while a live Jazz band attempted to drown out the thumping of the rain. A waiter smiled at me as I approached. He sat me down at one of the tables and asked what I wanted.

This is one of those situations where I ought to be less self-conscious and more assertive. I’ve been told I care too much what people think, and that I should stop apologizing for myself everywhere I go. I asked the waiter if I could just sit here and have a drink. His expression instantly became hostile and he stared at me. I asked if that was okay.

“Can I just get a drink and sit here?” I said.

“It’s a restaurant,” he said, like I was stupid. He frowned at me as if I had insulted him.

“I mean, I can go if you don’t do that,” I said, half-rising from my chair.

“It’s raining,” he said. And then, through gritted teeth, “What do you want to drink?”

I got a Coke. When he brought it to me, I smiled at him and said thanks- a peace offering to make up for my awkwardness. Still wearing his angry expression, he ignored me and placed the cola on my table without a word. I got out my map and checked how far I was from the park. City parks are good for solo travelers. City parks, botanical gardens, museums, and art galleries are the solo traveler’s best friends; they offer a sanctuary free from social pressure and expectation. They are places of contemplation and self-reflection, which is what traveling solo is all about. They are the opposite of amusement parks, which I think would be kind of depressing to attend unaccompanied. After paying for my thankless business, I braved the deluge again and set off north.

Eventually, I found the perfect solution to my current situation and the thing that made this whole walk not feel like such a waste of fucking time- a covered flea market. I’d heard about this place before. French Market. It spans six blocks, and it’s the oldest market of its kind in the United States. In fact, it predates even the arrival of the European settlers, the site having been used as a Native American trading post centuries ago.

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I love flea markets. I passed several vendors selling traditional Cajun dishes- if you’re hankering for a hushpuppy, a basket of gator bites, or perhaps some fresh crawfish, this is the spot for you. I took a seat on one of the stools and asked for some fried green tomatoes. I wasn’t hungry enough yet for lunch, and I had always wanted to try this Alabaman specialty. I figured it was a rite of passage for my journey into American regional foods.

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To be honest, I didn’t really care for them. They’re just deep fried tomatoes with none of the sweetness that comes with the red variety I’m more familiar with. I made an effort to finish them, saying to myself: for the blog, Michael. For the blog.

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I continued to wander north throughout the market. There were all kinds of handcrafted trinkets and goods. And a lot of interesting jewelry and other crafts. I don’t wear jewelry myself, but I’m fascinated by gemstones. There’s just something so incomparably wondrous about the rapture of staring into a sapphire, ruby, or emerald. I stopped to admire a collection of bracelets and necklaces. I decided to get one as a graduation present for the woman I call my sister- Anne-Marie- who had just recently gotten her Masters in Behavior Analysis. Not only had she graduated from the top school in the nation for that field, but she was also now a published author, having submitted an article to one of the most prestigious academic journals in said field. Anne-Marie conducts groundbreaking research into human behavior (with a specific focus on children with autism) and teachers and parents travel to watch her speak and learn from her breakthroughs. It’s very exciting stuff, and I figured she might like something nice to accessorize with during the many speeches and conferences that surely await her in the future. The bracelet I picked out was lined with rich blue gemstones, and it’s one of the colors she wears well. It’s a color I associate with her; it’s kind and warm but there’s also an oceanic depth to it that connotes knowledge and wisdom.

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I continued through the market and crossed the road, finding myself at a set of train tracks. The park ought to be right here, I thought to myself. But there were no trees or gazeboes in sight. Just boxcars and warehouses. I kept going north, staying as close to the Mississippi as I could, but walled off from its familiar splendor by the railyard. I came to a long stretch of grass lined with pylons. There was no one around whatsoever. A sign told me I was in Crescent Park. But all I could see was a lawn, a few bushes, and industrial buildings all around. Warehouses, factories, power substations. So I turned around and made back for the hotel. It wasn’t the start I hoped for on this action-packed Saturday I had in mind- but that was okay, because the best was yet to come…

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The Crescent City Diaries #1

Right now I’m sat in bed drinking coffee and scarfing down the complimentary croissants Dominique brings to my room. There’s a pitter-patter of rain on the exterior corridor and a leak that drops down from the vent above my bed. I’m wondering how to describe New Orleans.

I’m here for a week before I get the train down to Houston to reunite with my American roommates before they get married. Flying to the USA ain’t cheap, and I’m not sure how many opportunities like this remain in my lifetime. So I decided to follow up my April solo trip to Budapest with another city I’ve always wanted to see- Louisiana’s New Orleans.

I’ve been lucky over the years to visit several interesting and beautiful cities in this country. My favorites are Savannah, GA, Galveston, TX, San Francisco, CA, and Kansas City, MO. Each of these cities inflame my creativity. They are all places I’d like to return to, just to do some writing, photography, people-watching, and to connect with local artists.

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After spending a few days in the Big Easy however, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no place even remotely like it. I’m not saying it’s the best or the most beautiful, and I’m not sure I could live here- but nothing comes close to approaching the sheer uniqueness of New Orleans. It is without a doubt the strangest place I have ever visited. It’s flamboyant, vibrant, expressive, surreal, crazy, and outrageously decadent. But reducing the city to a mere string of adjectives would be to do it a great disservice.

I’m still thinking of how best to sum up this city on the basis of my visit. I want to get as close as possible to the heartbeat of the Big Easy and its people; I want to refine it as best as I can and say “This! This is what makes it tick!”. So I’m going to do a series of short blog posts, that will be like diary entries chronicling my search for these nascent truths. I think that’s the best way to do it, to give a running narration of my impressions as they are in flux.

The first New Orleanian I met was Leroy- the night shift receptionist on the hotel’s front desk. He was slouched back in his chair, his tie hanging loose, in a pose I immediately started to think quintessentially representative of the French Quarter. He asked what brought me to the Big Easy and I said I just always wanted to see it. He chuckled and said “You just wanted to join the party, yes boss.”

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That’s it. It’s one big never-ending party. It’s a city that probably shouldn’t exist, that perseveres in the wake of relentless tragedy, and which will probably be underwater by the end of the century. And the response is fascinating. The party only gets louder and more wild. The roads of the French Quarter are covered in potholes, and the whole place seems in a constant state of repair. It’s like a big ocean liner slowly sinking, and the response, as I said, of its occupants, is to get out the trombones and the saxophanes. The city will keep the party going until it’s vanquished forever, and I can’t help but think there is a poetry to that; I’m inclined to believe that the city’s artistry is in some way related to its expiry date.

