Back when the weather had yet to turn stifling, when genteel, elderly ladies could still invite us to tea on back porches in our neighborhood, John and I took our respective first trips over the ocean to a faraway land known by its inhabitants as Magyarország, but (barely) known to most Americans as Hungary. Having no historical or genealogical connections to the land, we had resolved to honeymoon in Budapest. We had chosen mostly through a process that involved checking travel books out of the library, consulting train schedules, throwing digital darts at Google maps, and Wikipedia excavation. Most of our family members had a similar reaction to news of our choice: Why?
We could go anywhere! We wanted to go everywhere. But we wanted to try and give a great place its due, not just jet-set into and out of major cities, 2 days at a time, letting our eyes graze everything, but seeing nothing. So where to go?
London? So big! So familiar!
Prague? So tiny!
Paris? So intimidating to the non-francophone!
Budapest is old. (We roamed a Roman settlement.) Budapest is beautiful. (Seriously, the architecture.) Budapest is full of history. (So many wars, so many losses.) Why not?
In the lead up to the trip we studied the (seriously fun) language together, we watched some subtitled Hungarian films, and I started reading. I read translated works of celebrated revolutionary poets and 20th century novelists. I read memoirs of second-generation immigrant Oxford boys during revolts. I read the stories of Hungarian Jewish boys in concentration camps, and Swedish architects who rescued tens of thousands of them.
We traveled forth, and it was wonderful. We met some sweet, warm people. We saw amazing buildings. We tried thermal baths and studied lovely painted wooden furniture and woolen clothes. We watched ballet in a premier European Opera House and cheeky musicals in a chic Operetta. We haggled with Romani people over needlework. We tried Hungarian wines, and wine spritzers, and fruity palinka (a delicious, scorching schnapps-like liquor), and unicum (an herbal bitters that no non-Hungarian can stomach, except for John who enjoyed it thoroughly). As a vegetarian, I ate mostly croissants, cakes, and strong coffee, but we dined outside in Liszt Ferenc tér in spring, poplar pods on the breeze in a green, peopled paradise. We saw the remains of many fallen states and empires that had occupied the grounds, and the huge Parliament on the Danube. We rode 19th century underground trains to sites where Hungary celebrated a millennium of life over 100 years ago. I was able to buy some more great (and newer) Hungarian literature in English while I was there. It was an amazing journey. I feel like I might start losing some of it if I don’t write it down somewhere soon.But after we got home, John asked what my favorite part had been.
His favorite part had been our side-trip to a mountain town called Eger. Its castle was the site of a Hungarian victory over the Turks before it fell to them a decade later and now holds the northernmost minaret of the Ottoman empire. More importantly for John, it is the home of an awesome Lyceum that has a library with the best collection I’ve ever seen with my own eyes and an astronomy tower with many antique treasures of a scientific nature. We could have spent the whole trip in that library.
But to be honest, my favorite part had started before we even left. Before this trip, I didn’t know a thing about the Magyar. I didn’t know about the horse people who came from Asia and settled on the Danube, or about the castles and lakes and wine country. I didn’t know about the losses, the revolts, and revolutions, or the literary circles in the dark-paneled coffee shops of the past, or the sharp wits. I didn’t know the regional designs on the traditional dress, or about gulag communism and the fancy Western shopping streets that were allowed to flourish behind the iron curtain, or the hastily-tagged citrine trains. And now I know more. My mental globe is more vividly populated. The world feels bigger, more full of possibility. So that was my favorite part. The world growing, part of the map turning from grey-scale to full-color.
Hungarian proverb: Messziről jött ember azt mond, amit akar.
A man coming from far away tells us what he wants.
(A traveler may lie with authority.)