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Travel Stories: Hungary and Vienna

Posted by in Travel Journals


(I visited Budapest and Vienna in the Winter of 2012, here’s what I saw.)

7:34 am JAX 12/12

“Is that ‘squishable’.”

When preparing for a long trip you’re always searching for something, anything to set the tone. A little mental bookmark you can later pull out of the pages of your adventure and point to screaming “a ha,” when finally some observation (usually made while wandering down a back alley, listening to an audiobook and trying to read a sign in a language you only started learning on the plane ride over) transforms it from a random set of word noises you happened to latch onto, into yet another example of your deep personal insight and general worldliness.

“Is that ‘squishable’” – the first coherent English sentence I’ve heard since arriving in the airport, short of a TSA agent’s request to pat my tush in search of whatever bits of contraband people are apt to store in their back pockets, is as good as any for a week long trip to Budapest in the dead of Winter. I expect quite a number of back alleys to mull over it.

9:49 am 28,000 feet 12/12

A missing piece

As I was struggling with the relative merits of passing out immediately versus the significantly more heroic option of passing out after a futile but courageous attempt to stay awake , I heard something interesting enough to cut through the encroaching darkness.

The captain was casually informing us that something wasn’t quite -working- on the plane. He ensured us that the component, which he was careful not to name, was purely redundant and that after a smidge of FAA paperwork we’d be just fine to fly. Since he seemed quite certain that we would not be spiraling out of the sky because of whatever widget had just decided to take a day off, I made the only decision left to me. I passed out immediately.

There is nothing quite as funny as a big man with a tiny tablet.

10:45 am CVG, Kentucky 12/12

When sitting for a seven hour layover in the middle of Kentucky it is a good and righteous thing to have a full charging station to yourself. The gods of travel smile upon me this day.

1:14 pm CVG, Kentucky 12/12

Every good thing in the world is easier to do in an airport — reading, eating, staring blankly into space as marginally sub-sonic tin cans whizz by. The airport was built as a temple to mankind’s finest impulses.

6:05 (local) 28,000 feet 12/12

Bathroom politics

On an international flight there are only two places on the entire plane worth sitting – the very back or the very front. Your trip and ultimately your life will be made better in direct relationship to your proximity to one of these key areas.

The reason for the front goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) giant, reclining wonderseats and unlimited drink service goes a long way toward soothing pre, post and during flight jitters. Obvious or not, to really understand why the back of the plane is nearly as good you need to look no further than what else would come in useful after a few free mamosa’s, namely, the bathroom.

Sitting near the back of the plane grants you the key to one of the most precious commodities on a multi-hour flight, a restroom without a line. The closer you are to the back, the more you might be able to convince yourself that this little bastion of peace and serenity belongs to you alone. It’s a secret you won’t find in any travel guide and the moment the airlines discover it we are all in trouble.

8:16 am (local) CDG, France 13/12

The nick of time

Priority number one when stepping off of a flight to Europe is figuring out exactly what time zone you happened to blunder into. It’s surprisingly easy to lose an hour here or there, which wouldn’t be such a big, hairy deal if airports were a bit more accommodating about the difficulties implicit in properly setting ones timepiece.

These difficulties being highly compounded when said traveler spent the last several hours of the flight drooling all over himself rather than looking at the infinitely useful travel data console.

Additional note: Paris security checkpoints are, on average, 127 times better than their American counterparts – this is driven by the fact that in Paris they are not yet under to the rather odd belief that your average traveler’s feet are constantly primed to explode.

2:24 pm (local) ??? Feet 13/12

I’m not sure if the egg sandwich I just had was Hungarian or French. My guess is French. What does a Hungarian egg sandwich taste like? Sleep…

4:00 pm Highway, Budapest 13/12

The road leading to Budapest reminds me of some of the smaller towns you find littering the northeast, with the subtle additions of quite a bit more Hungarian and a relative preponderance of billboards of lingerie models. Otherwise, identical.

Weather or Not

I don’t think I’d ever get used to it getting dark at 3:45 every day for four months, though I’m sure the Hungarians might have something to say about it being 78 degrees in the middle of December, so for now I’ll call it a draw.