It’s a place that’s stranger still for someone like me that’s shy and socially anxious. It’s a place that’s bursting with color and overflowing with artistic talent. Everyone here is dancing to a beat of some kind. And I never know quite how to act when I’m at a party. I’m the guy that stands in the corner watching the other guy take home the girl I didn’t have the courage to talk to. So I’m unsure of what to do with myself in a place like Bourbon Street- a location so rowdy and bizarre that it makes the Mos Eisley cantina look like a data entry office floor in Swindon.

The hotel I’m at has a lot of character. It’s old and wooden and rickety. It’s not neat and fancy. But it gets endless personality from its creaky floorboards and Creole-style courtyard. The walls aren’t soundproof at all. At about 3am on my first night I woke up due to some Bourbon Street revelers congregated in the courtyard below. Their conversation died down, and I heard a woman say “Wait…what’s that?”

Then she started screaming hysterically. I was bolt upright at this point. She screamed in such a way that you can only associate it with visceral trauma. It was a scream that was in response to something witnessed. I didn’t know what, but I honestly expected to hear gunshots. My heart stopped and- it seems silly to admit this now- I was honestly weighing up where to hide. However no mad gunman emerged. The silence was followed by raucous laughter, and I heard a guy outside my door say “Are y’all going around as ghosts?”

The woman said “Oh my God, I HATE you.”

More laughter. New Orleans has a thing for the freakish and the macabre. I’m guessing these folks were returning from one of the popular haunted tours. I’m not even trying to be dramatic, but it took a while for my breathing to cool down. Before I was able to get back to sleep, an altogether different sound entered my room. Moaning. It came from the room beneath me. The woman’s moans grew louder, so loud that the cause was unmistakable. Whoever she was, she didn’t give a dang who was listening. The sound of her pleasure was so emphatic that I couldn’t have been given a clearer impression of her lovemaking session unless I was taking part. I kid you not, this lasted for 30 minutes. I checked my phone to see how long I was being kept awake. I was so close to this raunchy liaison that I felt embarrassed. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that I should perhaps leave. I was hearing something I wasn’t supposed to.

But that might just be my Church of England upbringing. I then started to add this experience to my impression of the French Quarter as a place. Carefree. Passionate. Wild. Uninhibited. Like I said, it’s one big party here. Everyone just lets it out and lays bare their desires. And so the lovemaking just stands alongside the trumpets of the jazz bands, the singing of the buskers, the gyrating legs and hips of the burlesque dancers, the painters’ brush strokes, the museum curators’ stories, the poetry slams, the mime artists, and all the rest of it. It really is no different. So I said to myself, “Welcome to New Orleans!” and drifted off to sleep.

Reassessing My 2018 Resolutions

With my Hungarian series concluded, I’d like to write a post reflecting on how 2018 has gone so far. In my New Year’s Resolution post I outlined some targets I wanted to hit: finish writing 2 novels and develop my sense of self-sufficiency. I’m continually searching for creative and mental satisfaction- they have always seemed like the twin pillars upon which my life is built. One’s about actualizing what isn’t here and the other’s about repairing what is. Succeed in both and I guess I’m whole. As long as I stay inspired and stress-free, I’ll keep the black tentacles of depression at bay.

As I look back on the Spring of this year, I can’t help but feel it’s the importance I place on these two targets that’s part of the problem. My tendency to perceive a year in my life as having a narrative. As the weeks go by I’ve felt the weight of the pressure I’ve put on myself grow heavier. I’ve been stressed. And when I say I’m stressed, I don’t mean that my life is stressful; I’m not referring to exterior stressors like inflated gas bills, vindictive ex-spouses, or inheritance feuds. My stress comes from within. It’s derived from my own sense of failure in relation to my progress. I’ve attached a great importance to 2018 as being a year in which I can look back upon as having some kind of legacy. So far I have mixed feelings about the whole business, and therefore mixed feelings about 2018.

I am making progress. My dissatisfaction is with the pace of my progress. I’m hungry for results. As it stands, my novel is at about 50,000 words, with about another 15-20k to go. I just can’t help but think that I should have finished the darned thing a couple months ago. The issue is not that the novel is going slow (since I have all the chapters mapped out), but that I’ve been struggling to allocate time for it. Things were a lot easier when I worked at the pub. My new job at the warehouse brings in more money, but it’s at the expense of my writing time. It means that I have to go hard on my weekends, and so my sense of rhythm is lost during the week. It’s a stop-and-start writing experience at the moment, as opposed to something that flows from one day into the next. I should be doing a better job of getting some writing done in the evenings after work. That’s the discipline I’m trying to strengthen. I always get some done- usually for the blog- but not as much as I could. I end up getting distracted by things like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes or the Ricky Gervais Show.

Reading is another thing that stresses me out a lot. I haven’t been getting as much reading done recently because I’m worrying about the blog and the novel. But reading and writing have a natural synergy, and when one is neglected the other suffers. I think a lot of my worries relate to speed to be honest. Not so much the absence of progress as the rate of it. Wishing there were more hours in the day.

I’m confident of finishing the current novel and the next one by the end of 2018, and I do think that my reading will pick up too. But will I be happy and fulfilled by the end of the year? Will something still feel missing in my life? Reading and writing are tangible, measurable goals. But the more abstract resolution I made about improving my mental health is harder to assess. I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety recently, and I’ve been disappointed that it can still crush me like it did when things were really bad (the pre-medication era). I thought I was getting better at keeping my emotions in check and not collapsing under the pressure of a mood swing, but lately I have felt exceedingly weak.

But it’s not all been bad. Sure, I’ve had the odd panic attack, and I’ve been frustrated with my writing efficiency. However other stressors have gone away. Socially and creatively, it’s been a very good Spring. I’ve been inspired, I’ve traveled, and I’ve felt more capable and relaxed in social situations. I’ve gotten out more, I’ve interacted with more people, and I’ve tried new things. I’ve experienced a wonderful harmony between being sociable and being independent. I’ve taken the train to London to watch Chelsea games with my friend from Winchester, I’ve flown to Ireland to see Elizabeth & George, and I’ve reconnected with a school buddy at work that I previously didn’t get to see that much. It’s been nice to hang out with different friends from different places, and feel like my relationships with them are in good health. And yet I feel like I’ve grown as an individual. I’ve taken the time to prioritize myself and my own needs. I have been extremely comfortable in my own company, and it’s an awesome feeling. Going to Hungary turned out to be a massive success, and I loved that I could enjoy being a lone wolf like that.

