Tag Archives: Photography

The Crescent City Diaries #6

My visit to New Orleans was very unstructured from the offset. It was completely unlike my trip to Budapest. Budapest was a project, something I was passionate about, and traveled to purely to satisfy that passion. It was something I planned months advance, and by the time I arrived in Hungary I was so high off of half a year’s reading of its history and culture that I had accumulated enough things to do that it was easy to order them into itineraries for each day. It was all about seeing those things I’d read about for real.

However, my trip to New Orleans was different. It had always been a longstanding dream of mine to go there, but I didn’t think I’d get to go so soon. The city was still a myth to me, an idea to be toyed with by novelists and poets and movie directors and songwriters. A place that could only be interpreted by art. It never really occurred to me that I could go there, even though I’ve lived on and off in Houston, TX for the past few years. It would have seemed a strange, fanciful idea- a “one day I’ll make it” kinda thing.

So New Orleans was never a project or a plan. I didn’t read up on it and make a bucket list. New Orleans was an opportunity, one that just kind of emerged out of the blue during the process of planning my upcoming visit to my friends in Houston. I’m going to America anyway- why not go earlier? Why not see the Gulf Coast and make the myth a reality? That’s what traveling in the USA really is, going from state to state and peeling off the layers of myth to see the far more interesting truths waiting for us underneath.

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I had 5 days and only a couple things booked, both of them on the same day. So I learned a lot about solo travel and how to take city breaks in particular. 5 days is good because it allows me to move at my own pace, take my time, and discover opportunities while I’m there through word of mouth. However, it also meant that I was more responsible for creating my own fun. Sitting in a hotel room too long feels like a waste, and you don’t have to worry about that with a two day visit. That’s where an itinerary is needed, so you can fit everything in.

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As I’ve stated in the previous entries of this series, I set out on my first day with no clear goal in mind except to see Faulkner House Books and the Café du Monde. But I took the long way to these stops, zigzagging through the French Quarter and enjoying the ambience. I stopped at Aunt Sally’s to engorge myself on free samples of freshly-made pralines and watch them being made in-house. I went to the city’s famous Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and paid a dollar to pet the stingrays. I found a beautiful little walled courtyard where I stopped to take some photos. I browsed antique shops, I tried on a straw boater at the Key West Hat Company, and I fell strangely in love with an abandoned brick building with smashed-in windows. I ate alligator for the first time and loved it. When I got back to Jackson Square I wondered what else I ought to do. Museums. The Cabildo was closed, unfortunately, but The Presbytère wasn’t. The former focuses on Louisiana history & culture, whereas the latter is devoted to Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. I was eager to see some authentic Mardi Gras costumes and they truly are the stuff of nightmares. I can’t imagine being a kid and going to one of the parades. I’d never sleep again. After staring into the hollow eyes of a mannequin with a pointed cone for a nose, oversized lips, and garments unsettlingly reminiscent of striped pajamas, I checked my phone. It was only 3pm! There were still so many precious hours left. Things were going slow, but not as slow as I’d have liked. I became afraid of running out of things to do.

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After leaving the museum I marched northwest on my aching feet and left the Quarter for the first time. My destination? A little spot called Congo Square. A city park was just what I needed. Somewhere quiet, away from the inundation of stimuli that came with crowded tourist hotspots, where I could take some photos and enjoy the scenery. The square is located inside Louis Armstrong Park- which is no coincidence. Congo Square served as a place for slaves and free African Americans to gather in the 19th century for meetings and open markets. They also used the space for traditional African dancing and drum-playing, leading in no small part to the early development of Jazz. After taking pictures of the flowers, the live oaks, and the statues, I wandered over to another massive abandoned building with broken windows. They’re all over New Orleans, and there’s just something about the crude, industrial design, 19th century vibes, and overall dilapidation that fascinates me. I walked around the lake and my feet began to complain some more. It was time at last, I decided, to head back and recharge before heading out again in the evening. I’d done a lot on my first day- and my next was set to be a big one.

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My Irish Weekend Part 4: In Faeries’ Wake

Ireland is very much in touch with its ancient self. I think I mentioned this in part one. It feels old. It feels ancient in a way my home country doesn’t. The U.K has plenty of ancient things, but they’re all at odds with everything else around them. And that’s the difference- Ireland feels like an ancient land.

