egészségedre! budapest, pt 1: ruinpubs

a quick note:  after thinking a little about the quality of content and the volume of the content deficit that i am in now, relative to how much travel i’ve done so far, i’ve decided to start posting once a week.  if this post is any indication, you will get much longer, more content-rich storytelling, but they just won’t be as frequently posted.  this will enable me to tell you better stories instead of more stories that are a little more watered down for the sake of “just getting something up on the blog,” and will give me a “deadline” so i have something to reach for each week.  to make up for less stories, i’ll still be posting little tiny bits here and there with plenty of musical recommendations as well.  this way you’ll never be out of music to listen to.
also, i’d like to make a shameless plea.  if you enjoy my stories and like what i’m doing here, please share the blog with friends or family.  while i mainly write this blog for myself and my friends to follow along, i’d like to see if it is possible to grow an audience, and i can’t do that without you, the people who already like the writing.  thanks again for clicking!
budapest's parliament shines in the sun
budapest’s parliament shines in the sun

a few days later i found myself stepping off a train and onto a platform in the outskirts of budapest.  i was a little nervous upon arriving because i didn’t know much about hungary but in the 10 minutes that I’d been in the country, i was already completely flummoxed by the language.  at least everywhere else i’d been in europe, i could make some kind of logical sense of some of the local tongues, no matter how different they sounded from english.  hungarian might as well be klingon to me.  it seriously sounds crazy, like some imagined language made up of all the sounds that babies make when they are first beginning to experiment with imitating their parents by forming consonants on improvisation and creativity.  but it certainly did make it fun to listen to.  if someone would turn and say something to me, i would just start laughing, completely clueless how to communicate with them.

after navigating a bus and a metro train, robert and i were able to successfully locate the airbnb apartment we had taken out on the pest side of the river.  budapest is actually the result of 2 separate cities merging, buda on the west side of the danube river and pest on the east side, with a third city that was basically just ancient buda, into one big super city in 1873.  the history before then is fairly complex, but it’s even more volatile after, particularly when the austro-hungarian empire collapsed after world war one, and hungary was essentially dismantled into a third of its previous size.  things got even more intense when, in world war two, sections of the city were reduced to dust and ashes by american and british airforces trying to eradicate german positions in the city.  heavy civilian casualties were recorded, nearly 40,000, which you never learn about in american history classes.  even later still, during the hungarian revolution, 3,000 people were murdered by soviet forces with tanks, brutally crushing the rebellion.  needless to say, budapest has a very painful and complex past, and you can still see hints of this just by walking the streets.

after we got sufficiently settled in, we took to the streets, ready to do some brief exploring.  robert actually had a friend in budapest that he hadn’t seen in a few years, so he had plans to meet her for dinner, leaving me to my own devices for the evening.

i had done a little reading on my kindle app about the locale of budapest on the train ride in, so i knew roughly the area i wanted to wander around in.  up near the 7th district is the “jewish quarter” area, where there seemed to be a lot of cool restaurants and coffee shops that were popular with the locals and tourists alike (and robert was excited about a few places in the area so i knew it had to be a good area), so i assumed it would be a relatively easy place to walk around and find something.  i was right.

as i wandered the streets, i started to fall in love with budapest.  i couldn’t help it.  coming straight from vienna, it was impossible not to compare the two, and i felt the two had many similarities.  i started to feel like vienna and budapest were sisters, and vienna was the taller, prettier blonde one who went out with the captain of the football team, always photographed well, and people always talked about.  meanwhile, budapest was the sister that never seemed to get as much attention, but
was so much more interesting in other ways.  budapest was the brown haired younger sister with a little bit of a rebellious streak and a quick wit and a biting sarcasm.  budapest knew how to find the party, how to appreciate the beauty in the strangest of places.  budapest was the girl who kept a straight face and didn’t necessarily smile as much as her sister, but there was a fierce passion and a dazzling display whenever that smile did surface.  budapest’s architecture and sculptures are just as fancy as vienna’s but the difference is that budapest wears its age in plain view, while vienna looks like it has gotten a facelift every ten years (that’s not to say that vienna’s beauty looks fake.  it doesn’t.  it’s amazing.  but in a sort of “i’m afraid to touch anything” kind of way).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but for my particular tastes, i prefer the worn look a little more.  in budapest, you can see every conflict, every struggle, every celebration on its streets and on its buildings, and you need nothing more than to walk a few blocks to see them.