And my new job, though physically demanding and long hours, is exactly the kind of challenge I need. I need to have my freedom taken away and to be pushed to the limits of my energy in order to become the best writer I can be. Through struggle comes growth, right? I have this belief that the more my conditions for writing are handicapped, the better at the craft I will become. If I was free all the time, with nothing to distract me from writing, I don’t think I would be a very good writer. My hope is that ultimately I will be able to balance my writing life with my work life more effectively, and feel that I am at maximum exuberance. I want to make every hour of my free time count, and not let it drift away into nothingness as it has in the past.

In conclusion, my year thus far has been mixed. There’s a lot I’m happy with and a lot I’m unhappy with. My plan now is focusing on balancing all the things that are important, and not letting any one aspect of my life start to rot.

Exploring Szentendre Part 1

When I came to Budapest, I knew that I wanted to make at least one excursion outside the city. I’d already taken the train to the Roman ruins of Acquincum, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to see the countryside. I wanted a taste of the hinterlands, where life was slow and you could smell fresh horse manure wafting from the pastures.

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Szentendre was the perfect choice for a day’s trip out of Budapest. It’s a little Baroque village north of the capital, on what’s known as the Danube Bend- where the river meanders a little north and then sharply south, cushioned on either side by rolling hills. The name is derived from its association with Saint Andrew (Sankt Andrae in Medieval Latin and Szent Endre in Magyar).

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Already confident with using the HEV, I hopped aboard at Margit Hid with an instant black coffee in one hand and my cell phone opened to Tinder in the other. As I sat caffeinating myself and messaging a local girl named Marsci about hanging out and learning some Hungarian, the train rattled through Óbuda; we passed the site of Acquincum and I was now further than I had been before. I looked out the window at these big tenement blocks, no doubt constructed during the Soviet era. The facades had been painted over with bright colors, and it seemed to me to be some kind of reclamation. Those big Soviet buildings always seem so bleak, but nonetheless fascinating, and seeing them infused with some brightness made me happy.

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The apartment buildings gave way to trees, I looked down to read Marsci’s latest message, and before I knew it I was out in the gorgeous countryside I had for so long dreamt of seeing. Even inside the metro things were changing. There were fewer passengers, and those that remained seemed less stressed. A couple of middle-aged men got on, both of them carrying fishing poles, and I felt that I was crossing a barrier into the real Hungary. Even the weather had changed. It had been a little overcast in Budapest, but out here the clouds parted and the green valleys and fields were bathed in glorious sunshine.

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When I got off the HEV, I was a little disorientated as to where I was in relation to both the river and the rest of the town. This part of Szentendre didn’t look very touristy or Baroque. Everything was modern and functional. I decided to pick a direction and start walking. I had a vague sense of what was north, and crossed a busy road and went down a narrow footpath through the trees. When I emerged, I found the Szentendre you see in the postcards. Old, slightly run-down buildings and stone walls. A big church whose bell was ringing. Cobblestone streets. You could hear the running water of a brook and you could hear the birds. I realized, being out in the country like this, just how much sound is muffled and diluted by the city. There were plenty of people here enjoying the atmosphere, including large groups of schoolchildren. This seemed to be a big thing in Hungary. Everywhere I went- from Acquincum to Margitsziget to the House of Terror- there were school field trips.

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I wandered up Kossuth Lajos utca and hopped into the first museum I saw- the Ferenczy Museum. From the outside it looked to be an old building in keeping with the Renaissance vibe of the town- but on the inside it was super modern. As I stepped into the lobby, I wondered if this really was a museum. Perhaps the museum was in another wing of the building, I thought, and it shared floor space with a brokerage firm. There was no one else there, I had seen no one entering or leaving, and I approached a desk off to the side. The friendly woman there told me I was in fact in the right place, and gave me a map of the town. She circled three museums I ought to see, all of which I could access with the ticket I bought here. Pretty sweet deal I thought.

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The first exhibit I saw- and the one I fell in love with- was A csalók is álmodnak (Swinders Dream Too) by Éva Magyarósi. I was eager to find a contemporary Hungarian artist- someone young, someone actively working on their craft, and someone that produced something edgy and visceral. Éva Magyarósi ticked all those boxes, and the walls were full of TV screens that showed her animations. I put on the attached headphones and fell into the surreal, fantastic worlds she created. I can’t really compare her work with anything else, but there was something otherworldly about it that reminded me of the Franco-Czech animated film The Fantastic Planet (1973), as well as the work of Wayne Barlowe. The short films were an intriguing blend of poetry, pencil drawings, and animation, exploring themes of loneliness and femininity. The fact that it was Magyarósi’s voice reading the poems aloud really enhanced the feeling that I was being given direct access to her soul. My understanding of the Hungarian tongue can be charitably described as limited, but just by the tone of her voice I had a feel for the subject. I asked the curator if they had any of Éva Magyarósi’s books on sale but they didn’t. I’m still dying to get my hands on a copy of her work in book form.

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I took some photos and left, following the map to Fő tér. I stopped at many souvenir shops along the way. I wanted something authentic and handcrafted to buy as a birthday present for my friend Elizabeth. I told the storekeeper of one such shop the situation, and enquired about some traditional Hungarian scarves. She asked for Elizabeth’s hair and eye color. Brown and brown. She recommended red or green. I chose red, because Elizabeth is UW-Madison Badger. I asked if the material was Hungarian and the storekeeper said yes, then demonstrated for me the various ways Elizabeth could wear it. The scarf was adorned with flowers, and I had a good feeling my friend would like it. She likes scarves and she lives in Ireland, so I figured she would get some good use out of it. As I made the payment, I ended up chatting with the two storekeepers about some of the things I had learned about Hungary thus far. I name-dropped Ferenc Puskas again, and the man smiled. I asked if in Magyar, he would be called Puskas Ferenc. They confirmed this was true, and said they were impressed I knew about surnames coming first when speaking in Hungarian.

