Budapest is Shattering

Örs vezér tere is the final stop of Budapest’s metro line 2. The train terminates just beside the city’s IKEA, and a massive shopping center outside of which local junkies gather. From the station, my apartment is a ten-minute walk through a local park and residential area. I dragged my carry-on suitcase behind me over a walkway through thirsty-looking park trees, trying not to let the sweat on my forehead fall into my eyes. Children were playing basketball behind a rusting fence to my left as I walked, their laughter punctuated by the sound of shattering glass; In the distance, workers stood on the concrete ledges of an old apartment building, smashing its glass windowpanes into a hollow interior.

For a capital city, Budapest is surprisingly difficult to navigate. Only a few months ago, in June of 2017, the city introduced bus route 100E which connects Ferenc Liszt International Airport with two stops in central Budapest. The bus runs every half hour. To catch it, one must purchase a ticket from either a desk employee or at the one kiosk located in the bus loading area. When you board the bus, the driver validates your ticket by tearing it in two.

I first visited the most popular ruin bar of in city, Szimpla Kert. In 2004, the dilapidated building that now houses the bar was saved from demolition by a group of entrepreneurs who were looking to start something good for the city. Deciding to make the best of the building’s rugged charm, they filled the space with eclectic furniture and décor. Szimpla Kert is part of a larger creative movement and new generation of bars in Budapest that adds a level of truth to the saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

On Sundays, the bar hosts its weekly farmers market, though it had far less food than I would have expected. There were jarred jams, pungent cheeses, colorful vegetables, three open bars, and a musical duo dressed in traditional Hungarian garb plucking Zithers—a string instrument that resembles a violin lying down with many strings stretched across a thin, flat body—in the crowded space. One of the musicians seemed tired, perhaps hungover, or equally possible could have been his distaste for the gawking tourists standing all around him. His partner, a young woman with quick fingers, smiled at me. I noticed there was a clarity in her gaze, like she knew something I didn’t, like she had finally found the humor in the spectacle of the show and was just waiting for everyone else to catch on.

After leaving Szimpla Kert, I ventured a little further, towards the city’s District IX. The aesthetic here was far less touristy and assumed a more ordinary appearance while also being notably run-down. Here, the colors of the buildings were less vivid, graffitied. As I continued walking, District IX appeared more and more deserted, its atmosphere oddly post-apocalyptic. Restaurant owners dined outside in empty squares, keeping watch for potential customers. A pair of old white sneakers sat in a street side flower bed, the laces intact.

My accommodation for this trip was a simple but comfortable green-walled, one-bedroom flat. It contained an impressive English library with a number of fine novels. The bed, an unexpectedly luxurious futon, was sprawled between a desk and a window from which I could see a segment of the building’s parking lot and a sliver of park beyond it. More of this park was visible from the kitchen window, along with its ruddy benches with peeling red paint. Though I never formally met my next-door-neighbor, I got to know her taste for techno and affinity for midday titillations through the paper-thin wall which separated our flats.

The grocery store, a simple 4-minute walk from the flat, had a moderate alternative food aisle and one of the largest orange juice selections I’d ever seen. Mysteriously, all of the store’s employees were green-eyed, and when the rusty-haired cashier asked me something in Hungarian, whether or not I’d had the correct change, I presume, I blinked back at her blankly, my mouth cracking open for the first time in what had probably been four days, something English falling out of it, and she huffed at me as though I’d done something wrong.

It wasn’t long before I began to question the extent to which my inability to communicate might have been negatively coloring my perception of the city. That’s one of the risks you take by traveling; you never really know to what degree yourself will get in the way of it. This implies a paradox which seems inherent to journeying. Among probably fewer reasons than we’d expect, we travel to experience an element of authenticity that we tend to believe is lacking from our daily lives. How easily our homes can turn into automated machines and the people within them robots, we think. But we also forget that few things are more authentic than waking up and going to work every day. What is realer than alarm clocks, missing keys, and spilled coffee? Is it authenticity we’re actually in search of, or something else?

In remote northern Iceland, for example, a forty-year-old woman attended an artist residency. She was a painter who had recently lost her wife to cancer. “I’ve been painting a lot of jars full of objects lately,” she explained during the residency’s monthly artist talk session. “Paper clips are some of my favorite things to paint. Also, pills. I’m still trying to work through the grief. I’m trying to turn it into something positive.”