when i finally found the old jewish district, i picked a direction and started walking.  after wandering up and down a few uninteresting streets, i came upon an alley with an illuminated marquee that displayed the “gozsdu udvar.” under the marquee was a busy alleyway with all sorts of different colored lighting throwing multicolored shadows left and right, like some sort of kaleidoscope bazaar.  throngs of people were milling about and there were tables and chairs under covered patios with seated patrons drinking beer and eating food, loudly conversing amongst themselves.  i figured if i was going to find a place to people watch, this was it.  i walked straight into the promenade.

as i strolled along, i did my best to look inconspicuous, but I’m sure that only made me look even more suspicious.  i hadn’t shaved since i left home, and that was over 6 weeks ago.  my facial hair had gone from peach fuzz to gq sexy scruff to minor beard, and was now crossing over into the major beard territory.  strong shades of bright red were starting to become visible.  there’s a good chance that i looked like a scottish homeless man as i walked down the alley.

after passing a dozen coffee shops and just as many bars, all of which were packed full to the brim budapest buildingswith people, i had reached the other end of the 2 – 3 block busy stretch of the gozsdu udvar.  my flyby was complete and it was now time to choose a spot for some food.  i didn’t want to be so obvious, so i circled the next block to make sure i wasn’t missing anything over there, discovered i was not, and then re-entered the walkway.  i got about 2/3 of the way back through the market before selecting a place called “spiler.”  I entered and asked for a table for 1, the matre d paused, tilted his head slightly – as if to ask me “are you sure?”, then motioned for me to follow him.  the place was packed and i didn’t see any available seats, but he managed to find me a small high table segregated from the rest of the main room behind a large pain of glass.  at first i was reluctant to sit because i was removed from all the action, but i was also happy to have received a seat under such busy conditions, so i climbed into the tall chair thankfully.

almost immediately, i became aware of an awkward situation brewing.  the high table i had just been seated at was pressed up against a window which also had another table pushed up against it on the other side of the window.  this one was at a normal height, significantly lower than mine, and had two semi-attractive females seated at it.  if my table had been lower, it would have been like we were at the same table, but with a large transparent obstruction to block whatever was said.  i caught the eye of one of the girls and gave a sheepish grin to acknowledge the situation.  she smiled briefly and quickly looked away.  i laughed aloud and shook my head.  instead of being inconspicuous and sitting in the corner people watching, i was now in the most obvious and visibly awkward location in the entire restaurant.

making the best of it, i ordered a negroni and some food.  the negroni was average, but the food was good.  i devoured it quickly and nervously ordered another negroni.  at this point i had noticed a couple people looking at me casually from the other side of the glass and I was starting to feel like an imprisoned zoo animal.  all that was missing was a couple annoying kids tapping the glass and making funny faces at me.  the restaurant staff had attempted to seat a few different parties at the 3 other high tables situated in my area, but all of these groups had declined to sit there after seeing the location.

eventually an older group of 4 people sat and stayed at the table right next to me, and i was at least thankful to not be the only one on display anymore.  i started to eavesdrop on the conversation and quickly determined over the dull roar of the music that they were americans.  after listening to the conversation for awhile and determining that they were probably pretty cool people, i struck up a conversation.
“where in the states you from?”
“california!”
“oh cool, whereabouts?”
“southern.  orange county area.”
“nice, i went to high school in san clemente.”
“no way, small world!  we all live in laguna niguel.  pull up a chair!”

the group was comprised of two couples.  one couple had darker features, dark hair and dark eyes, and the other couple had lighter features, graying blond hair and bluish eyes.  they were all in their early 50s and all had very cheerful dispositions.  both couples had recently sent their youngest kids off to college and had decided to plan a vacation together rather than wallow in the throes of an empty nest.   one of the women had basically planned the entire thing and everyone else had happily joined and followed along.  they had started in berlin and moved along the same path I had taken, down to prague, vienna, and now budapest.  they were leaving tomorrow.

