When I arrive at Kelenfold Station, across the Danube from the main city of Budapest, the area is clearly more residential than commercial. I walk a couple of miles to the evening’s hostel, where I am not sleeping in a building but in an actual yurt that the owners have built out of tarps and two-by-sixes in the back yard. The receptionist checks me in, shows me around, and nonchalantly directs me to the yurt, the showers, and the meditation platform (which probably has a more precise name, but I don’t know it). I hope that the insects don’t eat me alive, as the yurt’s top is open slightly, presumably to let smoke out. Though a ceramic plate of incense sits in the center, no incense is burning, and I think about finding some to complete the commune experience and ward off bugs. Nevertheless, I set my things down and begin wandering the neighborhood for a cheap dinner and some pastries to tide me over until the first stop on the next morning’s bus ride: Krakow. After finding a cheeseburger and fries, I stop at a Spar and buy an iced tea and a few of that morning’s pastries at a 30% discount. In bed, I lay awake in the humidity until I receive a notification that a close family member has been hospitalized. This jolts me upright and turns my stomach sour. A couple of hours pass, and the nerves in my gut only ease when I consider flying back home.
Around two in the morning, I find a round-trip flight from Budapest to New York via Kiev, leaving that morning and returning the day before I am to catch a flight to Belarus. I have to apply for a Chinese visa, and figure I can find the time to get one in New York instead of Ukraine, so I immediately book the flight then quickly fall asleep. The next morning I awake early, and I hop on the airport shuttle rather than return to Kelenfold. Solo travel means simple travel. In a snap decision, I would be returning home for the first time since early May, putting an end to this leg of traveling. Such flexibility would be difficult in a larger group.
In the early morning, I am one of the few with bags on the airport shuttle, as most of my fellow riders are young, attractive flight attendants, airport security agents, or duty-free workers. The bus takes me through the city, and at the airport I manage to get to the terminal in plenty of time, all the while scratching my yurt-borne bug bites.
Where the Cops Bump Techno from Their Cruisers
I disembark at Nepliget station just as the sun is starting to hide behind the two- and three-story dwellings in east Budapest. The walk is long, but I want to experience more than just the Bohemian backpacker's metropolis of Budapest, so I happily walk instead of taking the much faster metro. Hungarian, a Uralic language, looks like nothing I have ever seen before. A distant relative of Finnish and Estonian, I feel I might as well be in Kurdistan. My hostel, according to Booking.com, is south of downtown. When I arrive, however, I realize I was only given the address of the check-in desk, not my actual bed. The receptionist informs me that my rooms is actually about a mile away, but I have to check-in and -out with him there. I am fascinated, and not even slightly annoyed. When I set out to find my bed, I am even more intrigued.
Simply getting to the apartment is a challenge. It is several blocks from reception, and I receive a paper map with a gray, zigzagging line to show me how to get there. When I arrive, I enter a code to gain access to the building’s front door. I take the elevator to floor number 0.5, then use my two separate keys to unlock the metal screen door and the wooden door. Both doors lock from both sides, and despite the obvious fire hazard, various signs instruct “DO NOT LEAVE KEYS IN DOOR.” The windows are also barred in the old Soviet-era tenement, so if there is a fire I either have to unlock both doors on the other side of the shotgun apartment in impressive time, or make peace with dying there. I spend a half-hour admiring the eccentricities of the tenement, which has two bathrooms and no sinks (except the one in the kitchen) and whose furnace looks like a mediocre high school kid’s sculpting project on cubism.
After that, I wander the streets where upscale bars, well-dressed young people, and inexplicably frequent signs for barbeque make me feel as though I stumbled into Austin, Texas. The Budapest police drive by every now and then, often with their windows down and upbeat techno playing, as the bar crowds mill about. The last thing I want is to drink, but many an internet source recommends that everyone visiting Budapest should see what is called a “ruin bar.” Half public art project and half watering hole, sipping a drink while wandering through a building filled with tacky decorations, graffiti, old appliances and oh-so-much-more can be a fascinating experience. In the bar I visit, a room filled with old, mostly-empty, bathtubs (excluding the tubs filled with napping tourists) sits near the exit, while some of the more remote rooms have psychopathic scribblings on the wall and creepy dolls with glass eyes. You won’t want to miss this place, one of Budapest’s hottest clubs.