10:00 pm (local) Budapest / Buda 13/12

The right gloves

I have these gloves that let me use my iPhone. I have these gloves that don’t let me use my iPhone. Both are in my bag. The difference between them, for a person who relies entirely on his iPhone for navigation in foreign countries is the difference between spending hours basking in the radiant beauty that is Budapest after dark, and spending an hour wondering how quickly frostbite will set in before hobbling back to the hotel and collapsing in front of the heating grate. Small lessons.

11:37 am (local) Budapest 14/12

Budapest is a beautiful city, made more beautiful by night when the dull brown and grays of its streets are lit up by richer oranges and neons, and the biting cold of it’s winters seems like a feature rather than a mild impediment to the sorts of wandering that I prefer to do.

Also I am certain, though without any proof, that the ladies of the evening, who seem so pleased to meet you (in six or seven languages depending on how fastidiously you ignore them) as you wander through Pest in search of a late night Cafe do quite a bit better under its cloak.

12:49 pm Buda 13/12

A couple kissing passionately on a ledge, the bones of a church laid bare, an overlook into an ancient city torn apart and rebuilt by war, a tiny dog and a busy road. The sun is finally out. Budapest is alive.

The Hungarian National Art Gallery is one of the most spectacular exhibitions of creative wok I’ve managed to have never previously heard of. The bottom floors are filled with photorealistic portraits and scenes which are, at their best achingly beautiful, and even at their worst jarring and discomforting in the best possible way. The top floors, well, the top floors are pretty darn Metal.

3:18 (local) Cafe Dumas 13/12

I’m eating at a French Cafe in Buda where people are speaking a mixture of heavily accented English and German, to complicate matters further I had come looking for a Hungarian goulash (which is nothing like goulash in, say, Russia) and been met with pain au chocolat.

6:36 pm (local) Pest 13/12

As they prepare for a performance of Handel at St. Stephen’s Cathedral and street performers dance their slow dance through the outdoor market, the square blazes to life with Christmas lights, and suddenly a gentle snow begins to fall…

8:26 am (local) Highway / Budapest 14/12

My tour guide Bolage has discovered my little secret, that secret being that the cold scares me almost as much as nuclear Winter and the entropy death of the Universe. He’s made the kind concession of turning the van’s air conditioning from Tundra right on up to sweltering to stop me from flailing around in my overcoat. What he has yet to discover is that tours typically scare me just as much. There is something about being pressed up against other sweating, salivating tourists like myself, pointing at things and yelling from the back of a bus that always feels a tiny bit inauthentic. Fortunately this is a van, not a bus and for the moment I’m keeping the drool to myself.

Why the tour? Between the fear of dying alone in a Hungarian snow drift, my total inability to read Austrian train schedules, and a general disinclination towards dealing with logistics more complex than my walking path, this seemed like the best possible way to explore Vienna.

9:14 am (local) Road to Vienna 14/12

Europe is strange. It’s a little less than 200 miles between Budapest and Vienna, two cities, that while sharing a storied history of war, conflict and all the sorts of social detritus that make good History Channel Specials fail to share a language, a culture or even a currency. This is strange because 200 miles represents a similar distance between Gainesville and Orlando, which while marginally different at the ragged edges still manage to accept the same bits of green paper for products and services.

When you are on a 5 hour road trip with a perfect stranger you must manage your stupid questions deftly. Use them up too quickly and you can expect hours of awkward silence and phone fiddling in your future, use them too slowly and he is likely to think that you are a particularly dour alien. A good rule of thumb is that every twenty minutes or so you should say something, anything and then smile like an arse for a while until it’s safe to stare into your phone again.


I think “petrol station” is a much better phrase than gas station.

The border of Hungary and Austria looks like the parking lot of Epcot, with fewer funny hats.

10:27 am (local) Highway in Austria 14/12

If the outskirts of Hungary looks like Connecticut, the outskirts of Austria more closely resemble Illinois or Philadelphia, with the faintest dusting of Old World flare. Smokestacks and factories framed between windmills and farmland, all shot through with the wet and grey that makes up so much of the European experience past October.

Vienna happens slowly, as the dust and grime of those factories are polished away what you are left with is a city that feels somehow both grander and more plain than central Budapest.

My guide spoke to this point, saying that Vienna and Budapest are both beautiful ladies, Vienna is simply wearing her makeup. He meant tp convey the fact that Vienna has several times the per capita income and thus can afford things that Budapest simply cannot, what i don’t think he fully appreciated was that I’ve always preferred women without makeup.

1:41 Pm (local) Vienna 14/12

A crush of people, the smell of paint and Christmas like an edifice binding it all together. Museum hopping in Vienna has the stressful air of pushing your way through Disney World in August.

4:00 pm (local) Vienna 14/12

I lost my headphones, it’s the grand tragedy of this trip but not a wholly unexpected one. Not unexpected because I have about twelve pockets that I am constantly fiddling with, along with an utter inability to maintain focus on all of them in novel, complex environments such as being hopelessly lost in search of my tour guide in the streets of Austria. As a result, there is a greater than average chance that I handed it over to the guy at the souvenir shop along with my fist full of Euros. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if those hadn’t been the headphones I’d bought in Seoul, to replace the ones that I’d manages to destroy there.

P.S. It’s strikingly difficult to find a Hungarian man, standing in the middle of a shopping district in downtown Vienna, especially when said man is holding an umbrella during a mild but persistent rainstorm. Difficult, yes, but quite artistic.

5:40 pm (local) Hugarian Rest Stop 14/12

Let’s say you’re stuck in the cold, outside of a Hungarian petrol station and you are unsure where your tour guide has run off to. Around you are several people selling the latest in Apple electronics boxes, and you have no way of retreating back inside because you failed to get a receipt and would prefer not getting thrown in Hungarian jail for shop lifting. Let’s also say that you’re tired, bitterly tired and don’t feel compelled to engage in verbal sparring with the local near-do-wells and that overall you are feeling like a bit of a muppet. You, my friend, might just be the perfect candidate for my –

Pan handling defense strategy for the exhausted: when approached by a scruffy gentlemen of indistinguishable foreign origin who appears to be preparing to launch into a pitch which will end in him requesting large quantities of your hard earned currency, follow two simple steps:

1. Begin gesticulating wildly (this will give him the impression that you are both confused and perhaps a tiny bit crazy).

2. Pretend like you don’t speak the language that he is making his initial request in. In fact, pretend like you don’t speak any language with any degree of fluency. When he switches from whatever language he has pegged you as speaking (they are quite good at this), continue to feign ignorance. Even if that language is your native tongue, some broken stammering and a bit of flailing should be enough to dispel the illusion that you are useful to him. If you are English like me, you likely only know 1.12 languages to begin with, so this shouldn’t be exceptionally difficult. Add to this a harried, confused expression and a bit of pacing, and you should be free to go about your business in a matter of moments.

Tonight’s weather is very Japanese, or should I say very English…?

7:52 (local) Art’otel Budapest 14/12

After discussing the relative merits of tax and education policy with my new Hungarian friend, I am left feeling that tax dispersion is complicated and as such is not the domain of mortals. Corruption and general fiscal unfairness, however, appears to be universal.

12:15pm (local) St Gellert, Budapest 15/12

Budapest is fog. Deep, rich, all encompassing fog. Fog that is more presence than weather. Which leads inexorably to today’s quest, to climb to the highest point in the city and try to see above it all. On the way I meet the first native English speakers I’ve seen in this country, a pair of Asian women (Indian and Chinese respectively) who are either from the UK or some particularly English sounding area of Australia, they want to find the Cable cars, which I think means they want to go to Buda Castle. I’m likely right, at least I hope so or they’ll been none to happy with the American guy who sent them hunting wild geese for a half mile.

P.S. topography makes a hell of a difference when determining the difficulty of a hike. A half mile forward is quite a bit different than a half mile up.

2:30 pm (local) House of Terror, Budapest 15/12

The cells are tiny, box-like and identical , except for the one with padded walls; God only knows what that was used for. Pictures of the dead and imprisoned line the walls in this building that stands as a tomb, a burial place fir Hungary’s long history of pain and persecution, first under the Nazi’s and then even more terribly under Stalin’s Communists. Standing here in a prison cell I could barely fit into lying flat on my back, I hear the faint sound of running water coming from a grate to my left and wonder about the dozens of others who stood here, on this spot, contemplating their fate…