after trading stories for awhile, they asked me what my story was.  i told them how i had decided to buy a one way ticket to iceland and snake my way across europe without a plan rather than look for a job back home and keep up with the status quo.  they began to excitedly ask me questions about where i had been and what i had done, and they congratulated me on my decision.  they made me feel really good about myself, almost like i was some kind of famous person or something they had met in a chance encounter.   it was a nice change from the anonymity that often comes with backpacking alone.

eventually they asked if i had been to any of the ruinpubs in budapest.  having seen this phrase briefly in my lonely planet guide but not paying much attention, i was vaguely aware of the term.  i acknowledged that i had not been to any, hoping they would elaborate a little more.  they enthusiastically told me about how a the jewish sections of the city, mainly district VII, had been vacated during world war II during the holocaust (okay they weren’t enthusiastic about that part) for obvious and sad reasons, and then had become an area of the city that had languished and fallen into neglect in the decades since.  some areas fell into soviet control during the cold war and had subsequently been abandoned and cordoned off after the soviet empire had regressed back to Russia.  these structures remained empty all this time until only a few years ago, when the buildings had begun to be reopened and made available for businesses again. rather than demolish the buildings which had fallen into disrepair, some enterprising owners had decided to go with the themes these buildings provided.  so like an artist and his art, the building became the canvas and the bar owners became the artists, and the ruinpub was born.  a ruin pub is a bar located in one of these centuries-old buildings, which typically have a very eccentric and atypical design or decorative theme throughout the establishment.  some of the larger ones, like szimpla (sorry, their website is terrible), are known for having up to 5 or more floors, with each floor having a different decorative theme, and providing a very cool and unique atmosphere to meet some friends for a drink.  some people call these places hipster havens, but i call them excellent.  but then again, i have a massive beard now, so people probably assume i’m one.  such is life.

so after a thorough explanation and another round of beers, we left the restaurant and headed in the direction of the ruinpub they had been at the day before.  but first, they paid my bill without telling me.  i was shocked and extremely grateful, and i wish i could remember their names because it was such a kind gesture for a stranger.

we walked for about 10 minutes and turned into a courtyard that was completely empty, with a handful of unattended bar counters.  my new friends turned and looked at me with an embarrassed look and promised that it had been hopping with people the night before, and that i might just need to wait a couple hours before things get going again (at this point it was probably only 9pm).  i laughed and thanked them, unsure if i was going to hang out a couple hours for people to show up. before i could make a decision, they apologized and informed me they wouldn’t be waiting around since they had to catch a flight back to the states the next morning.  we said our goodbyes and they disappeared down the dimly lit backstreet.

i stood alone in the courtyard, wondering what my next move would be.  i hadn’t even had the intention of going out that night, and i felt stupid just standing by myself there, and i sure as hell wasn’t going to wait around by myself for 2 hours, so i decided to just head back home.  this decision didn’t hold up long, because i had walked less than a block when i strolled by another courtyard ruinpub gate, this one surprisingly busy and also heavily guarded, with 4 very large men standing watch at the entrance.  as i slowed my pace during my walk-by, i peeked inside nonchalantly and saw how busy it was and how interestingly it was decorated.  i was suddenly struck by the urge to go inside, but my brain was already committed to going back to the apartment.  my body did a sort of awkward sidestep in mid stride, and i’m almost positive i made some sort of noticeably stupid convulsion, as my body and brain were momentarily at war with each other over what they each wanted to do.  i stopped in the middle of the street for a second so that i could grant myself a moment’s peace to come to a logical conclusion about what to do.  i really did want to sleep, as i had been traveling that day and had already walked a good distance in the city.  on the other hand, this place looked really cool, and i was teased by the possibilities of what might be in a new city.  plus i was already here.  what was the harm in one quick beer to see if i liked it?

i became aware of the fact that i was frozen in the middle of the street, and people were probably looking at me.  i defaulted my decision to going back to my initial decision to return home.  i made it about 20 feet before a small group of really attractive girls speaking hungarian passed by me, and suddenly i was in doubt again.  i turned around to watch them go, humorously re-enacting a scene in my mind from dumb & dumber where jim carrey melodically exclaims “goodbye, my loooooooooooove!” after saying goodbye to mary swanson at the airport.  i watched as they turned and entered the ruinpub i had been torturously belaboring over.  i reconsidered my position and then decided to go in for one beer.