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Elizabeth and George would take me down to the lake at the back of their country house. We’d sit on a large rock with our feet in the water and drink beer. There were no boats out on the lake and no cabins and no docks. Just the reeds blowing in the wind and the faint outlines of mountains on the other side. George smoked his pipe while Elizabeth pulled bottle after bottle out of her dungarees like a magician performing a circus trick. There were no paths leading to the lake and the whole place was just so natural and untouched. It was awkward making our way through the undergrowth; it was a place wholly disinterested in catering to the desires of Man- and that’s what made it special.

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There are no shops or amenities of any kind near the house. No footpaths and no communities. Only farms, and one or two other such isolated cottages. We made our fun just walking down the roads as far as our legs would go, talking tirelessly about everything from political ideologies to petty gossip. We stopped at several pastures to boop the animals that greeted us.

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We found a path made wholly of daisies that led into the woods, that supposedly was left there by the faeries. We followed it and came out the other side in the shadow of a small castle. It was completely deserted and uncommercialized. Past the castle a different side of the same lake. The lake is too big, and we had walked to far, for us to be able to see the house. At this point we had been walking for about two hours. We continued to follow the shoreline, passing an empty football field and a few country homes. A local gentleman greeted us and chatted briefly with Elizabeth about the unforgiving Wisconsin winters.

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We found ourselves next at some ruins. There had been a chapel here or something. Centuries ago. I took a picture of Elizabeth wearing the Hungarian scarf I had bought her in Szentendre. She grinned at the camera as she stood beneath a stone archway, and I realized that she has the same smile as her mother and her sister. It’s very distinctive. It dominates the face, and speaks to a hereditary sweetness.

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The next day George dropped Elizabeth and I at a pub on his way to work. It was a small place and the menu only had two options. We decided to get ourselves a roast dinner, and I opted for my first ever Guinness. I figured I had no choice really. When else would I be in an authentic Irish pub? I got a photo of me with the foam mustache like the trend-following social media whore I’ve become. Elizabeth and I did some people watching as we drank our beers and ate our gravy-lathered beef. It was the only place for miles around, with no municipal body to call home except a crossroads through the bogs. It served the farmers and country folk around it, and in its own way the pub was the center of community. Most of the people there were watching a sport known as Hurling, which I had never heard of, but which I have since come to learn is 4000 years old. It’s kind of like Gaelic lacrosse I guess? But with the temperament of Canadian ice hockey; the old lady at the bar was quite animated, dropping F-bombs left, right, and center.

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The pub has an adjoining convenience store with a few things for sale like scratch cards and onions. I said we should get George something to surprise him with when he gets home from work. I asked Elizabeth what her husband’s greatest vice was.

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“Jaffa Cakes,” she said instantly. Jaffa Cakes. They power him like a punch card activates an animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disney World. They are to him what a murdered uncle is to Spiderman. Or something like that. Anyway, we got him some Jaffa Cakes, and walked home.

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My Irish Weekend Part 3: Ode to a Compost Converter

As I stated in part one, any discussion of my trip to Ireland is impossible if not told through the lens of my friendship with George and Elizabeth. No blade of green Irish grass exists, without the framing device of these two people, upon which it depends. There is no smell of gorse, there is no twinkle in the eye of curious dairy cows, and no flicker of church candles, unless given life from George and Elizabeth. Ireland is opened up through them; there is no other way in. And this is because, unlike Budapest, I was not in Ireland on official Tumbleweed business. As I said- I was desperate to see my friends, and in that sense my trip was wholly self-serving. There was no mission statement; I was just following an urge- a gnawing, biological impulse- which is the need for companionship and the redress of separation anxiety. I wasn’t buying plane tickets with the excitement of seeing windswept castles and jagged white cliffs. I was very much going there to soothe an open wound, to cauterize the ache that comes with missing people to whom you form strong attachments. I’m not really ashamed of that. And it’s worth pointing out this self-centered motivation, because I don’t want to do Ireland a disservice- nor indeed my readers- by pretending that this is a focused and objective account of the country. It’s not. As I told Elizabeth- I would have visited her if she and her husband were living in a Wampa ice cave on Svalbard, with nothing to do except get cozy in the slit-up abdomens of walruses while eating curried reindeer. The place was not a factor to me- but, I knew that wherever they chose to settle, it would become one of fascination to me, whose aesthetics I would attach inexorably to George and Elizabeth’s personalities. I would cherish these rows of gorse and miles of peat bogs, these tranquil lakes and cutesy farmyard animals, as playing a role in their continuum as a couple. Therefore it was inevitable that whatever I saw, I would in some way romanticize it.

