The Way It Used To Be - Chapter Fifteen: Budapest

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August 1st 2005
Published: May 28th 2008
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It takes effort for a car to look this repulsive...
I never wanted to come to Budapest.
In fact, the whole trip down to Hungary served as dilemma on how to handle arriving here. Hungary was an inevitability: in order to go anywhere else, particularly south, you had to go through Hungary. And if you have Hungary to contend with, Budapest is a must, as all rail lines converge here. So, what to do? I planned on seeing if there were any long-distance departures in the evening. But that would mean twenty-four hours plus in motion and I could do without this. If the connections existed, could I get a reservation, seat, or couchette on the spot? Experience has dictated that this is not likely.
Having decided to get a room around the station, I then talked myself into prolonging my time here. Thousands of visitors swarm in and out of Budapest daily. There must be a reason for this. While I am here, I may as well find out why.
“How many nights?” Vilmos asked at the booking agency at the East Station.
“Oh, just one. I am in transit.” Wait a minute. One night? That would not do and I knew better. “Make it two, please.” Yeah, much better,
Atop BudaAtop BudaAtop Buda

The Parliament is an icon of the capital...
I thought. I could run around town in a successful match of Been There, Done That. I would be satisfied with myself.
I have an apartment on a city square, now under construction for a new market, called Garay Tér. It is the usual setting: The façade facing the square retains its attractive elements. But once you enter the main gate, the staircases are decrepit, the fifty-year-old coat of paint is peeling, and the inner courtyard provides space only for hanging laundry. My three-room apartment suffices and there is nothing wrong with it. I like it here. It is cool at night, quiet, and the location is brilliant. McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King are no more than two blocks in any direction. What more could one ask for while exploring Budapest?
Now drawing near my third night in Budapest, stretching it to four or five would be no trouble at all.

My time in Budapest has been divided in two: goofing off and the lamentable task of sightseeing. While I much prefer the former to the latter, there are those attractions in town you must set your eyes upon to make the visit complete. To be fair, however, Budapest

Getting away from it, before the tourists arrive...
does not disappoint. Rough around the edges, it is a classy city that occupies both banks of the Danube. Designated the “Paris of the East”, I assure you it is not. No city is Paris, and frankly, Budapest does not even come close. However, a handful of days here will please anyone willing to stroll its streets, ride its rickety trams along the river, and take in the diverse nightlife. Budapest belongs in the upper echelon of European cities. As its reputation grows, and its stock rises, so will the prices. Relative to Slovakia, arriving in Budapest is like having bought a gift you would usually pick up at Wal-Mart, but paying Lord & Taylor prices. Yet, it is a far cry from Geneva.

In spite of my recent admiration for Justin, whom I met in Starý Smokovec, I took the funicular up to the Castle Hill, seat of older winding streets, a wonderful church and the Hapsburg’s Royal Palace. Taking a seat in the three-tiered car is pointless; it affords you a view of the front paneling. Standing up is far more gratifying. I sped around the palace in the early hours of the morning, crossing paths with

No, midsummer in Budapest...
only the street cleaners sweeping up trash and cigarette butts among the bumpy cobblestones. For the first hour, no other tourists occupied the most trampled piece of real estate in Hungary. I walked around aware and rather appreciative of this fact until the first tour bus arrived at 7:30 am with a full load of Japanese with their arsenal of cameras and video recorders stringed to their necks.

The Royal Palace is an imposing formation of halls, columns, domes, and courtyards. It is a mammoth testament to an empire that once ruled vast portions of Europe. Now simply a stop on the tourist trail, it remains a major tenant overlooking the Danube. I could not help, however, to set aside the importance of the turquoise-stained iron statues of kings mounted on horseback, or of some triumphant general striking a brave pose brandishing a sword that points to victory on the closest horizon. All European palaces have these; many American monuments do as well. Their lack of originality prompted me to ignore them and stare down at the Danube, the ferries docked at its banks, and the faint sounds of a city waking up from its slumber. The red-domed, magnificently
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A cinch to get around the city
designed, and enormous Parliament dominates the far bank. The two giant multimedia screens and makeshift theater on the far side causes the experience of visiting the Parliament to be nothing more than one more stop on the open roofed city tour bus trail. I suggest to appreciate it form afar or lit up at night. Overall, the palace and the remaining attractions on the hill are of smaller significance to the panorama that its ramparts offer to the rest of Budapest.

