i had been exploring budapest without much of a plan. i had basically been picking a direction and just setting off and taking in whatever i stumbled upon, and while fun and easy, i’d gotten the sense that i was missing some key things i probably didn’t want to miss.
luckily, before i’d left the girls’ apartment from the incredible first night, i’d exchanged information with each of them, and ironically enough, the quietest one of the night, gabby, had been the one who had maintained most contact. i hadn’t wanted to stop hanging out with them because they were such a fun group, but they all had jobs and classes to go to, so i knew that wasn’t going to be realistic. but when gabby had reached back out to me, i humbly asked if she’d be interested in meeting up again for a drink and maybe a walk around the city to show me some things i might not have encountered on my own. i was so happy when she agreed.
to describe gabby as simply “shy” wouldn’t really be fair to her. when i first met her, we were in a very loud environment, and not one that was necessarily conducive to meaningful conversation, unless you enjoying shouting at your friends. so granting that, the other thing i didn’t realize was that gabby probably spoke the least English out of the group, and i think she was a little intimidated by the skill levels of her friends. during the conversation that first night, it was difficult enough for gabby to keep up with all the snarky back-and-forth between me and the others (these girls are all legitimately hilarious, i laughed hard that night), but to ask her to translate her thoughts and then shout them into the conversation in a timely fashion was probably asking a little too much. i know exactly how she feels, as that is pretty much my experience every time i am around Spanish speakers. i can understand generally what is going on or being said, and i can usually think of something i want to say, but by the time i figure out how to say it in spanish, the conversation has moved on, leaving my comment irrelevant.
so i adopted a slower pace of speech to make it a little easier on her. gabby was volunteering her own time to hang out with me and show me around a city that i honestly knew nothing about (other than where it’s located on a world map), and this is something that, and let’s be honest here, most tourists will never get this kind of experience. no, your tour guide you booked through a travel agent does not count. a real life person who lives here every day, taking you to their favorite places, showing you how things are done like a local. this is traveling, and something that i crave everywhere i go, but seldom find. people like gabby are the good Samaritans that help turn a vacation into an adventure, and without them, traveling just wouldn’t be as fun. i like to call them “coyotes,” because in america that’s what we call people south of the mexican border who get paid to help smuggle people across into the USA illegally. okay, it’s an ugly comparison at best, but it makes me laugh. anyway, if gabby was going to be my guide for the day, the least i could do was help her with her english a little.
we had agreed to meet at a location that was only 5 minutes walking from my apartment, but i got lost anyway. since i don’t have a working cellphone, gabby didn’t have a way to contact me and almost gave up, but after 15 minutes of waiting i arrived with a sheepish apology. we first found a small café to have a light dinner at. gabby had already eaten, so i had to embarrassingly speed through my meal while she sipped a drink patiently. in between bites, i tried to keep the conversation easy and light so gabby would feel comfortable exercising her english muscles. at first she was very self-conscious, and i could tell that she was holding back, whether because she was embarrassed about trying to pronounce certain words or because she just didn’t know the words in english, i don’t know, but whenever i could sense hesitance, i would encourage her and coax the words out of her, reminding her that this was the only way she was going to get better. giving a shy smile, she would eventually start constructing the sentence, and usually she would surprise herself, as she would get the point across perfectly and i wouldn’t even have to help her.
after i had finished eating, we started walking, heading down all sorts of wonderful looking streets as the day began to fade into the night. as we made our way down to the riverside, gabby’s confidence had grown considerably, and there was no more encouragement needed; we were having a full conversation in english without any hesitation anymore, and i was really starting to get a sense for who gabby is. i was impressed, but i didn’t say anything because i was enjoying the conversation and i didn’t want to derail it.
gabby stands at about 5’ 7”, thin, with beautiful pale skin and dark brown hair and big brown eyes. she has a very effeminate nature, and i don’t think she has an aggressive bone in her body, though if you prod enough, you can eventually find subjects that will get her riled up and show a little of that hungarian passion. but normally, she has a passive style of conversation and just likes to laugh at things, making her a thoroughly enjoyable person to be around.
