Budapest: Traveled and Tattooed

dhvani n. (Sanscrit) Lit. “echo”; A category of Indian poetics, according to which the artistic enjoyment from literary works is achieved not by the images that are created by the direct meaning of the words, but by the associations and ideas that evoked by these images.

I’m really coming to hate transportation days because something always goes wrong.  It’s no longer a question of if it will happen, but of nature the problem will be.  Will I miss the train?  Will my transport be delayed?  Will a band of thieves ambush the bus the moment it stops, pry open the luggage hold, and run away with Nellie?  I might as well be spinning a roulette wheel of problems and seeing on which it lands each day I travel.  On this particular day, I span the wheel several times and was given a host of problems.  To start, just as my bus was about to roll into Poprad, I realized I had left the tank top and sports bra I had washed and hung out to dry on the porch of the hostel.  The tank top wasn’t a big issue but the sports bra was the only one I had with me and that presented a problem.  I immediately messaged Mitchell and had him ask around if anyone at the hostel was going to either Budapest or Vienna within the next week to bring it to me, but until I heard back, I would have to stew in my stressed state. 

The next stage in my long string of travel for the day was a short train to Kosice where I would have to get off and wait for yet another train to take me into Budapest.  While I sat on the platform in Kosice waiting for my train to arrive and strumming away on my ukulele (because I didn’t look like enough of a hippy already) when an old man approached me.  I stopped strumming hesitantly and gave him my best “oh boy, what am I in for now” look.  The first thing he did was point to the keyboard on my laptop, which had been sitting open on a ukulele tab I was playing.  I keep a thin rubber cover over my keyboard considering I spilled coffee on my last laptop enough time to eventually make a portion of the keys stop working and I wasn’t going to take any chances with my fancy new MacBook.  Over time, the cover has warped so that people are always pointing to it and asking, “What wrong with your keyboard?!”  It’s actually quite the conversation starter, almost to the point where explaining myself has gotten incredibly monotonous.  Thus, when he pointed at my computer, I knew exactly to what he was referring.  I lifted the silicon cover off to demonstrate, hoping that would satisfy his curiously and make him go away.  It didn’t.  He kept starting at me, but he didn’t’ really speak much English so he couldn’t actually say anything to me, and I just sat there like the awkward individual I am.  From the corner of my eye, I could see two teenage boys snickering and shielding their eyes in embarrassment.  Much to their dismay, the old man waved them over and I saw their faces drop from amusement to dread in an instant.  They reluctantly came over and he said a few words to them.  Both of them started laughing but one of them finally shyly looked at me and said, “He wants to know if you have a boyfriend.”  Well that went in a totally direction than I was thinking and I couldn’t do anything more than answer, “Uhhh….” and laugh nervously.  “Where you go?” he asked me next.  “Budapest,” I answered, unsure as to whether honesty was a mistake.  He lit up and began pointing to one of the boys. “He go Budapest!” Ah, so that’s where this was going.  He was trying to set me up with what I could assume was his grandson.  My non-future boyfriend according to Grandpa doubled over in laughter and I avoided eye contact with the other.  Fortunately, I was bound for Budapest on the Reggio Jet train, which left minutes after this kid’s.  Thank you, powers that be, for small miracles.  When his train pulled up, the three left to go put him on the train, much to the relief of both of us, I think.  As far as I was concerned, I had escaped a Slovakian arranged marriage by a mere train’s length.

By the time I finally pulled into Budapest, it was after dark and I was so sick of public transport I could puke.  Unfortunately, I still had to take the metro to my hostel and, even better, I had no Hungarian currency to buy a metro ticket and the machines didn’t take euro.  I was yet again saved by the kindness of strangers when a man behind me generously offered to get my ticket for me.  I thanked him profusely but he shrugged it off, “It’s only like 1€.”  Ticket in hand, I got on the metro, rode it to the instructed stop, and walked the remaining small distance to my hostel.  Unfortunately, the address it was listed under didn’t appear to have any hostel there, but sometimes that doesn’t mean anything, so I tried pressing some buttons to see if someone would buzz me in, figuring the hostel was just inside somewhere.  After five minutes, no one would buzz me in and my rising panic attracted the attention of a guy passing by.  He offered to help me out, pressed a bunch of buttons himself, cursing under his breath something about how people were too afraid to answer.  That was comforting, especially considering the cast of shady characters hanging out the sidewalk just a few meters away.  He walked the length of the sidewalk, then waved me over.  Of course, right next door was the hostel, just at the wrong street number from its listing.  Feeling like an idiot, I thanked him and went inside.