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I bade them farewell and decided to take one of the many narrow alleyways toward the river. So far, my day was off to a good start. I had tended to my artsy fartsy concerns- now I had to satisfy my belly…

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10 More Stories From Hungary

  1. Critters of the Roman Ruins
    Ancient Rome is one of my favorite historical topics, so I knew that I had to check out the ruins of Aquincum. I love how the culture, infrastructure, and bureaucracy of the Empire plays such a central role in the foundation of so many European countries. Like Britain, the history of Hungary starts with its annexation by the Roman Empire. And like London, so too was Budapest founded by the Romans. I took the HEV (suburban metro) out to Óbuda where the site from which the Budapest metropolitan area can be traced to a humble- but not insubstantial- collection of columns, temples and amphitheaters was to be found a short walk from the station. Turns out the folks that lived in the administrative capital of the Roman province of Pannonia had it pretty darn good. The city boasted central heating, a load of public bathhouses, and a gladiatorial arena that featured beast fights, all the while surrounded by the most beautiful countryside in the world.
    Before checking out the ruins however, I took a look inside the museum to buy my ticket and grab some breakfast. The old feller at the ticket counter took ages to acknowledge me so I was just standing there awkwardly for about five minutes (though it felt like fifteen). After pretending my bronchitis was flaring up a few times, I was able to get the guy to say “Szia” in the most disinterested, noncommittal voice ever. I bought a ticket for the museum and the ruins, but he didn’t have any change, so he disappeared for the better part of ten minutes to find some. After he came back, I noticed my stomach was about to riot, and hopped over to the little gift shop where I could buy a substandard donut and a black instant coffee. The woman was very nice and asked me all sorts of questions. I ate quickly though, because I wanted to see the ruins.
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    The museum, though not very big, was excellent. I was very impressed with the artifacts and the information- which was written in perfect English. What makes the history of Hungary so interesting to me is that it is touched by larger subjects in world history that I’m already interested in. In addition to Romans, I learned about Mongol hordes, Popes getting shanked, and the real life inspiration for Count Dracula.
    It was gorgeous weather outside, and as I took photographs of the wildflowers, old stone walls, and the restored painter’s house, I noticed something. Darting across the sun-blasted rocks were little green lizards, not unlike the kind I used to see every day when I lived in Houston, Texas.
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  2. The Football Shop
    I’m a sucker for antiques, memorabilia, and anything vintage. I was walking down Váci utca when I noticed a narrow alleyway that led to a clandestine shopping arcade. I passed the dingy stairway that led to the erotic massage parlor and entered a vintage store full of old gypsy outfits and handcrafts. It was cool to look at but I didn’t buy anything. I said goodbye and left. I was then drawn to the place next door- a vintage sports memorabilia shop. I tried the door but it was locked. Before I could walk away, the owner from the antique store came running outside with a set of keys.
    “This is my hobby shop!” he grinned, and let me inside. I took note of all the sports pennants hanging from the ceiling, and told the shopkeeper about how I liked to collect American baseball and football pennants. I then asked him to spell the Magyar word for pennant for me, and I wrote it down in my journal. Jelzőzászló. I then asked him if he knew the soccer player László Kubala, whose statue I had seen at the Camp Nou in Barcelona. Being a sports nerd like myself, he obviously knew, and went on to tell me that Kubala’s people, like his own, were of Czechoslovakian stock, and that Kubala was a Czech name. He told me how Kubala played internationally for Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Spain. He rifled through a set of drawers to find me some Kubala swag, eventually producing a fridge magnet with Kubala in his Barca jersey. That is lush, I thought, and I purchased it along with a basketball pin.
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  3. The Cave Church
    One of the more quirky things I visited was a Catholic church situated in a cave inside the Gellért Hill. It was really interesting to walk around in, and we were allowed to take photos too. The monks had fixed the place up real nice with shrines and candles and other shiny things, and there was something pure about a rocky cave that I just don’t feel inside a building. If I was gonna find religion, it would be in a place like this, somewhere dark and damp and cool, where you feel connected to the Earth. I checked out all the rooms before turning back. I never know what to do inside a church to be honest. It was visually interesting, but once I’d seen everything I figured I might as well move on. I wasn’t going to say a prayer or light a candle, or sit for a while in the pews waiting to feel something. I had places to go and things to see, so my stay was brief. I felt weird about leaving so soon, but then again I’m not religious, so there wasn’t really anything for me to do.
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  4. The Citadella
    When I left the cave I decided to climb the Gellért Hill to the Citadella. I guess I’m in dire need of a new diet and a personal trainer, because I was blowing out my ass by the time I was halfway up. It didn’t help that it was scorching hot. I paused on the ledges and rocky outcroppings to take photos of the Danube below, before willing myself on. It’s funny how something as simple as just walking up a bunch of steps can make you hate yourself. At the top I joined a long line of red-faced tourists and bought a mineral water and a Solero- my favorite European ice cream brand. It’s just so refreshing. I didn’t go inside the Citadella- an imposing Austrian fortress with a Cristo Redentor thing out front- because I was pressed for time.
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  5. The Folk Concert
    That evening I attended the only thing I booked before coming to Hungary- a concert at the Duna Palota, showcasing some authentic gypsy folk music and dancing. I was interested because I was getting to see a little sliver of rural, rustic Hungary, and the beauty of one of its enduring, oppressed minorities. The foyer was lavish and all that with its marble columns and red carpets, but the theater itself was a lot more intimate than I expected. There weren’t many seats, but that was cool because it meant we were a lot closer to the action. I ended up really enjoying myself- the music was very good and the dance stuff was interesting too. It kind of reignited my appreciation for classical music. I was especially interested in the clothes of the gypsies. They all wore frilly, puffy white shirts beneath dark waistcoats. The difference, however, was that the men wore long, colored pants that they tucked into boots and the women wore colorful skirts and white stockings. The men had their waistcoats open and the women were buttoned up. The dance moves involved a lot of clapping hands and snapping fingers, as well as tap dancing. It gave me this impression of gypsy culture as being something vibrant, rustic, upbeat, and unpretentious. I imagined these kind of dances taking place in the light of campfires in the countryside. I don’t know if that’s a true image or not, but that’s what I imagined.