after gaining entry, i slowly approached the scene and cautiously tried to gather as much information as possible.  in a square courtyard with tall buildings surrounding on all 4 sides, there were three trees with large trunks in the center of the area, and tables and chairs strewn all about.   on each side of the square was a bar with a different name, décor, and style.  in the building opposite of the entrance was an open lobby-like room with a ping pong table and a foosball table with some couches surrounding and some bathrooms in the back.  there appeared to be some stairs leading up as well, but I never made it up that far. back outside, the walls were covered in a growing ivy plant that had already climbed up about a third of the height of the building.  the ivy cast complex shadows around itself and the wall, backlit by small floodlights spread around the courtyard in strategic places.  wired lights looped and stretched from the building walls onto the trees and then wrapped up the branches and into the night, providing a dim but perfect luminescence for the scene below it.  people were milling all about, standing in groups or congregating at tables, laughing joyously and talking loudly with beers in hand, careless about anything that might be happening outside the walls of the ruinpub.

i was enthused by the place and its positive energy.  what a great concept and what a great place to interact.  i walked up to a counter and tried to inconspicuously get a beer.  i did well enough, but it was painfully obvious that i wasn’t from around here.  trying to remain unphased, i turned around and decided to loop around the area and try to locate a place to sit or a person to befriend.  i walked slowly and casually, taking only small sips and trying to hone in on any opportunities.  nobody was speaking english again, so i was at a loss for a game plan.  there also wasn’t any seating available, as they were all taken by large groups of friends that were steadily growing.  this was definitely not one of the tourist ruinpubs, it was a locals one.

i ambled about the courtyard and walked up to a group of young people speaking unmistakable american english.  i felt the instinctual desire to try to jump into the conversation since it was the only thing i could understand around me, but i internally scolded myself for taking the easy way out.  i didn’t come to hungary to meet other americans.  i sidestepped the group and continued walking slowly around the room, confident something would happen.

after doing 2 laps and nothing happening, not even being able to make eye contact with anyone, i began to humorously get distressed.  i was starting to border on being that creepy guy that just leers

not a ruin pub i went to, but szimpla is the mother of ruin pubs

at everyone in the bar and no one talks to because they’re afraid of being followed home later.  i looked over and noticed a bench that could fit about 5 people snugly, but was currently occupied by a couple who looked like they might get up soon.  rather than sit down and cramp the guy’s space, who was clearly trying to get the girl to go home with him, i decided to wait around for them to go and then i would take their place.  while i was waiting, i noticed a table with 2 girls sitting by themselves.  i was tired of being the awkward loner, i wanted to make some friends.  instead of wait for the bench, i decided to go talk to these girls, even if they couldn’t speak english, regardless of consequence.

i started to approach the table, the girls hadn’t noticed me yet.  2 more steps, still nothing.  another 2 steps, the couple at the bench started to grab their things.  2 more steps, the girls at the table were aware of my approaching presence.  1 more step, the couple at the bench had stood up and left the bench.  suddenly my brain broke in mid step.  1 more step, i deviated from my path and now was facing the tree trunk that separated the bench from the 2 girls at the table.  i looked at the girls at the table who were now looking at me curiously.  shit.  abandon ship.  i turned to the bench, only to see that a group of 4 girls were just sitting down and making themselves comfortable at my seat.  damn!  this is getting worse.  i looked back over to the 2 girls at the table, who were now looking at me like i was some kind of undiscovered monkey species.   i set my jaw and stubbornly decided to take my seat that had been stolen from me by the 4 intruders on the bench.  i looked down and noticed that the last girl had left room for half of an ass cheek.  i abruptly sat down.  i now needed a drink from the beer that i had been gingerly sipping for the last 30 minutes.

as i pulled the glass to my lips, i felt a sharp sensation in my head, like 8 knives were being pressed into my temple.  a hole was burning and boring into the side of my skull.  completely perplexed, i searched for what might be the cause. i couldn’t place it.  i eagerly took a sip of the beer and then glanced to my right.  there, leaning outward in a domino effect, kind of like how scooby doo & the gang used to peer around corners, one head above the other, were 4 pairs of eyes staring right at me, emotionless, cold, unforgiving.  the 4 girls that had stolen my bench were now unwavering in their collective gaze, looking right through my soul.  i froze in a panic.  refusing to back down, i let out a lone nervous laugh and then lifted the beer back to my lips and downed the whole thing.  the girls all erupted simultaneously in laughter.