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So, unlike Budapest, I didn’t have a bucket list. I just wanted to soak up as much of their personalities as possible. I wanted Elizabeth to do as many theatrical comedy routines and tell as many shock-value “pipefitter jokes” as she could. I wanted quintessential, vintage Elizabeth at her rowdy best. I was not disappointed. Throughout the whole five days I was there, the three of us talked without pause from sun-up to sundown. By noon every day my throat hurt, but I went on talking anyway. The entire trip was a five-day conversation, in which the only moments of silence were the hours in which we slept.

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We spent our time at their house, sitting by the lake, or going for walks in the surrounding countryside. The house, to me, was a symptom of George and Elizabeth’s romantic worldview. When I got out of the car, I knew that there could be no other house for them. This place was straight out of a fairy tale. It could have been one of those ceramic miniature cottages you see for sale in gift shops. The thatched roof, the hanging kerosene lamp, the cobblestone walls, the little red gate, the Dutch door with its bottom-half shut, the lilacs growing down the wall like Nature’s tapestry, were all qualities that spoke to George and Elizabeth’s collective identity.

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As we stepped inside I told them that the house reminded me of the holiday homes from my childhood vacations to places like Wales, Devon, and Normandy; the downstairs a single room, no TV, windows flung open, a few troublesome houseflies, great wooden roofbeams holding up the ceiling. There was no TV and no Playstation- instead; there were boxes of audiobooks and old board games. It gave me the feeling of being on vacation, and Elizabeth echoed this sentiment, saying that the house had a vibe not unlike that of her family’s summer cabin in the Wisconsin northwoods. It was just so charmingly disconnected from urban life. Aside from its romantic, rural qualities, I was also struck by how “lived-in” it felt. They had really furnished the place into a home, a place of their own, a place of love. The house was brought to life by the little things- the tins of spices and teas on the old shelves, George’s handsome collection of tobacco pipes, the framed photos of them together that made ascension of the staircase a timeline of their relationship- which caused me to think of the house as a house of marriage. Elizabeth delighted in showing me their honeymoon photos, kept in large old school albums underneath the wooden coffee table. We drank beer that she and George had brewed themselves. When the horse in field opposite the house started staring at us through the window, we cut up some apples and went out to feed him. We sat on a large rock by the lake and marveled that all this was even happening, ticking off all the coincidences on memory lane that contrived to bring a country girl raised in the shadow of Lambeau Field and a kilt-wearing Oxfordshire Brit to building a life together in the western Irish countryside- as well as the little coincidences that facilitated my humble cameo to their story. It’s quite a thing, I said.

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Staying with them in this house, I got to know George and Elizabeth on a deeper level. I was really experiencing them for the first time as a married couple, as homeowners, and as a family. And they revealed themselves at once to be gracious and natural hosts. I always get embarrassed when I’m being waited on hand and foot, but I couldn’t help enjoying seeing them this way. George and Elizabeth love to entertain. Throughout my whole stay I was lovingly tended to; scarcely a moment passed when I was not handed a beer or outfitted with an extra cushion. Knowing as intimately as anyone my history of mental health issues, they enquired often about how I was feeling. At one point I was even set up in a hammock, and brought a plate of sausages that had been boiled in cider and barbecued. Now this is living, I thought, feeling the sun warm on my closed eyelids and the fresh, country air rising in my nostrils. George and Elizabeth made me feel like the Sultan of Brunei, treating me with such affection that they resisted all attempts on my part to give a helping hand. One of the highlights of my trip was our adventure to the hardware store. We excitedly purchased one of those massive, Robby-the-Robot-shaped compost converters and hurried back to the homestead to assemble it. When it was ready for use, we each pinched our noses with laundry pegs (which fucking hurt like a sonuvabitch I might add) and proceeded to dump as much rank waste inside as possible. With the lid open, George held up the garbage bags while his wife tried cutting out the bottom with rusty garden shears. When Elizabeth started making a series of retching noises, I insisted they let me help.

“WE COULDN’T POSSIBLY.”

“Liz, you’re about to barf,” I said.

“OKAY.”

So I took the shears from her and finished the job, stabbing at the swollen black refuse sack like a Jedi Knight would the pregnant gut of a pot-bellied rancor. After penetrating the bulging sack I had to act fast as the smell of rancid trash grew ever thicker- as though the mortally wounded beast aimed to take us down with her- and I cut crossways with the shears. An immense feeling of accomplishment and self-worth came over me as the entrails burst forth, and our mission was complete.