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  6. My Brush With Fame
    After the concert was over, we were taken to a luxury boat on the Danube for a nighttime buffet. My stomach was fucking screaming because it was 10:30pm and I hadn’t had supper yet. I wondered if perhaps I was the only loner on the boat. They allocated me a seat on a table with couples. It was there that I met two Brazilian women- who we shall refer to as J… and M… for the purposes of privacy. It turned out that J…, who was about my age, was in fact a successful TV producer and journalist back in Brazil, who was traveling around Europe with her feisty mother M… . It was sweet how proud M… was of J…, and she delighted in Europeans having heard of J…’s news station. We drank champagne together, and I was so interested in getting to know them that I didn’t even go back for seconds at the buffet. M… didn’t speak too much English, but she was thoroughly extroverted. I thought she was very graceful and funny. J… reminded me a lot of my friend Elizabeth. J… was very expressive, laughed a lot, and had one of those distinctive, charming smiles that seem to define a person’s spirit. Here are some highlights of my conversation with J… as she and I went out to take selfies together on the deck:
    It turned out we both studied at American universities in the Midwest, her in Michigan and I in Wisconsin. She even knew Eau Claire (the school I went to) because their football team played against her school.
    She started out as a journalist writing reports, and rose through the ranks quickly to become a producer. Now she dictates what the reporters on camera have to say. She covers things like local politics and social issues- such as the poverty of the favelas.
    She advised me that the best beaches in Brazil were to be found on the country’s many islands in the Atlantic. These tropical paradises off the coast were much cleaner and less touristy than the beaches of Rio de Janeiro and the like.
    I asked J… if there were many Michaels running about Brazil, and if I would be called Miguel if I was born there. Turns out the name Michael is actually quite popular. J… said that “Gringo names” enjoyed a
    surge in popularity during the 80s and 90s because middle class Brazilian families deemed them to be classy.
    I also asked J… about the Amazon rainforest. She described it as a “magical place” and we ended up having a long conversation (that
    later continued online) about Amazonian folklore. Her favorite was a popular legend about a pink river dolphin named Boto cor de Rosa, who during the night transforms into a handsome man and rogers all the unmarried women in the nearby villages. Then, when all the seemingly unspoiled maidens started to become preggers, everyone was confused, and ended up blaming it on the were-dolphin. So whenever someone would see a pink dorsal fin, they thought it was a serial rapist.
  7. The Budapest Eye
    It’s not quite as grandiose as its London counterpart, but Budapest has its own giant Ferris wheel. It was a fun little aside to sit in the capsule and take photographs of the cityscape. I came here right after buying my Hungarian hat, so naturally I was curious to see how I looked…
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  8. The Bloody Thursday Memorial
    As I was walking around the impressive Parliament building I saw some stairs leading underground. I went down and found myself in a small museum about the horrible massacre that took place outside the Parliament in 1956. At this point I was ignorant of Hungary’s suffering at the hands of the Soviet regime, and I remember being shocked when I watched the educational videos. One of the more poignant features of the museum is a 3D projection of a tank that plays in front of an image of the Parliament. The tank rolls into place, before turning to face you, lining up its gun and firing. It puts you in the shoes of the Hungarians that the Soviets opened fire on, and when the projection of the tank fires, you flinch.
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  9. The Moisturizer Lady
    When I was rushing through the Budapest airport to reach my departure gate a woman stopped me. Usually I never stop for anyone, especially someone trying to sell something. I don’t normally have a problem being rude to fundraisers, cold callers, or any kind of salesperson. But for some reason, I stopped, and let her sit me down and show me her wares. She told me that I was looking particularly sweaty, and that she just had to stop me and talk to me about all the oils in my face. I guess I was looking worse than usual, since I was wearing my leather jacket to save space in my carry-on. The woman went through her entire sales pitch, and for some reason I didn’t object, even though I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything and I was going to miss my flight if I stayed any longer. I was slightly interested in the science behind it all, and I know I need to take better care of my face, but at the end of the day I just couldn’t be arsed, so I declined her offer and left.
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  10. The Train Operated by Kids
    Wanting to see something a little different to the bustling city, I decided to go on a tour through the Buda Hills. It wasn’t a guided tour or anything like that, just a list of stops to make that I found in my guidebook. I got a streetcar to the western edge of the city and then a train up through the steep, forested hills that overlooked Buda. When I reached the top, I became disorientated and found that the itinerary in my guidebook was super vague. I couldn’t make much sense out of it so I decided to abandon it and follow my nose instead. My first stop was a little mountaintop café where I got myself some deep fried mushrooms and a Coke. I shared a table with an old German couple, since it was busy, and I tried to impress them by throwing what Deutsch I could remember from my school days at them in a random order. They smiled but I don’t think they were too impressed.
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    I then set off in search of the famed Children’s Railway, a cogwheel train operated exclusively by the owners of undescended testicles. I found it, and hopped aboard. The train snaked through the forest, stopping here and there at touristy towns with little shops and cafés. I figured I ought to get off and see some stuff instead of just staying on the cogwheel the whole time, so I got off at this secluded station in the forest. There was nothing around but trees. It was quiet and green and beautiful. I asked one of the kids if I could get back on the railway on another train with the ticket I had. It turns out that I would have to pay for a new ticket, which I thought was cheeky, so I decided Sod the railway, and went off for a walk in the forest. I had no idea where I was in relation to Budapest or any of the other train stations but I honestly didn’t care. There were plenty of walkers and joggers, and I took photographs of the flowers as I walked. Pretty soon I found signs for the Zugliget Chairlift, which was on my itinerary, and which I now realized I was doing in reverse order. The walk to the chairlift wasn’t bad at all, and I was delighted to get on and be treated to some stunning views of the Carpathian countryside to the west, which unfolded before me as a breathtaking vista of densely wooded valleys and hills. And this lush scenery was about the same as it would have looked when the Romans and the Huns were knocking about, and I thought about this as I took it in, trying to visualize armies marching through forests.
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10 Stories From Hungary