The guy at the reception desk looked at me curiously and ask, “Can I help you?”  “Yeah, I have a reservation.  Name McDaniel.”  He studied me again.  “Are you sure?”  I told him I was sure, and even pulled up the reservation confirmation on my computer. He looked at it, and the light bulb clicked on.  “Oh! You made a reservation at the other Urban Life & Home Hostel,” he said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  There were two of them with the exact same name?  That might have been something Hostelworld could have clarified.  And also, what kind of shit idea was it to name two hostels the exact same thing in the same city?  At this point, I was shattered and at the end of emotional rope so I said, “Look, I am exhausted, I have had a shit day, and I need to get to this other hostel.”  He called the other hostel, confirmed that they were indeed waiting for me, and then called me a taxi, telling me to be sure to get the receipt because the other hostel would pay at least part of it for the confusion.

A little over 5€ later, I was finally at my new hostel.  After checking in with a girl who clearly didn’t usually work there but was only filling in for the owner who was on vacation (incompetency… my favorite thing to deal with), I handed over the taxi receipt and she gave me a blank stare.  “The owner of the other hostel said you guys would cover it for the confusion?” I asked.  She shook her head, no.  Well, there was a waste of money then for something that I didn’t see as my fault… again.  I was quickly getting so fed up with transportation.  Travel is great, transportation is a nightmare.  At that point, though, I literally didn’t have the energy to care anymore or fight it so I just accepted my room key and collapsed in bed.

But the next morning, at least, had promise.  In fact, the next morning was the entire reason I was in Budapest at all.  If not for it, I would have stayed in the Tatras for a few more days and gone straight to Vienna.  But the morning I had been waiting for was here.  Drumroll please…. I was getting a tattoo!  I had been wanting to get another tattoo (my third) for quite some time.  Tattoos are weirdly addicting and anyone that has one will tell you that without really being able to explain why.  There were two in particular that I wanted and mediated upon for over a year (my minimum time limit before I’ll actually get one to ensure that I really want it) and the one I would choose would simply depend on artist ability and cost.  After finding this tattoo parlor in Budapest, and talking through both designs with them via email, I eventually decided to go for the big one, one that would start on my hip as a matchstick with smoke curling up from it up my side to my lower ribs, bearing the words “a memory of the smell of smoke.”  It would be the largest and most detailed of my tattoos, but I was set on it.

I like themes and consistency when it comes to tattoos and thus all my bear the similarities of just black (or grey) ink and partial quotations.  This particular tattoo refers to a quote by playwright Tom Stoppard in one of my favorite plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead:  “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress but a memory of the smell of smoke and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”  Ultimately, it a quote that tells us how in life we take things as they come and suffer the consequences of not being able to go back.  But just because we can’t change something doesn’t mean we should forget.  Instead, we remember it and learn from it.  Our mistakes and hardships can always seem tough at the time, but pain fades over time and eventually remains a distant memory.  And for me, the tattoo would be for my grandfather, whose memory is accompanied by the sweet smell of campfire smoke.  While he taught me many things in life, the greatest thing I ever learned from him was the importance of memory.  There we find threads of humanity and experience not taught in classrooms or textbooks. The beauty of memory lies in its dichotomy of endless possibly and finite capacity.  Like humans themselves it gains strength from its weakness, from its fragility.  Over years, memories fade and slowly dissipate into the atmosphere of time.  But some memories, the important ones, linger on a person like the smell of smoke.

I arrived at the tiny one room Green Skull Tattoo parlor at 11am the next morning, excited and just a little bit nervous.  I was slightly nervous about the pain, as everyone says the ribs are horribly painful.  However, maybe it’s just my high tolerance for pain, but I never see that as I real deterrent from getting one (though I do admit the one on the top of my foot hurt like a bitch in some places).  Even more I was nervous for what I would get.  There’s always a bit of a risk getting a tattoo in a foreign country, or anywhere really, if it’s in a place you’re not familiar with or by an artist you don’t really know.  The place, at least, look clean and sterile enough, so now all I needed to worry about was the ability of my artist Barbi, a young girl with faded green dyed hair and tattoos lining her own arms.  She had only been tattooing for five years, but I wouldn’t get up the courage to ask her that until after I was permanently inked. 

She set the design over my side and pressed the temporary ink guide on.  I loved the design she had created from my instructions.  It was exactly as I had envisioned it, and I suddenly felt a great deal more confident.  Behind a curtain blocking the view from the outside window, I stripped off my shirt, and laid down on my side as she set to work.  I was the under the needle for the next two and a half hours, much longer than any of my other tattoos, but I occupied myself by reading the fifth Game of Thrones.  Once I finished the series, I would finally be able to focus on reading for my thesis that was coming up on me much faster than I would like.  Any worrying about the pain was for naught, as the tattoo breezed by quickly and easily.  While the shading was getting quite tender by the end, the most painful part of the entire experience was the cramp in my bottom leg from being pinned in one position for so long.  At the end, I examined the work in the mirror, beaming at how good it looked, before she wrapped a sheet of saran wrap over it.