By many who live here, Budapest is a union of two separate cities, Buda and Pest. Ask a resident where they live in the metropolitan area, and their answer will start with either Buda, on the west bank, or Pest on the East. Signposts, tram stops and subway lines use the individual terms to guide commuters through the city. If you know which side of the river you’re on, and know that your destination is on the other side, then it simplifies finding your way around town. That said, the extraterrestrial language these folks speak and use on the signposts notwithstanding, the transportation system is a breeze to manage. Trams, buses, and subway cars zip passengers all around
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But could wait for the funicular to open...
town. Arrivals are frequent and connections require little wait time. Within a day, it is not too difficult a task to have a grasp of which trams go where, how to connect, and how long it will take you to get where you need to be. Budapest is snap for a visitor.

Margit Island is the only wedge of land in Hungary’s capital situated neither in Buda nor Pest. A refuge in the center of the Danube and closed to private traffic, it is a moist, green haven of jogging trails, parkland, and silence. Lost amidst the thick chestnuts and manicured shrubs, one must think long and hard to believe that this haven is in the epicenter of a noisy metropolis of 1.9 million people. A small zoo welcomes children. Vendors sell cold drinks, pretzels, and ice cream. Joggers whiz by (some stagger) on a rubbery track designed just for them. Regretfully, the Hungarian government has not put out any public service announcements about who should and should not wear speedos in public. It is even worse than when the Québécois descend upon Fort Lauderdale in February. Flower gardens pulse with a wide variety of plants and blossoms. Benches
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Personally, I prefer the former...
cover all areas of the island, and it is effortless to find solitude. From either flank, the rest of the city comes into view. Hydrofoils speed upriver. Fishermen cast their lines, a scary thought given the Danube’s history through a good chunk of Germany, Vienna, and Bratislava. Margit Island has its drawbacks. Some facilities are on its last legs or poorly maintained. The same can be said for Budapest as a whole, especially when gawking at the endless waves of eye-level graffiti that has diminished some of the city’s allure.

At the bottom of the Castle Hill and before crossing back over to Pest, I caught up with a middle-aged woman walking her dog. Well-dressed, she halted at a crosswalk. But this was not the kind of crosswalk for a multi-lane boulevard. Rather, we were traversing a small commercial area of the city on a Sunday morning. All the shops were shut and there was a vacuum of silence, but for the two of us and her little mop on a leash.
Most Central Europeans do not disobey the crosswalk. Yet without speaking, both she and I looked around and realized not a single car was in sight. Perceiving
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Easing into Budapest requires little effort. In no time, I am a transport expert...
no threat, across the street we went. I walk at a brisk pace, and progressed well ahead of her instantly. Then came a yell from behind. It was from a pair of police officers patrolling the area on foot. They chastised the woman for not adhering to the crosswalk. The conversation, I can only deduce, went something like the following:
“Hey! The crosswalk! It’s red! Wait here!”
“It’s not green yet.” Both officers caught up to the woman to show her. Remember, there are no other people around, much less awake at this hour.
“You can’t cross when it’s red!” The two officers were pleased with their castigation techniques. The woman was miffed, really pissed off being on the receiving end of their abuse. She caught up with the two.
“Do you two have any real work to do? Budapest has crime and you two get excited about jaywalking on a Sunday morning?”
Then the conversation got really heated. I loved it. I would have paid to watch the spectacle and I got it all for free. Even the fact I have the faintest clue about Hungarian did not at all detract from my enjoying their argument. The two eventually waved at her in a dismissive fashion. But little Miss Cranky kept at them for a whole city block. Apparently Hungarian police do not instill the same fear into its citizenry as the German ones do. The whole scene evoked my being chastised by a German cop in Regensburg for bicycling on the improper lane. Wilhelm, in full gear and with some predator with four legs in the back of the cruiser, pulled me over and tore into me for my minor violation. He never bothered to find out I knew little German or could communicate with him. I stood there and took the verbal assault. You have never felt true fear and intimidation until you have been uncontrollably yelled at in German. Believe me. Hence, the Hungarians have a long way to go to meet German standards, as the two cops were little match for the eschewed woman.
A great deal of the day was spent on foot, in Pest, making jagged lefts and rights on local tree-lined streets. The trees have been shedding their buds, resulting in a fine chartreuse blanket of seeds all over Budapest. Storeowners sweep the dusty particles off the sidewalk and drivers to the same to their windshields, covered to the point where you cannot see inside.
The Café Picard was treat to visit. Only two blocks or so off the Danube, I stopped in for two cappuccinos and relieved my feet for the punishment I had been giving them since very early morning. The owner had already put a CD in the sound system, A’kos, and Hungarian group whose album is entitled Andante. Very harmonic and mellow.
The rest of the afternoon transpired slowly, as I accidentally came upon the primary sights of Budapest, jumped on and off trams without the slightest idea or interest where they would take me, and stopped in pubs along the way to replenish my thirst. This is the best way to see Budapest, I think: No agenda, map stays in your pocket, and you just go where your intuition leads you.
Whatever the tirades of frustration, criticisms, attacks, or insults I have pointed out regarding Slavic languages, I am so sorry. I cannot make heads or tails of Hungarian. Not even a European language by nature, there exists not a single correlation to anything with which I am familiar in order to decipher announcements over the public address, street signs indicating changes of construction dates, or even determining the days of the week. It is a language so bizarre that I have approached Hungarians and told them that they must be able to understand that spoken dialog while watching Star Wars without the subtitles. Words sprout accents, the umlaut, and another diacritical mark over the o to make an ő. It is not uncommon to see these in the same word, multiple times. As luck would have it, the Hungarians are aware of their vernacular, do not expect anyone in their right mind visiting Hungary to speak it, and make the effort to help foreigners in German or English. Hungary is the first country I have ever visited where I will probably make no effort to learn any words here, save thank you and Good Morning or Hello.