Along the Danube, I snap pictures of the imposing parliament building, across the street from a bronze scultpure of shoes designed to memorialize the Jews killed in the city during the Holocaust. This part of town feels quintessentially European, while the walk from the bus station seemed oriental in a way that is hard to put a finger on. Magyar, or Hungarian, looks much like Turkish when written out, if like me you cannot speak either one. Both are Latinized, but with a similar assortment of accents and diacritics. Not to mention that swaths of town look untouched from the Soviet era. Where my hostel is, I only feel taken out of 1970s Hungary when I see a Starbucks or McDonald’s nearer to the city center.
After a plate of mushroom goulash, likely my first vegetarian meal since leaving home, I decide it is time to return to the makeshift hostel, take a shower, and turn in for the night. I am still the only one in the hostel. At least it seems I am the only one in the hostel. I hear rustling in the private room near the kitchen, which I always suspected might be occupied by either the superintendent or a guest who booked a private room. But since the area is sealed off, and on the kitchen side of the tenement, their presence does not bother me. What does bother me is the older Hungarian woman who appears from behind a door that I thought led only to a closet, after I had already sang a forty-minute rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” while preparing for bed.
I am embarrassed, but at least I am clothed. She emerges from her room in a thin red negligee, and when she leaves to go to the bathroom I discover she also has an entire hostel room to herself. What other mysteries does this hostel contain? On the coffee table in her room, a stack of playing cards sit on a tablecloth she almost certainly brought from home. I have met many strange characters in hostels, but none more enigmatic than this elderly woman who books a bed in the cheapest hostel in Budapest, where she plays solitaire nearly naked until the American boy next door stops singing his folk tunes and goes to bed himself. One meets so many inspiring people on the road.
In the morning, I awake and start packing until the Hungarian woman starts talking to me… in Hungarian. I have no clue what she is saying, and she yells “kavé!” to me at least a dozen times before I make her type it into Google Translate. I feel silly I didn’t realize this means “coffee,” but of course it is early and I am sure she forgave me. After all, I haven’t had my morning kavé yet. Google Translate only further confuses me, because now I don’t know what she meant. Is she inviting me out to coffee? Or just trying to cop a cup off of me? Regardless, I had slept well, and since caffeine addiction is something that has never been able to stick to me, I have no desire for the hot brown bean juice that is all the rage these millennia. I shake my head, and she slinks off to slip into something a little less comfortable, while I duck out to the street.
The internet tells me I should visit Budapest’s Heroes Square for the express purpose of sharing it on Instagram because that’s, like, what you do. I am not on the ‘gram, but I go anyway because it is a short subway ride away, and it isn’t too far from the bus station. The scale is impressive, and only a few other tourists shuffle around with me, trying to get the best angles and the best light before carting back to the city center. The highlight of the experience is not the square, but seeing the simple mosaic subway stations that look old but are much too clean to be so.
I cannot deduce how to validate my ticket in the Budapest metro, which is done at a small machine that doesn’t look unlike a Purell dispenser in a supermarket. There is no one to ask, so I ride both ways on one ticket without any interference. The train to Nepliget station does not run on Sundays, a result of construction on the line, so I transfer to the replacement bus using the same ticket as well. Before I hop on, I try to use my extra Hungarian Forints at an Aldi, and end up overbuying as result of the sale price being the members-only price. I have to give several items, including a now-melted ice cream cone, back to the cashier, and he is not amused. Aldi has been too good to me, and I feel bad to let down the grocery store chain that has done more for me than any other. I board the Ljubljana bus with my tail between my legs and a couple measly Forints in my pocket.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.