now when i think of gabby, i think of this look that she would get on her face after i had said something ridiculous, or when i would tease her about something she had said or done. basically anytime i was being myself, she would look at me with this not-quite-disapproving but also not-quite-approving look where she would tilt her head ever so slightly to the side, purse her scarlet red lips together, raise one eyebrow and give a half-smile, as if to acknowledge whatever I had said but also to let me know I better watch myself, in a playful way. i could try and explain further her personality, but it almost doesn’t seem fair to try and condense someone’s essence down into a paragraph, so i prefer to hold onto these small moments instead, which help me remember who someone is better than any grouping of words ever could.
but i think my favorite thing about hanging out with gabby was just getting to see the metamorphosis that took place before my very eyes over the course of just a few hours. i saw her go from being a quiet, shy, stoic introvert, content in merely being present, to this confident, opinionated, and complex woman, all in one day. it was fascinating and fun, at the same time, and while all of this was taking place, i was getting to see some really great parts of the city. the waterfront was beautiful, but the main bridge that crosses it, the széchenyi chain bridge was breathtaking. as was the view of the parliament. we also passed a number of statues, that really made it quite apparent to me that budapest really deserves more credit and attention from americans as an architectural wonder of europe. people don’t talk about it enough, and they really should.
after a few hours, our feet had grown tired from all the walking, and we had grown a little weary as well. luckily the crew from the other night had all finished work or whatever else they had going on that day, and they were meeting at another local ruinpub. Gabby and I made our way over and rejoined the group.
i actually enjoyed this ruinpub even more than the previous one. more simplistic than the other one, this one was a little smaller with a patio with lots of bench seating and a large retaining wall that was decorated with a huge painted mural of the ocean, with a huge blue whale taking the centerpiece. hanging from the ceiling were dozens of lamps with modified coverings meant to make the lighting look like a school of multicolored, illuminated jellyfish, drifting all about the covered patio. the effect was fantastic, as it really provided a unique ambiance to the place.
it was a monday night, so the already cheap drinks were now basically free by european standards. i couldn’t believe it again, so i offered to buy all the girls a drink, to which they happily obliged. they joined me at the bar. as i approached i was immediately taken aback by their menu. the bar was about 50 feet long, and above it was a large chalkboard stretching from end to end, divided up into sections of available cocktails by the base liquor in each of them. vodka, gin, whiskey, tequila, rum… each liquor had at least 20 drinks to choose from. it was pretty impressive, but i quickly and skeptically assumed that any of the whiskey drinks wouldn’t be of the caliber that i normally pay top dollar for. so i settled for a whiskey sour and watched amusedly as the girls all indecisively quibbled back and forth over what new drink they were going to try. lilla tried to order something basic like a vodka tonic or something, but i quickly intervened and forbade her from ordering something “usual.” i insisted that she try something weird or crazy sounding to her. after enough snarky remarks and sarcastic retorts, she conceded and ordered something with rum in it or similar, i can’t remember but i know it was something i wouldn’t have ordered, and i offered my approval but i’m sure she didn’t care much what thought anyway. She did enjoy it, whatever it was, but on the next round she went right back to whatever it was she was drinking before.
i joked around with lilla for awhile because i knew she was leaving early that night. lilla is an engineering student in budapest and i can tell she gets high marks because all joking aside, she takes her studies seriously. not much gets by her either, as she is very perceptive and has a very quick wit. she’s a short little thing, at around 5’3”, but it would be unwise to hold her lack of height over her head (see what I did there?!), as it wouldn’t be hard for her to find a way to enter into a battle of wits and sarcasm, which would surely be a losing battle for the other person. lilla is also a very talented photographer, and one of the ways she spends her spare time is with the occasional wedding or special event, or just a casual day out and about with the camera, catching whatever catches her eye and committing it to digital immortality. she had shown me some of her work, because obviously i was curious, as i am quite new at the photography thing, having never taken any photos with the camera, only extremely amateur videos (i am using a canon rebel t3i ), so any chance i get to look at other people’s work, i try to get inside their mind so i can improve my own picture taking – or video, for that matter – skills. by the way, if you’re interested in seeing any of my previous videos, you can check them out at www.vimeo.com/brandonmiq but fair warning, some of my older videos are horrible. i’ve been learning this stuff as i go.