Then came the truly painful part of any tattoo: the payment.  Even that, however was hardly that bad here.  Part of the reason I chose to get a tattoo in Hungary was because tattoo prices there are ridiculously cheap, and trust me, I had done a lot of research to find the cheapest place.  All in all, I ended up paying 35,000HUF (Hungarian Forint makes you feel super rich as you’re walking around with wads of 1,000 bills, even though the 1HUF is only equal to $0.0035), or about $120.  For a tattoo of that size, I would have easily paid triple that amount back in the States. 

On the way back, I stopped briefly at a grocery store and then a pharmacy to pick up the crème Barbi had recommended, and proceeded to work my way back to the hostel, ducking under eves of buildings whenever I could to get out of the rain.  By the time I reached the hostel, I decided it was a perfect rainy day to just sit around the hostel and catch up on some work.  I hadn’t had a rest day in quite a long time, and in fact hadn’t even been sleeping all that well for the past week.  I am the type of person that runs on precisely eight hours of sleep, no more no less.  Less than that, and I become something a bit less than human and I had been averaging five for about a week, for no apparent reason.  I just couldn’t sleep.  I told myself it was stress and that spending the rest of the day just chilling would be good for me.  The hostel, at least, provided a nice relaxing environment, being more like a an apartment flat converted into a small hostel than anything else.  It was quiet and filled with relatively non-annoying people, save for perhaps one of my roommates, an older guy with crippled legs who, as far as I could tell, stayed out all night and came back to sleep during the day.  When we was awake, he spent much of the time talking to himself (more than what I consider a passable amount because let’s be honest, we all to it on occasion). He was nice enough, but there was still something very off about him, and I couldn’t shake that feeling of unease.  It honestly didn’t break my heart that he was out all night and thus never in my room when I myself was trying to sleep.

For the rest of the day, I sat on the couch, lazily blogging but more often wasting time on the internet (oops).  I called my mom and surprised her with the news of my tattoo, though this being the second time I’ve done that to her, she wasn’t all together too surprised.  Rather than freak out like most mothers, her response was, “I guess I have to get a tattoo now alone so we’ll be even.”  Have I ever mentioned how cool my mom is? 

The next day, I honestly could have stood for another break day, still feeling so completely burned out, but I didn’t want to waste my time there without actually seeing this great city that everyone praised, so off I went into the heart of Budapest.  I had mapped out a loose and albeit ambitious loop of sights to see, starting with the Kerepesi cemetery, one of Hungary’s oldest and most well-preserved cemeteries.  I’ve always loved cemetaries and graves, which sounds extremely morbid, but I find them beautiful, and as I walked by rows and rows of old stones, eroded by wind and water and covered by creeping tendrils of bright green ivy, I couldn’t help but recall a quote by one of my idols, Zelda Fitzgerald: “Why should graves make people feel so vain?...All the broken columns and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances- and in a hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue- of course they are neither.  Isn’t it funny how, out of row of soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves- when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss>  old death is beautiful- so very beautiful.” 

From the cemetery, I continued up through a rather dingy section of the city, complete with trash heaped sidewalks and broken cellar windows on every block.  For some reason, I imagined Budapest to be exotic, brightly colored, vivid and alive.  It is, after all, one of Europe’s ten most frequently visited cities, with over 2.5 million annual tourists.  Yet I failed to see the attraction.  Instead, all I saw was a bunch of broken old buildings, and not old in a charming way, just old in a dirty and dingy one.  Things brightened up at least by the time I reached Heroes Square, a memorial displaying statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyards (the leaders of the original seven tribes of Hungarians) and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  This square is centered right at the entrance of Városliget, Budapest’s city park, complete with la small lake, a church, a beautiful vine covered manor, and long beds of brightly colored flowers.  The greenhouse worker in me felt a deep appreciation for the careful arrangement of flowers and the way the beds acted as a subtle gradient from one color to the next along the color wheel.  Well done, landscapers. 

Around that time, I realized I still needed a new sports bra, as it looked like I wasn’t getting my old one back.  Figuring it would be cheaper to find one here rather than wait until I got into Austria, I set off for the shopping district.  After trying several sporting goods stores to no avail, someone finally recommended the city mall to me, only a few blocks away.  After passing a massive gypsy camp beneath the scaffolding outside an adjacent train station, I entered the mall and began my search.  Now, you would think that finding a sports bra would be a relatively easy and simple affair.  At home, I could list countless stores where I might be able to find one, but here, I was flying completely blind.  Pretty soon, my simple search became something more akin to finding a needle in a haystack, or rather finding a sports bra in a pile of regular bras.  All the stores I saw had regular bras, but no sports bras, sport tank tops, but still no sports bra.  Seriously, do Hungarian women not do sports?  The only ones I could find were in the Nike store and I was not about to spend over 40€ on a bra. 