My Irish Weekend Part 2: A Rural Snapshot

One of the most common observations Americans make upon seeing the United Kingdom for the first time is how small the roads are and the cars that use them. In fact, it was this very observation that gave me my inspiration to take up blogging in the first place. In the spring of 2016, my friend Marielle, a Wisconsinite, traveled to the U.K to study at The University of Winchester- which just so happens to be my alma mater. She started blogging immediately about everything she noticed regarding life in England. Nothing touristy, but the subtle everyday stuff- the kind of stuff I’m interested in. I eagerly kept up with her blog and decided it was something I’d like to try as well. Write what you like to read, as they say. Anyway, I distinctly remember her characterizing the cars she saw in the U.K as being like “little clown cars” or “bumper cars”. It’s true- everything in the U.K is smaller, everything crammed in. Well, that’s kind of how I felt when I set foot in Ireland. I felt like an American tourist seeing England for the first time.

As quaint and old and slow-paced as the U.K is to an American, Ireland to me seemed even quainter, even older, and even slower. I really did get the sense that I was traveling back in time. By comparison the U.K seemed like a slick capitalist metropolis. The roads in Ireland seemed smaller and less busy. The cars looked old. The infrastructure in general seemed smaller, and less developed, less modern. The stores didn’t have as much variety of products. But don’t get me wrong- I’m not castigating the country for these deficiencies, I’m celebrating it. It’s also worth mentioning that I was never far from the country’s western coast, so my visit was exceedingly rural. As always when I write about a place, I am describing it as it existed according to my impressions of it. The Ireland of my visit was one of cattle guards and moss-covered stone walls. My impression of the place was that it was less flashy and less commercialized than both the U.K and the USA. I found its “deficiencies” to be very charming, and given that Ireland has consistently ranked highly in terms of “quality of life” perhaps these folks are on to something. It felt good not to be faced with a sea of billboards and neon signs and strip malls and car dealerships. Ireland offered me a return to place we don’t often get the chance to revisit in today’s bustling world. It felt more connected to the ways of the past- there were no harsh juxtapositions, but rather a smooth and steady blending of cultures and lifestyles.

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The second thing I noticed was the prevalence of the Irish language in signposts. I guess I was ignorant as to how widespread Gaelic was. I knew that there was a native, presumably Celtic, language that was the language of the island. But I hadn’t expected to see it in a functional capacity. This pleased me. I’m one of those people that can’t sleep at night for fear of losing things forever, whether it’s the Cornish Language or a Leatherback Sea Turtle. So I was glad to see there was a defiant blip on the Gaelic heart monitor yet.

The third thing I noticed, once we had left the Shannon airport, was how inundated I now was with greenery. It’s often said how green the grass is in Ireland and now that I’ve been, I can confirm it ain’t fancy talk. Driving through the countryside of western Ireland your eyes are assaulted by the richest greens you can imagine in the way of grass, hedges, moss, deciduous tree leaves and so on. It was really beautiful.

I’ve never seen so many farms (and cows) in my life. All the farms were bordered by stone walls rather than fences, which I couldn’t help but notice. And the farmyard animals in Ireland are all outrageously extroverted. I’m not even joking here- every time we walked past a farm, the cows and horses would come over to us and stare at us as though expecting our craniums to pop open and project the bingiest of Netflix originals from a hidden antenna. I couldn’t help but think they were bored. But it was a really special experience. I patted several cows and horses during my trip and they were all keen to get as close to us as the stone walls would permit. They were really friendly.

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If I could point to one defining image as being a snapshot of western Ireland however, it would probably be the rows of gorse across the peat bogs. We drove past a lot of bogs and they seemed quite big. They were flat expanses of land that went on for miles, that seemed completely untouched by human interference. They really struck me as wild. And the bright yellow flowers of the gorse shrub have such an arresting beauty- your eyes are drawn straight to them. It’s an image I hope I never forget.

Flowers of the Algarve

During our stay in Andalucía, we chose to take a day trip into neighboring Portugal to see its famous Algarve province. The Algarve is considered to be the jewel of Portugal’s tourism crown; a lush region of orange trees, undisturbed coves, and lapis-blue terracotta tiles that has been repeatedly elected the best place in the world to retire. Given that we had this Mediterranean paradise practically within pissing distance of our hotel in Spain, we decided to hop in the rental car and cross the Rio Guadiana to see what all the fuss was about.