In addition to my thematic posts regarding my trip to Hungary, I’d also like to share with you some rapid-fire asides. These are little stories that aren’t big enough individually to warrant a blog post, but which- collected together here- can hopefully give you a good impression not just of Budapest, but of me as a person.

 

  1. The Presley Serenade
    On my first full day in Budapest, I decided to wear one of my (many) Elvis Presley t-shirts, since I was stopping at the little park named for him. In the evening, I wandered around Buda looking for a place to eat. I’d had a long day walking around Margitsziget, the Hungarian Parliament, and video calling my American roommate Aaron, so I pretty much jumped at the first place I found. That place was a restaurant called Kasca Étterem. It was only when I stepped inside that I thought I had made a mistake: this joint was hella It was by far the most posh restaurant I went to on my trip- I’m talking chandeliers, elegant wood panels, framed paintings of rural idylls- and here I was in my dorky Elvis graphic tee and my wrinkled jeans.
    I was the only patron in the entire place, and the service was exquisite. Near to where I sat there were two musicians playing classy music on a piano and a violin. As I ravaged through the complimentary bread and olive oil like a feral dog, it suddenly occurred to me that I recognized the song they were playing. Well I’ll be a sonuvabitch if that ain’t “Love Me Tender” them fellers is playing, I thought. I looked up and both the musicians were grinning at me, waiting for me to notice. They pointed at my t-shirt and winked at me. I’ve never been treated so good in a restaurant. I raised my glass to them and continued eating. A few more people entered the place- most of them lone diners like myself- and the musicians went back to Hungarian folk music. Ten minutes later however, they started playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and I couldn’t help but give them the goofiest grin and snap my fingers at them. They winked back, and before I left for the night, I gave them each a handsome tip. It amazed me that they just had Hungarian folk versions of Presley classics on standby in case an absolute direhard like me came in.
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  2. Using Three Currencies
    It’s best when visiting Hungary to take a decent amount of Hungarian forints. However, I ended up using both euros and pounds during my trip. I had some euros I wanted to get rid of in my wallet so I gave them to a waitress for helping me write down some things in Magyar in my journal. The pounds I spent at a little kiosk outside the Citadella. I wanted to get my kid brother Frank a present and I saw this awesome pewter statuette of a Roman centurion. Frank (like me) loves Ancient Rome, and Hungary was a part of the Roman Empire. I didn’t have any forints left and the guy at the kiosk didn’t accept cards. I told him the centurion was a gift for my brother, and asked to pay for it in pound sterling. The guy agreed and he got his phone out to calculate the price. I was prepared to give him what I knew was probably too much, since I only had tens and twenties. However the guy said he felt uncomfortable taking too much from me and insisted on looking up the exchange rate and giving me the correct change in forints.
  3. The Shifty Guy
    Prior to arriving in Budapest, I read that violent crime was very rare. What was rife in the Hungarian capital however, was supposedly scams and petty theft. I had to keep my wits about me- this being my first true experience of traveling alone and all that. The only time I felt in danger was on my first day, when I was walking around Margaret Island. Even though it was a gorgeous morning and there were plenty of folks enjoying the island, I happened on a path along the bank that was quite deserted. I stopped to take a photo of the river, and out the corner of my eye I see this shifty-looking motherfucker coming towards me. The path was so wide that it was strange for him to be standing so close. I turned and looked at him and he stopped, jerking to the side. He looked like he had some rough experiences in his life- his face was craggy with dark lines and heavy bags under his eyes. He wore a scruffy leather jacket and he had the saddest, most beat-down expression I ever saw. He pretended to be admiring the river as well, probably waiting for me to look away again. At that moment I made a decision to walk away and not worry that it looked rude to do so.
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  4. Public Transport
    During my time in Hungary I used almost every type of transportation available. I got trains, subways, buses, trams, and taxis. The bus ride from the Buda Hills back to the city was free, which amazed me. The trams were also free, and easily the most convenient way of getting around. In general, the standard of transportation was very good and very affordable. I got the HEV (the suburban metro) a few times when going on excursions into the country, and it was very simple. The first time I didn’t have to pay. I told the hotel receptionist about my free ride later that evening and she said “Sometimes this happens in Hungary!” and laughed. The HEV was efficient, and from an aesthetic point of view it was slightly run-down, but in a way that I found kind of charming.
  5. The Homicidal Ticket Barrier
    I went to a bathhouse in Buda late one evening and when I got out it was completely dark. I walked through the parking lot, where a ticket booth had its barrier raised into the air. I wondered why it was stood up like that in a permanent way, but shrugged and kept going. It was only as I passed under it that the barrier decided to suddenly drop, and I jumped a country mile and screamed “Fucking Christ!” at the top of my voice. Whoever was in the booth must have heard, and immediately stopped the barrier’s murderous descent, lifting it back to its upraised position. Whoever had started lowering it must have had no idea that someone was out there in the darkness about to get their brain caved in.
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  6. The Bogroll Incident
    After reaching the northernmost tip of Margitsziget, my intestines notified me of an urgent fax that needed sending. I turned back and headed down the western side of the island. I’d seen everything I wanted to at that point, and the next thing on my agenda was to stop at the Palatinus Strand thermal spa. They’d have the facilities I needed there too. By the time I reached the entrance to the bathhouse I had a pained, horselike gait. I paid my ticket, bought a towel, and rushed up several flights of stairs to the changing room toilets. I realized only too late however, that the cubicle I was in didn’t have any bogroll. Fuck, I thought, this is going to be like Door County all over again. So I check the other cubicles, and they don’t have any paper either. Now I’m stumped. This is the civilization that produced Ferenc Liszt and Sandor Petofi, that invented the ballpoint pen and the Rubik’s Cube, the engineers of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the freaking descendants of Attila the Hun aka THE SCOURGE OF GOD. There’s no way they got this far, and accomplished all that, without wiping their buttholes. There had to be a logical explanation for all this. So I go back to the part of the restroom where the sinks and hand-driers are, and find that the bogroll dispenser is right next to them. I had to grab a load of paper and go back into the cubicle, and come out and get more again if I needed it.
    Of course, I later found out that not all restrooms are like this- but some are. I encountered the same situation in the Kiraly Baths.
  7. The Beggar Woman
    I was walking towards the Hungarian National Museum when I was approached by a middle aged lady in a square. She was wearing a black dress and had those pointed glasses you associate with 1960s librarians. I thought that she looked very classy, that she might be a fashion designer or a dance instructor or something. Intrigued, I decided to stop and see what she had to say. She spoke a strange mix of Hungarian, English, and Italian, and said something along the lines of “I’ve been watching you and I can see that you are very nice…” and in my utter hubris I thought that she was trying to recruit me as a male model, that she was inspired by the contours of my face. I asked her what she wanted, already imagining my wealthy life as her pet. Then she started making eating gestures with her mouth and hands and I felt a pang of shame and sympathy. I gave her some money and went on my way, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her story.