With each failed attempt, I grew more and more frustrated until finally it all boiled to a head and I start quietly crying out of anger and frustration. Travel is often like that; a series of small frustrations and minor discomforts that pile on top of each other until one small incident becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  The great sports bra search as just that for me.  I had had a rough week, mostly transportation based.  First there was the issue getting to the Tatras, getting lost in the mountains, hitting my head, then getting to my hostel in Budapest, and now this.  I was wasting my only day to see Budapest in this stupid overcrowded and under stocked mall all because I was too stupid to remember my damn sports bra.  Finally, H&M came to my rescue as it had many times in the past.  Thank you, Sweden.  But as I rummaged through their reasonably prices sports bras, I found they were nearly all size small.  Jesus Christ, what kind of country was this?  Finally, I came across a single grey medium sports bra, not the cheapest, but not extortionate either, and I snatched it up.

Finally having that issue sorted, I tried to displace my frustrations with explorations and eventually found myself on the shores of the Danube River, where more Budapest attractions are located.  There you have everything from your Parliament building to museums to random statues of people whom I had no idea what they’d done.  But the most interesting point for me was the Shoes on the Danube memorial, a 100m stretch of the river lined with metal shoe installations.  These shoes are in honor of the Jews killed when fascist Arrow Cross militiamen lined them up along the water, ordered them to take off their shoes, and shot them.  Their bodies merely fell into the river and were carried away, leaving only their shoes remaining on the bank as evidence of the atrocious event.

After that sobering sight, I crossed the river and climbed Gellért Hill, a place recommended to me by several travelers.  This particular hill offers the most stunning views of Budapest, particularly at night.  While I was about two hours too early for nightfall, I ended up basking in the slowly changing panorama while reading for that time.  I got the chance to observe the city in all light: the yellowish haze of the late afternoon sun, the dusky purple glow of evening , and finally, as one by one headlights and streetlights flickered to life, the warm orange glow of evening.  As the sky grew darker, the city grew lighter until it practically radiated light against the black sky.  Ryo Murakami said, “Every one of a hundred thousand cities around the world had its own special sunset and it was worth going there, just once, if only to see the sun go down.”  That view, at least, had made my trip to Budapest worthwhile.

The next day, my last day, was a bit of a waste.  As my bus didn’t leave until that afternoon, not quite early enough to do much at my next destination, but not quite late enough to do much there.  I did, however, still need to print a label for my backpack as that seemed to be a requirement for the bus company I was using.  While I had already had one printed, it was for the bus before I changed the date on the ticket, and thus the label was no longer valid.  Naturally, the temporary hostel receptionist couldn’t figure out how to work the printer and didn’t even seem to keen to try for me (*shakes fist and sky and yells about incompetency), I left to go find a print shop.  I eventually found one and got my label printed. 

While I was out, I figured I might as well run some other errands.  The previous day had been my grandma’s birthday and I had been meaning to find a nice postcard to send to her for that for the past week.  Problem was, I simply never found one I liked.  I don’t really like souvenirs in general because they feel insincere.  It’s so rare to find a unique and non-corny one.  Post cards can be much the same.  I didn’t want to send Grandma your run-of-the-mill Budapest postcard.  I wasn’t something a bit more special.  I finally found it an antique store in the form of an old vintage postcard of the High Tatras, where I had just been.  That seemed much better to me, so I bought it and sat down and wrote out a happy birthday letter with a brief summary of my life (though I could hardly be thorough as the events of the last month are disproportionately large compared to the small space on apostcard).  After buying an international stamp and pushing it into one of the large red postboxes placed every few streets, I set off for the hostel again, to pick up my stuff and be on my way, briefly stopping at the indoor market to pick up food and get rid of the last of my Hungarian HUF.  No sooner did I reach the bus station that I realized I couldn’t find the luggage label I had painstakingly gone out to print.  Of course.  My stay in Budapest had started with trouble and things tend to come full circle.  While no one ended up caring, that didn’t curb my initial “oh no they’re not going to let me check my luggage without this stupid label” panic.

Budapest was another unfortunate instance of situational bleed, in which shitty situations and travel troubles stained the experience of the city itself.  It’s a shame when that happens, especially considering how much everyone I me raved about Budapest.  To me, it was a disorganized and slightly dingy city whose only really redeemable quality was it phenomenal sunset.  But then again, maybe I wasn’t there long enough to see all it had to offer.  I also wasn’t able to partake in the traditional public baths that are huge in Budapest, due to my new tattoo.  Truth be told, however, I was never too keen on the idea of bathing in God knows how many peoples’ filth, so the tattoo was actually a handy little excuse.  I was glad to be leaving Budapest, but at the same time, it left its mark on me, literally, and as I boarded the bus to Vienna, I carried a bit of Budapest with me that would remain on my side for the rest of my life.