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Flowers of Andalucía

A couple months ago, my family and I took a trip to Andalucía. As we perused its quiet beaches and fishing villages, my brother and I decided we wanted to document our vacation in a creative way. We’re both people that get inspired by the aesthetics of a given place; the way a particular region or community’s identity is reflected in a consistent tone. We are both interested in the notion of place, and the way it lends itself to a distinctive aesthetic. But we wanted to discover the Andalucían place differently. Frank was drawn to its ambiance. He wanted to feel the pulse of these fishing villages. For him, that kind of life-force can only be derived from something that is animate. So he decided to make short films for each day of our trip, utilizing short clips and a still camera position. The still camera is important for capturing the ambiance, I think, because it meant that all the movement was coming from within the place itself. A moving camera would have diminished that life-force I think, and created a sense of distance between the viewer and the place. By having a fixed camera, he allowed the ambiance to assert itself. Short clips of gulls hopping out of the low tide, time lapses of meals in cafes, those were the kind of things he seemed to want. I, on the other hand, didn’t pursue the ambiance of the Andalucían place. I became interested in reducing it to a single image, a frozen moment in time, from which may be extrapolated the qualities of the viewer’s imagination. Frank wanted to capture the place as it was, whereas I wanted only to give an impression of it. We would see an empty, narrow alleyway in Seville and essentially take the same shot. I’d take a photo and he would take a video clip a few seconds long. And yet the resulting effect would be so different. Even though his camera would be still, and the empty alleyway devoid of activity, you still get that sense of life– be it a shift in the way the light falls on the wall, or a slight tremor in the air. When I went to Budapest in April, I took a lot of photos and I wrote a lot of haikus. Photos and haikus are very much alike; they’re both images. They’re a taste of something larger. You can sense the existence of that something larger when you see the image, and your imagination constructs it for you based on the taste you are given. 

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The area we stayed in was full of marshes and wetlands. I loved giving a sense of this low, unfolding landscape of reeds, muddy waterways, and marram grass by having the background out of focus. The color palette of the salt marshes was a dark, dry kind of green, which made the flowerheads stand out.

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Feather grass has always intrigued me.

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I find it hard to articulate why boardwalks are so exciting.

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This is one of those “old juxtaposed with the new” photos. The views from the castle ramparts included a big-ass industrial plant. I’ve always found industrial aesthetics super-interesting. I’ll take any chance I can get to photograph a factory, warehouse, power plant, sawmill, or shipping container.

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It’s interesting exploring small Spanish towns during a siesta. The whole place is deserted and the only sound is the trickling of a nearby fountain, like this one.

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I’ve always been fascinated with stories of how places get their names. It’s funny how one tribe of people can give a place its name, and so the name of the tribe lives on millennia after it has disappeared. England literally translates to Angle-land. The land of the Angle tribe. But the Angles were just one of the many peoples that settled the island. There were Vikings, Danes, Celts, Iceni, Romans, Saxons, and Normans too. Today we think of the English as being one group of people, but no one in England thinks of themselves as a member of the Angle tribe. The Angles are dead. And yet we still use their name to identify ourselves. It’s the same in France, which gets its name from just one of the tribes that settled it: the Franks. And the Franks were German. Up until Napoleon came along, only 10% of the country even spoke French.

Andalucía gets its name from the Vandal tribe, who were just one of many that settled the region. The southern coast of the Iberian peninsula has long been a hotbed for various cultures. The blend of Hispanic and Moorish architectural styles in particular made Seville very beautiful, as you can see above!

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While I was in Seville, an American student informed us that the entire cast of Game of Thrones were staying at a fancy hotel across the street. Before we knew what was happening, a good 50 people gathered outside the fence hoping for autographs and selfies. I waited for a long time, and when it became clear that they weren’t exiting the hotel, I found myself walking up to the front entrance in the hope of ambushing them in the lobby, or even the hotel bar. However a security guard told me to piss off.

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But I did get to see one of the places they filmed Game of Thrones. I’m sure y’all recognize the above picture as the Dornish palace where that guy gets stabbed by Indira Varma.

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Mazes always make me a little scared. Whenever I see one I recall a trauma from my childhood where I got lost.

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In this photo I’m focusing on the column. Usually I do this with flowers, and I always position the flower to the side of the picture, like I’m doing here with the column. It’s not because I like flowers so much. I just like how a focused object- be it a column or whatever- has a way of framing everything else. It sounds strange to say, but when I take pictures like this, I’m actually more interested in what’s out of focus.

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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