they had sensed my awkwardness and could tell i was a foreigner.  one of them, lilla, the troublemaker, had quickly organized the group staredown, and in my neuroses i had been completely unaware.  we all introduced ourselves and i gratefully and excitedly began to get to know the group, glad that i was no longer creeping around the room.

lilla and adrienne spoke the best english, so they led most of the conversation, while dora, gabby, and i were along for the ride.  obviously i was the new commodity, being an american in Budapest, so much of the conversation centered around me (something i have absolutely no problem with), but it quickly became apparent to me that this was going to be one of those nights that i would probably remember for the rest of my life, partly for its outlandishness and also for it’s hilarity.  as the night progressed, i bought the next couple rounds of drinks for the girls, partially to thank them for rescuing me from my own prison, but also because i think buying drinks for people who’s company I enjoy is my love language.  in my life, i’ve had some of the most ludicrous bar tabs ever, and i’ve had to learn how to let other people buy their own drinks.  but in hungary i couldn’t believe how cheap the drinks were, it was shocking. it was even cheaper than prague!  i could get a beer for a euro, or i could get a cocktail for 2-3 euros. for the cost of one cocktail in vienna, i could buy a whole round of beers for 5 people.

as the music started to get louder, the drinks were flowing, we got more comfortable with each other as a group, and eventually we started a dance party in the middle of the courtyard.  It was only a matter of about 5 minutes before a group of about 15 people had joined in with us.  it was fairly obvious to many of the single guys in the ruinpub that i was over-reaching on my quantity of women and they thought they could pluck one or two of them from me, so as the night wore on, guys would repeatedly come over and begin hitting on each one of them.  i started to pick up on the fact that they weren’t enjoying it, so at one point i decided to intervene.  an italian guy with a preppy geek-chic look had been mercilessly harassing adrienne for 10 minutes, and she had started to make funny disgusted faces whenever he wasn’t looking. i walked over and put my arm around her and said “hey babe, you want another drink?”  he looked at me funny and then back at her.  realizing what i was doing, she quickly acted the part, and eventually the guy went away.  i did this at least 2 more times during the night, once for gabby, and I think for lilla once, and it started to become a funny thing that we were waiting for throughout the night.

as the night crept steadily closer to the following morning, our group decided it was time to call it a night.  gabby had started dancing with some persistent guy who thought he was fred astaire, and she couldn’t escape him.  she gave me a long, pleading look, hoping I would come save her.  i realized she was too nice to break this poor guy’s heart, so i happily did it for her.  the poor guy couldn’t believe that his moves weren’t as gold as he thought they were and that she was not interested, as he kept speaking to her in Hungarian as we made our way as a group to the exit, finally giving up once we walked through the gate.

as we walked, it struck me that I’d had a little too much to drink, and i now had no idea how to get back to my apartment.  normally when i go out with women at night, i insist on walking them back to their car to make sure they got there safely, so by force of habit i insisted on escorting them to wherever they were headed, despite the fact that i’d never been in this city before, and as i would find out later, we were walking directly in the opposite direction that i needed to go. since i didn’t know how to get home, i was in no rush, so i walked the girls home.  i got extremely lucky when lilla offered that i could sleep on the couch since i had apparently convinced them i wasn’t a murderer.  i gratefully accepted, and i think i was asleep before my head even hit the pillow.  what a crazy first day in Budapest.

my girls from budapest
my budapest girls. from left, adrienne, lilla, dora, and gabby

————

today’s groovy groove is an ancient classic by this blog’s normal standards.  it’s a song called “dancing in the moonlight” by a band called king harvest, released back in 1972.  the band’s core members were made up of 4 american expats living in paris, so i really couldn’t think of a good reason not to use this song on the blog.  put a smile on your face, grab a girl or grab a guy, and take a spin around the dance floor.  enjoy…

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2 thoughts on “egészségedre! budapest, pt 1: ruinpubs”

  1. Your story of sitting in that window reminds me of eating brunch in Hollywood with Piper Perabo and what’s-his-name sitting at a table on the other side of the glass from us a few years ago. If not for that glass, we would all have been at the same table! Such a Seinfeld moment. =)

    Glad you’re enjoying your travels. Keep writing. I like your stories!
    -Katy

    Like

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