anyway, my favorite thing about lilla is that she is easily the mischievous firestarter of the group. she is always game for a prank or a joke, she’s always the first person in the group to jump up and do something or try something new. these are the people who make life really fun, and i think that every interesting group of people needs one of these. i can think of friends at home like micah or travis who are always coming up with unique ways to interact with the world around them, and always looking for opportunities to involve people creatively. these people are the movers of the world, the networkers, the conduits who connect people to each other and make the world around them stronger and more alive.
when we returned to our seats, we found that another group had taken them. unfortunate, because the room was now quite packed, and there weren’t any other suitable tables for the 5 of us. luckily, one of adrienne’s ex-boyfriends happened to be sitting in a small group nearby with a little bit of room available. he offered to allow us to squeeze in around the table and we gratefully accepted. i don’t remember his name but he was a really nice guy, and had remained good friends with adrienne over the years. they reminisced about different travel stories, notably one time when they had gone to washington dc together and gotten a little drunk and a lot lost. it was a funny story, and fun to listen to them recall how they experienced the american culture through their eyes, a unique perspective that i’ll never be able to possess.
the conversation waxed and waned, bouncing back and forth from english to hungarian, and when it would drift to hungarian i would wait patiently for it to drift back to english or for someone to interpret for me so i could contribute, but i was mostly just enjoying the atmosphere. it was the same as your normal bar, just like anywhere else. and yet it was also different, in a way that i can’t quite specify. there seemed to be an air of familiarity in the place, as though everyone here was supposed to be here, and everyone knew that everyone else was supposed to be here, so everyone was just comfortable. nothing to prove and nowhere to be, but only to enjoy this drink and the people around.
i listened to adrienne and her ex speak for awhile longer before we eventually got into a debate about politics and then cultures, which is something i typically try to avoid, but for some reason this time seemed particularly tempting. they had told me a little about how the relationship between the US and hungary was a little strained at the moment due to some sort of paperwork issue with a hungarian diplomat where he was then refused entry to the country or something. this was in combination with a couple other foreign policy things that i was unaware of which made americans look kinda like assholes, which i obviously didn’t feel good about so i apologized (i haven’t had to do that as much as i anticipated when i was preparing for this trip. with all noise that people and the media make about how the rest of the world hates us, i am surprised i even left my house. to the contrary, my experience is that just about everywhere i’ve gone in europe, people love americans. yes, they admit we can sometimes be a little too loud or unaware/ignorant of local custom or social appropriateness for some people, but we’re generally very polite and we tip like idiots, so what’s not to like?!), and then the conversation started winding around into other areas that i can’t quite recall, but there was a moment in the conversation where i felt i was able to see straight into adrienne’s soul, and see everything that she was, and it was beautiful. we were talking about differing types of people to some degree, the type of conversation that is wont to make broad, sweeping assumptions about groups of people unfairly (probably about the different types of “travelers” you find in the world), usually for the sake of humor, but one that is unfair all the same. the ex-boyfriend and i were agreeing about something humorously and adrienne had gotten quiet, listening patiently, when suddenly she took a hard stance out of nowhere and refused to agree with anything we were saying on the topic. not in an angry sort of way, because mind you, this was a harmless conversation over beers, but i could tell that we had just touched on something that was against adrienne’s nature. i asked her to elaborate, and she tried, but i could tell she was frustrated. she couldn’t articulate exactly why, but she just knew we were wrong.
the ex-boyfriend casually dismissed it, but i persisted, and eventually i realized that adrienne is one of those rare souls that just genuinely believes in the good in all people, and means it, down to her very core. i think she’s one of the only people i’ve ever met that so fervently holds these beliefs, that there’s not a thing anyone could do to change her mind, no matter what. i tried to shake the tree a little, providing hypotheticals or proposing dilemmas, but there were no peaches falling, she was completely unshakeable. it was no wonder she had drawn such a clear line in the sand, because this was the foundation of her ethos. i started to piece together all of the stories she’d shared with me in the short time i’d known her, and they all started to fall right into line with her personality. it was one of those rare moments of clarity in life where you see a person’s heart, made increasingly rare by the fact that this heart in particular was so pure and honest, and willing to defend or find the redemption in anyone, regardless of crime or sin.