In Bangkok, a graying middle-aged man sat at a restaurant table along the sidewalk in Sukhumvit, two attractive young women by his side. Their long hair shined as I passed them. One threw it over her shoulder, revealing her delicate collar bone and a prune-like bruise along her neck. “I would really love it if the two of you came back with me tonight,” the man said to them, the gold band around his ring finger glinting in the sweaty Thai night.

At an official meetup in Budapest, I met an Italian man who appeared to be my age. He explained that he was between jobs, not sure of his direction in life, just broke up with his girlfriend, and now in the middle of a three-week trip around Eastern Europe with his friends. He sat down next to me. He had a drink. He moved a little closer. Dirt was caked beneath his fingernails. When I told him I was married, there was this look.

This meetup that I attended took place on the upper floor of another ruin bar in central Budapest. It was the kind of event that you find out about online and arrive to alone with a drink in your hand, nervously looking around for others who are also alone and seem lost. I sat between two men—one a Russian in his late thirties and the other a Hungarian named Imre in his late twenties. The Russian’s English was broken and saturated with idioms. When I introduced myself to him as Katie from the US, his response was an enthusiastic, “You hit the nail on the head!”

Imre was as IT employee from a small city two hours outside Budapest. He wore a black t-shirt and open-toed Velcro sandals. “Hungary is a much more closed society than you think,” he told me “People here are filled with hate towards everything. Foreigners, locals, everything.” Though an odd introduction to his homeland, I pushed for a broader picture with limited results. The Russian took out his phone and began to show us photos of his son. I mentioned that he was cute. “By the skin of his teeth!” he replied, then asked me what I thought about Trump.

Budapest appeared to be a thoroughly different place by night, as if the dark revealed something forbidden that wasn’t meant to be seen in daytime. After the meetup, I took a brief stroll and noticed a restaurant that I hadn’t seen during daytime. All of the dull colors that I’d taken to be the city’s aesthetic signature were now invisible, and the dilapidation of its architecture now seemed charming—a painterly backdrop against a spotting of tables and chairs set up along the sidewalk. Above, colored string lights formed a ceiling so that everyone’s face glowed in the balmy air. 

I took the subway home. The was something eerie about Budapest's metro line 3. With cars from the 70s, train interiors were peeling hospital green and black rubber floors. Orange lights flickered on the doors that more so slammed closed than slid. Gray rubber handle bars dangled from the ceiling. But the best part of this time warp on wheels was the lighting. Incandescent dome lamps flickered with the movement of the train and created a sense of foreboding not altogether unlike the eerie, abnormally quiet moment in a film that comes just before a disaster. Standing next to me was an overweight man whose t-shirt read You are so sexy (when I’m drunk).

Returning to my temporary home in the dark, I sat on the wooden stool at the kitchen table. I recorded my surroundings: sink, window, other sink, rubber cutting board, paper towel roll. A magnet on the mini fridge showed an image of Amsterdam’s canals above “Amsterdam” written in rainbow font. I reached for a paper towel and noticed the word “Paris” printed all over it, along with suspended baguettes and glasses of red wine. Elsewhere was everywhere here, and perhaps we are never really where we want to be.

After eight days in Budapest, I was more than ready to return home. On the morning of my departure, my host messaged me and wanted to know how my stay was. I told him it had been lovely. I departed before six in the morning on a Saturday, watched the sun come up through brittle trees and turn the gray apartment blocks a delightful peach. The apartment building whose windows had been shattered just days before was now a skeleton of crumbling concrete and protruding supporting rods.

I had broken into a sweat by the time I reached the subway platform, and with nearly twenty-four hours of travel ahead of me, I questioned what I had really gotten out of this trip. What can anyone gain from loneliness, really? At best, perhaps the ability to recognize the same misery in others; at worst, an aversion towards anyone and anything that doesn’t feel it too. More and more I have started to think that the world is a very dull place unless you share it.

On the subway, I sat between two women dressed in business casual with too much perfume. They couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me. Their nails were painted red, burgundy. I held onto my carry-on suitcase with my ankles and placed my backpack in my lap. I watched the train speed up, the people on the platform whizz away as we left it. The women stared dead ahead into the blur beyond the window, there but not. We weren’t that different.