Beyond the compulsory Budapest attractions that ensnare tourists, a visit here is only complete once you have soothed yourself in one of the city’s magnificent thermal baths. Intensely advertised and a highlight in any guidebook of Budapest, do not let the glossy brochures and group discounts dissuade you from indulging. Although a ride on a city bus on a warm summer’s day may lead you to believe otherwise, Hungarians take bathing very seriously. And for the hour and a half I waded in sheer bliss, I have to say they have refined bathing to an art.
Attendants ensure all belongings remain secure, hand you a towel, and direct you to the showers, where you must first douse yourself before moving ahead. They are strict about this. If you have no bathing trunks, they will provide you with something that falls well short of a loincloth to cover your front, but it leaves you butt cheeks exposed. Try to envision walking into a public bathhouse wearing an apron cut off at the thighs. Don’t worry. I brought my shorts.
The Gellért Baths themselves are Turkish in origin, finely decorated with angelic icons and azure tiling. There are two separate pools. The water in one flows at 36°C and 38°C in the other. Submerged platforms allow you to recline and seep into a state of pure delight. Water enters each bath from a fountain, under which you can have the stream of hot water hit your back, head, or any other aching part of your body. Men stretch, wade, and exercise their legs in the humid pools of thermal water.
One bath in the rear has water gushing out at 8°C. The point is, I guess, is to cool off or invigorate your body by going back and forth between hot and cold water. I tried this, aware that this is everyday practice for regular bathers. From the hot baths, I made my over way and stepped into the crisp, clean tank of liquid pain. I immersed my foot down the first step and immediately let out a sharp yelp, the kind you hear when you accidentally step on a dog’s tail. Gingerly limping three more steps further in to my knees, I had already lost most sensation in my ankles from the sheer frigid torment. This was fun? Am I supposed to like this? My face contorted, eyed squinted shut, I made it waist deep for five seconds.
Then I dashed back to the thermal baths.
The fully submerged Hungarian men, apparently having a grand old time on their way to hypothermia, shook their heads in disdain for the clueless foreigner, clearly out of his league.
In a way, it is too bad no photos are permitted of the baths. They are wonderful and date back hundreds of years. Nevertheless, I hardly think the men would care for their pictures to be taken while at their most exposed and vulnerable. Moreover, most bathers are Hungarian, not tourists. The baths for them are an institution. Conversation is restrained. Silence reigns supreme. It is where they go to relax and probably complain about their wives for a while. Bear in mind these men do not double as fashion models. They are a round, chubby, and fury sort. Since many favor to bathe without any clothing at all, any photographic souvenirs would not play too kindly on the eyes.


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