it made me feel a little guilty about myself, and just how jaded i have become in my life. have i really been through so much pain, loss, or failure that i’ve gotten completely lost from the concept of hope and faith in the world? how beautiful it must be to always see roses, even when others only see thorns. it is a sad state when skepticism has taken root and choked out the light in a room. and while i wouldn’t go as far as saying that i have no faith or hope in people or this world, when you meet someone like adrienne, it puts into perspective just where your own ideals lie and sometimes that illumination can be a little painful or even embarrassing. suddenly i wanted to be a better version of myself, for no one other than myself, because that type of optimism is truly what brightens the world we live in. those people are the visionaries, the builders, and the caretakers.
all in all, i was extremely grateful for meeting this group of funny, quirky, and fun girls, and especially in the manner in which it happened. they helped create memories for me that i will always take with me, and it was actually budapest that would prove to be the lynchpin for my own liberation in my future travels, helping put at ease some of my minor anxieties about traveling or being alone. that night i said my goodbyes to the girls, i knew i would miss them.
the following morning i met back up with robert and we visited a unique site just south of budapest called “memento park.” after the soviet union had been kicked out of the central european countries, many of the main cities went through minor makeovers, where they burned and melted down the icons and statues the soviets had installed and replaced them with art more representative of the local people. budapest was a little different, however. rather than just trash everything, they shipped many of their statues and bronzes and installations out to a graveyard of sorts, called memento park. i’m not sure who had the foresight to do this, but in my opinion it is a brilliant preservation of the greyed out world that a system like communism creates. the effect this park achieves is a quirky, often humorous look at just how bad communist art was, and how the budapest natives felt about it. it only took about an hour to make our way through the whole thing, and i actually really enjoyed seeing this unique look at a forgotten aspect of the hungarian history.
once we had finished with memento park, it was time to depart. robert and i were splitting up, as he was heading back to vienna and i was headed for the mountains. up until this point, i had spent a majority of my time in europe in big cities, and they were starting to take their toll. i needed a chance to escape to the deafening silence of nature. i needed to walk, think, and appreciate something other than buildings and crowded city centers. i had heard from a few different people about a place called zermatt, switzerland, where the mountains were breathtaking and the hiking easily accessible. i didn’t take much time to research, i simply booked a cheap flight to salzburg, austria (not wanting to retread areas i’d already traversed) and had decided to try and work my way west from there.
my goodbye with robert was relatively unremarkable, just a handshake and a hug with an accompanying expression of gratitude, but i really was thankful of my time with him. we had spent 3 weeks tramping around some of the most incredible places in the world, and he had shown me his way of exploring those cities. while we didn’t always share the same ideas of fun or the same desires on things we wanted to see, i learned and stole a lot from him in the way of exploration methods. he taught me how to wander intelligently, rather than just blindly stumbling around a city without a goal or idea. he taught me how to find an interest that takes you to places in the city you might not see otherwise (for him, it was the search for the perfect cappuccino and the third wave coffee shop. for me, it was bourbon and music). we had a lot of great conversations about life and meaning and purpose, and everything that fits somewhere in between, and i always respected robert’s practical and utilitarian perspective on things. without my time with robert, the rest of my time in europe may have been very different.
i took the metro train to the airport, took one more long breath of the crisp autumn air, and stepped onto the plane, vowing to return to hungary someday.
for today’s soundtrack, we’ve got a quieter, subdued, and sadder song. the type of song that takes a little beauty and mixes it with a little melancholy nostalgia, creating a perfect bittersweet winter song. “dreams/my rope” is a perfect track from portland artist “st. even.” this song was released in 2011 but earlier this year st. even released a new album that deserves a lot more attention than what it received, as it really is a perfect relaxed rainy day album. if you get a sec, have a listen, and if you’ve got an hour, listen to the whole album. enjoy…
and if you’d like to listen to all the song selections for this blog, here’s the spotify playlist: