Sunday, February 22, 2009
Sunday, February 15, 2009
From my initial problems buying the bus tickets to Budapest I knew this was going to be an interesting adventure. Student Agency (the bus company) is pretty damn unorganized, and I don't really know how many tickets I ended up buying each way, and ended up accepting "the shaft" rather than start questioning their methods in a way that they probably wouldn't be able to understand. Then there was the lineup of fellow CIEE students traveling with me:
Jakob Wilkins- 5' 11", 140 lbs. Jewish. The future of sports broadcast journalism. Hobbies- dancing, listening to recordings of his past broadcasts, whatever makes the ladies happy. Music- Nickleback, Jazz. Drink of choice- vodka tastes better to him, though he doesn't mind polenka. I will add Jakob to my ballet in 2012
Mike Albert: 5' 11" without the slouch, 5' 8" with the slouch. Jewish. Hobbies- tossing a disc, international relations, toking and Phish; specializes in inadvertent downs-syndrome smiles. Known to stand in line for a smazeny syr (fried cheese) sandwich while still finishing one bought at another stand 30 feet away. If not in center city, he's "definitely down to get some McDonalds". He goes to USC.
Pete: big, hairy. Charming not only with his sense of humor but also his electric dance skills. Bona-fide movie buff, he was lamenting the absence of his second half (Stewart), but nevertheless pulled through to keep energy at its peak, even at 5 am when we should have been sleeping. I don't think he's Jewish.
Nick Brown: fellow fordham-ite. species- homo erectus. Footwear- indestructible moon boots. Definitely not Jewish. A personable character with an infectious laugh. He just wants to play some fucking foosball.
It's hard to describe the mannerisms and breadth of personalities represented by these characters, but it was definitely a worthy travel group.
Anyway, we got on the bus at 4, peed on a building in Bratislava around 8ish, and got to Budapest around 1115. We had no Hungarian currency, no idea what part of the city we were in, had no concept of where our hostel was or how to get there, and the subway supposedly stopped running. We were in for what was going to be a rather comical/frustrating first few hours in Budapest. Luckily, two beautiful Belarusian girls recognized us for the lost puppies that we were at the time and went out of their way to take us to our hostel. Just by their outgoingness we all realized that this was going to be a much different city than mother Prague, where people wouldn't offer to help you if you were bleeding from your skull. We dropped our stuff off, walked around to try and find some food, and ended up eating an overpriced meal at a place near by. Afterward, we spent the next hour or so walking around trying to find an open pub that wasn't ridiculously expensive. We soon admitted defeat (wondering why the hell we couldn't find anything, when in Prague you can't not find an open pub), and returned so that we could get up and check out the city the next day.
Our first views of Budapest in the daylight were amazing. The city itself is much bigger than Prague (about a million more people apparently), and because it was built/laid out more recently than Prague, all of the streets and sidewalks are much wider. At points I felt like I was walking around the village or some such area. The architecture, while not up to par with the old city in Prague, is itself amazing. The parliament building and st. stephen's basilica carried the architectural weight on the Pest side of the Danube River, while the castle, and the Fishermen's Bastion loom over the city on the hills of the Buda side. There is a noticeably more Eastern feel to the buildings there, with mosque-esque ornaments and colorful mosaic roofs permeating the skyline. The city itself also seems much more insulated from western influence and tourism in general. While it is a more fast paced (we were inches from being hit by cars whose drivers seemed like they were out to get pedestrians), metropolitan city than Prague, there were very few other languages being spoken, and hardly any English voices to be heard, at least while walking around. In restaurants and pubs, though, most people (as well as kids) spoke good English, and were not afraid to engage in conversation like Prague people. People were generally very sociable and more outwardly energetic/enthusiastic here. All of these observations seem to indicate that the long history of domination that the people of Prague experienced really did and still does weigh heavily on the way they carry themselves and interact with others on a daily basis. It was refreshing, though, to feel a bit more welcomed, or at least less intrusive in this city, and to be shown some warmth when talking to people.
So besides walking around all day, we spent the next night, again, trying to find bars to go to. We went to one African dance club, which was interesting, but not really compelling any of us to stay, so we found an Asian bar with two gorgeous bartenders and stayed there for a little while. We left to find another place to go (unsuccessfully) and then had to worry about how the hell we were going to get home. A guy who worked at a Gyro stand hooked us up with some decent directions (again, hospitality) and we managed to make it back with few problems.
The next day we climbed Gellert Hill, the highest point in center-city Budapest, and got some amazing views of the city proper, the surrounding suburbs, and hills off in the distance. From there we extreme-offroad-ran down the hill towards the Gellert Spa, where we spent the next 2 hours or so in Turkish baths- this apparently is a popular activity in Budapest, so we felt that we had to at least see what the big deal was. Basically, I only had white boxers to wear, but was still revealing less than most of the people there (they handed out these loin-cloth kind of things that left the whole rear exposed. Too much geriatric ass for one day). Basically they were hot baths, one slightly hotter than the other, that you would alternate sitting in- one to heat yourself up and one to cool off a little bit, and repeat. After that, we made our way through each of the 4 sauna chambers, which increased in heat from one to the next. It was a relaxing day, and an interesting experience to say the least.
That night we went out and had the best meal of the trip, and one of the best since Ive been in Europe, to the tunes of a guitarist and violinist duo who played classical music as well as a great rendition of "New York, New York" in honor of our American presence. (I guess I should note here that the food in Budapest is amazing. It's similar to Prague in that it's very hearty, based around meat, potatoes, dumplings, soup, stews, etc. But they use way more spices than most places in Prague which does away with the blandness that sometimes taints czech food. Everything there, also, seems much fresher and handled more carefully. While it was generally a bit more expensive, it was definitely worth the difference.) Afterward we found the pub that we had been looking for the whole night before, which turned out to be awesome. It was an abandoned car repair shop set back from the street itself which forced you to walk through a courtyard covered from top to bottom with some great graffiti and with junk furniture/car parts laying around everywhere. Inside had a great vibe- a big place with tables here and there, several foosball tables, a big bar, a DJ booth made out of an old car frame, and a big dance floor. The DJ spun great music for the whole 5 hours we were there. On the wall short film/animation clips were being projected in-sync with the music. Pete owned the dance floor as we all got down with some of our fellow CIEE girls who showed up, and got shot down by any attempts to dance with Hungarians (they gave us about 10 seconds, and then left).
We stayed there far too long, and got far too drunk. The walk home was just plain silly- from see-saw rides in child playgrounds to climbing scaffolding, etc. but it was probably some of the best fun I've had in Europe so far. Followed Pete who just hopped on a random bus that happened to take us in the right direction. But at this point it was about 445 AM which means we were putting ourselves in a bad position to find our way to the bus station in time for a 7 AM ride home. We slept in. We missed the bus. We were still hammered as we found our way to the train station.
So basically we won. This trip was a success despite the overpaying for everything, the lack of direction, the failed attempts to find food and drink, and the lack of Hungarian interaction we had a great time. I really enjoyed just exploring and trying to pick out the subtle differences in lifestyle, architecture, culture, food, etc. between this city and Prague, which is exactly what I wanted to come to Europe to do.
You know, I've been waiting, and waiting, and waiting since I first landed at the Prague-Ruzyne airport at 530 AM on January 15 for some inspiration- some real reason to sit down and start writing; some creative spark that would somehow either shed light on some previously overlooked, unrecognized, or completely undiscovered something, or elucidate some hazy, unrefined notion of something that I've been juggling around in my mind, consciously or otherwise. I’m in a different country for christ’s sake. Something is happening up there, and I figured that it would have the decency to reveal itself at some point. But I got stood up- what else is new. It’s frustrating when the brain won’t cooperate with itself- when it knows what it wants to do, but either can’t figure out how to work it’s power grid properly, or simply chooses not to. Either way, instead of pages and pages of well organized, thoughtful insight or report (pronounced as in the “Colbert Report” please), I’m stream-of-consciousness-ing this bullshit so that 3 weeks in Prague will seem more worth-while than an empty word document would show. This is the depressing wank after another unsuccessful night in a bar; the quick fix that relieves failure long enough to allow you to hide behind your own eyelids from the your surroundings that would otherwise grow more maliciously grotesque by the second. I can’t be happy about this. All I can do is inhale deeply, come to some sort of reluctant resolve, and breath out- hard. Some might call this a sigh, but that’s too vague and too soft of a term to describe what’s going on. This is more like the last deep breath you take before entering a fight that you’re going to lose, but can’t turn away from.
It’s amazing, one paragraph into this, how the mind wanders. All I wanted to do was say “I’m annoyed because I haven’t thought of anything neat to write” and all of the sudden I’m fitting more and more of the criteria for a legitimate depression diagnosis. That’s not at all what I’m trying to convey- my level of frustration is somewhere between that of burning a bag of popcorn and getting a flat tire while pulling into the driveway.
Anyways, what have I been doing? What have I seen? Smelled? Tasted, heard, felt? I’m living in a fairy-tale land as far as pure aesthetics are concerned. A city of castles and cobblestone streets, with steeples looming in the background of every gaze and 300 year old buildings which each look like the life’s work of an architect- his masterpiece. A city full of one historical monument after another divided almost symmetrically by a river that provides a majestic contrast to the constructed beauty above the banks. Streets are lined with pubs, each of which, in this initial stage of my life here, is inviting in its own unique way- with its own table arrangement and atmosphere, with its own brand of goulash, with its own recipe for knedlicky (dumplings), and with its own pour of one of the many Czech beers (pivo), all waiting to be sampled by my eager, novice palette. Walking, sitting, eating, drinking among the people here (depending on how touristy of a part of the city I’m perusing, of course) I feel like an outsider- they are all laughing, debating, screaming, and seducing in a language unlike anything familiar to me. Trying to learn this language is at once a language course and an exercise in speech therapy- I literally have to re-teach my mouth to formulate a host of sounds that I’ve never heard before, let alone used at any point in the 21 years that I have spent running my mouth. I would love to learn enough of this to take part in what seem like joyous holidays, which are nothing more than a Tuesday night in a pub with friends. It’s amazing really- you walk into a pub to see tables of 10, 15 people sitting, eating, drinking, and laughing together as if there was nothing more pressing in the world to worry about than simply having a good time. But these tables are like revolving doors- as soon as one individual or couple leaves, more people come in the door, pull up a chair, and join the party as if they were merely late arrivals rather than complete strangers. The Czechs-in-a-pub dynamic really is a unique example of person-to-person interaction. You never see any overt hostility or fights. Just people taking part in one of their most prized national pastimes- drinking beers. But any hope of this openness and eagerness to converse is completely shattered by the language barrier- if you can’t speak Czech, they’re in no hurry to attempt to include you let alone respond to your attempts to engage them in even the most basic conversation, even if they know some English. This is especially true of Czech women, whose eyes flee towards the nearest wall or empty space if even a moment of eye contact is made, and who shoot down advances without discrimination as if acting out of reflex (pity for them). This certainly has something to do with the legacy of communism that not only kept this a damn-near homogonous society throughout the beginning stages of globalization and instilled in the people here a sort of deep seeded terror which creates a somewhat morose demeanor on the surface level. Beyond that, the post-communist era must be frustrating. Imagine, having your society and culture liberated fully for the first time in more than 300 years to find that you must learn the language of a country who stood by and passively watched these events unfold just so that you can participate even minimally in the global order. Imagine having signs in this language pop up all around your previously untainted city. Imagine neon lights hanging from one of the most beautiful, cultural landmarks in your city to advertise drink specials at a club that no resident of the city would go to in their right mind. I think I’d be a little bitter as well.
One thing that I love about this city, something that is so different from New York, is the ability to sit in an apartment or walk around at night and be able to hear… well… nothing. Silence. No car horns, no people screaming at each other, no subwoofers, no bottles shattering. At most, the noise of tires bumping along the stone streets or trams clanging against the metal tracks. As simple as it may sound, it’s amazing to be able to live in a vibrant location that knows how to shut the fuck up once in a while- not because they’re being told to, but because there’s no need to be loud all the time.
Whatever small din exists in the city center is muted even more in the neighborhood where I live. About 15 minutes by tram south of the city center is Branik- an area not unlike the Main Line in Philadelphia or Westchester in New York (just closer to everything). The houses are not nearly as big as in these towns in the states (I have yet to see a house even anywhere as big as my old house in Lumberton was). My house sits on the top of one of many hills spread across the outer neighborhoods of Prague, which provides me with some great views of the Prague skyline, the Charles River, the other hills, and traffic. Some of my best moments here have been spent watching latenight traffic trickle by below me and inoffensive flurries slowly painting the landscape. It’s really a great feeling. While I enjoy hitting up the pubs and playing game after game of foosball (a Czech-pub regular that I think I forgot to mention earlier. Even the most amateur Czech destroys we Americans mercilessly. Last week, me a and a friend were running the table with other Americans, only to become a spectacle for the entire pub as we crawled under the table after being shut-out 10-0 by two Czech youngsters with horrendous haircuts) there are few things that compare to a cigarette, a beer, and my back porch.
Other initial notes:
- Men’s pants as tight as women’s/women’s pants as loose as men’s
- White shoes are scarce
- Counter-intuitive door opening
- Keys inserted upside down
- Doors to rooms in the house are closed habitually
- Smazeny syr baby
- Butter on everything
- Look ‘em in the eyes or 7 years bad sex
- Russians still have bad haircuts
- Gypsies harder to find than expected…