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  8. The Taxi Driver
    I got many taxis- perhaps more than was wise- but there’s one journey that sticks out. I was walking downhill from the Castle District and decided to get a taxi the rest of the way to the Lukács Baths in Buda. I flagged a taxi down and hopped on in. The driver was a tall, muscular guy with a shaved head and a jaw the size and shape of a picnic cooler. I imagined that he was ex-KGB or something. He laughed that he was on his way home, but it was fine for me to use him. We ended up chatting a lot and I asked him what sports he was interested in. He said football (soccer) was at a very low standard in Hungary, and symptomatic of a larger societal decay. Today, he argued, young people want money but don’t want to put in the work. The same, he said, was true of footballers- instead of focusing wholeheartedly on their craft, and creating “good product”, they were driven by money. I tried to steer the conversation around to something positive and said “Ah, but that Puskas was a helluva player though wasn’t he?”
    He replied “You must not think this, this was long time ago. This is not now. Puskas wanted to work, create good product, and only much later came fame and money. Now is opposite.”
    I asked him if he liked basketball and he said “Basketball is ok. Men’s- not so good. But women’s basketball is quite good.”
    Somehow the talk transitioned to politics and he said the country was going downhill. He then added that “Mr Cameron is very good boy,” and went on to say that the former British Prime Minister visited Hungary or something, and the Hungarians were very impressed.
    It was at this moment that I realized he was driving me in the exact opposite direction of where I wanted to go. I pointed this out and he frowned, confused. I showed him the Lukács Baths on Google Maps and then he realized. He became very embarrassed and said that he thought I wanted to go to the Rudas Baths, which are the other end of Buda. He turned around and drove me northward, repeatedly apologizing. I said it was okay, I wasn’t in a rush, and it had been me asking him all these questions. He wouldn’t let it go though, and said “I just go on talking, chatting away…silly…and you, looking on your phone, and me…chatting away.”
    I really tried to let him know that I didn’t care at all. He parked up and when I got my money out, he refused any payment. I insisted, and eventually convinced him to accept half the money, which he proclaimed he would give in full to his children.
  9. The Peaches & Cream Club
    Going to Budapest was always about trying new things and developing my sense of self-confidence and self-sufficiency. I’d been clubbing exactly 3 times back home, and even though that was enough to know it’s not really for me, I wanted to see what I was capable of and do something a little more wild and youthful. I went for dinner at a restaurant in Pest, near Kossuth tér, and drank a few beers as I was eating. I looked up nightclubs in the local area and tried to discern which would be the best choice. I left the restaurant just before 10pm and went looking. My first choice was closed for some strange reason, so I had another look at Google Maps and found a place called the Peaches & Cream Club. From the outside, it reminded me of one of the futuristic clubs you’d get on the Citadel in Mass Effect. It looked very stylish and I wondered if I had inadvertently stumbled upon something out of my price range. I got in line behind a group of guys and thought Well this isn’t that scary. I listened to their conversation and they seemed worried that it would be too fancy and expensive. Looking in from the outside, you could see the bar lit up in bright pink, and the dark silhouettes of ladies’ legs as they waited in front of it, with the rest of the place in shadows. It was a good design technique to have the bar adjacent to the windows like that, so you could see the outlines of people having drinks and waiting to be asked for a dance.
    Eventually the bouncer let in the group in front of me. He asked if I was with them and I said yes. The entry fee was not much at all. I paid a small amount to have my jacket in the coatroom, and then I entered.
    On my left, snazzy leather couches where couples and small groups had intimate conversations. On my right, a medium-sized dance floor. And dividing the two: the bar. My biggest anxiety about clubbing was what to do with myself, so I decided to get a drink. Not only would vast quantities of alcohol take the edge off, but I figured the image of leaning on the bar was inoffensive and unsuspicious. I started drinking rum, and the bartender didn’t ask me to pay for any of my drinks. I had the money ready, but upon serving me, he would jump straight to the next person. In fact, I didn’t see him taking money from anyone. Several drinks later, I decided that I had to start dancing- the final step in overcoming the anxiety of clubbing alone. I saw some guys standing at the edge of the dancefloor, watching, and joined them. More people started dancing, and eventually I made my first movements. Nothing too flamboyant; I just kind of bounced up and down very lightly, sometimes swaying to the side. The Commander Shepherd. That’s what I did. I consciously did the Shepherd for about three hours, and after the first twenty seconds or so, it was no longer awkward. I realized that no one was looking at me, that even though I was surrounded by people, we were all anonymous. No one cared, and that was a very comforting realization.
    I also realized that all clubs are different. The ones I had been to in Bristol, England seemed very trashy by comparison. They were dark places where everyone was squashed together, with people making out or getting in fights. They seemed like scary places. I had attended a club in Bristol called Ramshackle for my friend’s 21st birthday, and I remember tattooed rough lads pushing my friend around or taking a swing at bouncers. Hands grabbed at every butt and boob that passed by. Even I was getting molested as I made my way through the crowd. Sodom and Gomorrah, I thought.
    But the Peaches & Cream was different. The guys didn’t seem threatening or thuggish- they looked very normal, as though they didn’t really know what they were doing either. No one was making out or doing anything sexual. I wanted to meet people and I hoped that by putting myself in this environment I would end up somewhere completely random. That didn’t happen, and by 1am I was exhausted from all the dancing, so I gave up and left. I had mixed feelings about it all. I was glad I did it and got over my fear of nightlife to some degree, but I was also disappointed that I didn’t make any friends or have a funny story to take from it. I just went to this place with all these people, danced among them, and left, and no one even knew.
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  10. The Hat
    I went crazy for souvenirs in Hungary. As with any culture I visit and become fascinated by, I try to assimilate as best I can. I like to eat what they eat and wear what they wear. I want to experience what makes them beautiful and unique. And it’s a wonderful thing to do. Nothing upsets me more than those pretentious twatwipes that complain about cultural appropriation, and make that complaint out to be a cornerstone of the liberal identity. You’re not a progressive. If you’re worried about traditions and aesthetics becoming diluted and corrupted by the inclusion of others, then you’re a conservative. Culture belongs to everyone, and I like to educate myself on how others live, and experience first-hand their way of life. As with anything in life, you just have to go about it with respect and empathy. In Texas, the cowboys I met delighted in my enthusiasm to get fitted with a Stetson and a pair of boots. In Budapest, I saw a lot of young Hungarian men wearing these caps and I decided to buy one for myself. I even asked the vendor if I looked Hungarian and he laughed and said yes. He even gave me advice on which hat would look the most authentic. So I bought one and wore the hell out of it for a week!