And then the gallows. And then the graves…

3:30 pm (local) Spinoza’s Cafe, Budapest 15/12

Overheard: goulash means “herds men” or “cow men.” Apparently the titular Hungarian stew was named that because it was made of these herdsmen’s hard earned meat, making its rather odd disconnection from the more common conception of goulash a bit more understandable. (via The British family sitting behind me)

Spinoza’s is a Hungarian Jewish restaurant located down a back alley and a stone’s throw away from a sex shop with the rather evocative name, Tutti Frutti. It’s mixed culinary tradition means that it’s one of the few places in the world where you can find goose liver and hummus on the same menu. It’s also much cooler than it would like to admit, with a theatre, an art gallery and a coffee shop located under the same roof. The entire city of Seattle wishes it could be this trendy.

P.S. I don’t think I’ll ever understand Hungarian currency. In reality all you need to do is divide by 100 and cut the number in half (to get to USD) but I’m still constantly unsure of how much I’m spending and who, if anyone, is ripping me off. Back in Cafe Dumas, for example, I happily handed the waitress $100 when I had meant to give her $10. Luckily the Hungarian’s I’ve met seem to be reasonably honest people, or at the very least they have some depth of warm feelings for the obviously challenged.

P.P.S I have a terribly American sense of food timing. I have a hard time understanding that in Europe meals are meant to take quite a while, during which most of the restaurant will be puttering about as if no one, anywhere had anywhere important to be. There are moments I want to claw my eyes. This feeling finds its root both in a deeply American sense of entitlement, and an inability to understand that food, the process of eating it, and all the moments of calm in between are meant to be enjoyed. It’s a problem I should work on.

5:15 pm (local) Art Gallery, Budapest 15/12

Children on leashes never cease to surprise me. Not quite as much as walking into an art exhibition featuring a man standing stock still in a burgundy robe, becoming completely naked, walking up invisible stairs and leaving behind the robe, which floats in mid-air for a moment, then proceeds to fall into the box below. But almost nothing surprises me as much as that.

7:30 pm (local) Budapest 15/12

A well dressed man of unclear European extraction seemed to be tailing me as I left the Art Gallery in Hero’s Square. I wasn’t -sure- he was tailing me, mind you, but as an always exhausted and perennially paranoid traveler if someone keeps pace with me for more than ten steps I always assume the worst. This person also didn’t appear to be your usual pan handler, so instead of taking strong evasive maneuvers, I simply took stock of my valuables and kept walking.

Then he was next to me.

I shall relate the rest of this story in the present tense, as I ultimately wish I had written it on the spot but I figured it might be a bit rude.

I slow a pace and turn to look at him, he’s smiling and clearly trying his best to get my attention. I remove one earbud and nod in his direction.

“I have this strange feeling that we’ve met in another life…” He croons in extremely serviceable, albeit heavily accented English.

I blink. Once. Twice. He seems neither insane nor dangerous, which means he could very well be very much of both. How do you respond to that? I stammer something about how “strange” that is. I smile, perhaps a little too grimly. He nods and mumbles something I can’t quite hear over the other earbud. He smiles now, the beatific smile of one who knows something that another does not. He continues to keep pace with me and I explain how it is unlikely that we have met in this lifetime or the last as this is my first week in Budapest. He keeps smiling. I keep nodding. I wish him a good evening. He returns the sentiment. I return my earbud to my ear and take a few quick steps out of his orbit, checking that my valuables are intact after a few dozen paces. About a minute later when I finally look back, he’s gone.

Oddly, all I could think of for a full minute afterwards was, “is that ‘squishable’?”

8:00 am (local) Airport Transfer Bus, Budapest 16/12

I’d meant to stay up all night. That way I could make absolutely certain I wouldn’t sleep through my bus, which was scheduled to leave at 7:45. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite work out. I passed out, rather unceremoniously at about 3 am (local) without setting an alarm.

More fortunately, the fickle but mostly tolerant gods of travel were smiling down on me and I woke up with 30 minutes to spare, just enough time to pack, repack, make certain I was packed, and check the room a half dozen times for things I’d forgotten to pack (I probably left something behind.)

Driving out of the city I saw a billboard for the Budapest Business Journal (“It’s all about your money”). For reason’s totally inexplicable to me, they decided to use a picture of Abraham Lincoln to sell it.

Budapest you are a fine, fine lady, makeup be damned.