The Heart of Pest

I found myself drawn to Andrássy út more than any other street during my week in Budapest. One way or another, I always seemed to end up there. I thought every street in Budapest was beautiful- in the sense that I may look at it and find it aesthetically pleasing- but I would think of them each as being parts of the greater whole of Hungary’s capital; as contributing to its collective charm. For me, Budapest was the summation of these little parts. It was the collection of old boulevards and alleyways, of streets big and small, that together gave life to what we may call the “charm” of the city.

However, there was one street that seemed to have an identity of its own, that seemed more than just another rib in the figurative thorax. Andrássy út had a particular sense of character to it; a tangible, affecting style that I remember feeling and thinking about while I was there. Located on the Pest side of the Danube, Andrássy connects Erzsébet tér with Városliget. The famous útca was recognized in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic townhouses and landmarks. The Neo-Classical facades, rows of trees, and the wideness of the boulevard contributed to a distinctly Parisian vibe that brought back memories of getting lost and debating the wisdom of accepting an offer of help from an Albert Fish lookalike- but that’s a story for another time.

As I wandered past the luxury boutiques and international embassies, I took in several of the things on offer. The first thing I did on Andrássy was take a tour of the famous State Opera House. I was surprised by how interesting I found it. The tour guide spoke very good English and told us little anecdotes about the building. Even in the 19th century, there were designated smoking and non-smoking areas. The smoking area was a corridor that separated the bar from the balcony, and supposedly it would get so thick with clouds of tobacco that young unmarried couples would use the cover to make out in secret.

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The tour even ended with a mini opera concert. Professional singers came out in full costume to sing for us, and I was in awe of what they could do with their voices. As I watched them recite a few operatic favorites, the happiness in my ears spread to the rest of my body. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to be there and experience something like that, and just how special it was. It was probably one of my favorite moments of my entire trip to Hungary.

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After leaving the opera house I decided to hunt down some indie bookstores I’d made a note of on my phone. I turned onto Nagymező utca- a quiet cobblestone side-street lined with theaters- that is referred to by the locals as “Pest Broadway”. I was searching for a place called the Mai Manó Gallery, but after walking up and down the street several times like an indecisive window cleaner, I ended up in a fancy place called the Budapest Operetta Theater. There were a bunch of stage hands setting up props and pulling wheeled racks of flamboyant costumes. I asked if I could use the bathroom, and afterwards decided to sit in the lounge and get a drink. I ended up chatting with the barmaid, who was super friendly and seemed to laugh at everything I said. I asked her where I could find the Mai Manó Gallery and after a fit of giggles she pointed directly across the street.

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Mai Manó ended up being one of the little spots that would steal my heart. It was the perfect hidden gem I had been looking for. I entered what looked like an open door to a Neo-Classical apartment building, and found myself in a beautiful yet silent lobby. I had the strange sense that I shouldn’t have been there. Seeing nowhere else to go, I started up this staircase and came to a balcony that looked down at the lobby below. At that moment, a fellow popped his head out of a door and gave me a look. I asked if this was the bookstore and he immediately clapped his hands together and led me down a narrow corridor and into a small room with a narrow window that overlooked Nagymező utca. I felt like I was in a very nice-looking attic. A young woman in a woolen cardigan sat at the desk reading a novel. She smiled at me and asked what I was looking for.

“Books,” I said. I looked around. “What kind of books do you have here?”

“95% of them are photography books,” she answered.

I browsed the little selection, enjoying the artsy feel of the place. These are my kind of people, I thought. Sensitive, artistic, creative. Almost certainly left-wing progressives. Interested in love, beauty, and self-expression. And so keenly attached to their fantastic city. I could tell just by their faces that they loved living and working in Budapest.

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I picked up a book of black and white photographs of Budapest, each accompanied by these really interesting and poetic remarks on the city. One quote particularly resonated with me:

“Budapest is a city of startling contrasts. It is both beautiful and ugly, ostentatious and poor, filthy rich and poverty-stricken, a thousand years old and unfamiliarly new, restored, pampered and dilapidated, dynamically developing and a thing of the past.”

What a perfect description of Budapest by the book’s author- Tamás Révész. This seemed to collect my impressions of the city into a single, delicious sentence. I also picked up several postcards I liked, as well as a framed photograph of a woman standing by a train that struck me as being very Hungarian. I asked for the name of the model, hoping that she was Hungarian, and the woman at the desk studied my purchase.

“She’s beautiful,” the woman commented. “But I do not know the name.”

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The machine that scanned my items wasn’t working, so the woman had to add up all of my many purchases on paper. The whole thing took a good ten to fifteen minutes and there was some confusion about the price of one of the postcards. The man came back in and took over.

“It is my first day,” the woman said, grinning.

I wasn’t in the slightest annoyed. I liked this place and I liked these people. They were very good to talk to and we shared a few laughs. When I left, I was in high spirits. I continued up the road and found myself at the Oktogon- a bustling intersection in the very heart of Pest. A hub of designer clothing stores, coffeehouses, streetcars, taxis, tourists, cyclists- life.

I returned to the Oktogon via tram on the last day of my trip. I had a few hours left to explore before going to the airport, and I continued up Andrássy utca from where I had left off that day I went to the Opera House. I grabbed lunch at a place called Like Étterem. The setup reminded me of a veteran’s kitchen or something. It was very casual and unpretentious. You pick what you want from a bunch of trays on a hot plate, kinda like a school canteen, and the chef dollops it onto a plate and heats it up for you. I asked him for his recommendation and the chef said that the venison goulash was very good. I got that, and it was swell. Every goulash I had in Hungary was different. Some were more like soup, but this one was much drier- more like a casserole. I really enjoyed how hearty and rustic it tasted. I drank some grape juice and became fascinated with the look of these Hungarian cartons.

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After I finished my last meal in Budapest I crossed the street, carried on up the boulevard and entered The House of Terror. Perhaps the most poignant place I visited on my trip, the building that had once served as the headquarters for the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party) now served as a museum of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. There were SS uniforms, Stalinist propaganda posters, old firearms, and even a tank. It’s definitely a place worth seeing if you’re ever in Budapest and want to learn about the suffering this great city has endured in the 20th century.

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Upon leaving the museum, I went back to the Oktogon and waited for the tram to take me back to Buda. The streetcar arrived and we all crammed ourselves in like sardines in the carriage. Next to me stood a woman with a placid dog. Some teenagers got on and cooed over the dog’s fluffy features and blank expression. A guy leaning on the wall, listening to music through his headphones. Before the doors hissed shut, a man in a suit jumped on. His tie was loose. I was surrounded by all these locals, just living their everyday lives here in Hungary. I wanted to know everything about them, right down to the most mundane and trivial of details. I was sad to be leaving, and observing all these normal people got me thinking about how life in the city goes on. The city doesn’t know it’s meant to be sad because it’s my last day. What Budapest is depends on the observer; the things we feel for it come from within. Someone else on that tram could have been gazing in wonder at the sights, experiencing it all for the first time as I once did, and many others were so used to the scenery that they thought nothing of it. For them, there was no romance to be found in a streetcar ride. And though we were all taking the same ride at the same time, none of us interpreted it with the same set of connotations.