If Slovenia felt like the Canada of Eastern Europe, then the first moments after my train’s arrival into Budapest-Deli Train Station were more like crossing the U.S. border and making my way to Detroit. The beautiful and likable vanilla city gave way to a metropolis with nearly ten times more people and a rough around the edges outer layer that Ljubljana seemed to lack. And unlike the country before, Hungary seemed to have a sense of patriotism in spades.
Budapest is a city of marvelous contradictions. Boasting the world’s third largest parliament, stunning views of the Danube from Gellert Hill, and the breathtaking artwork of St. Stephen’s Basilica. It is easily one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.
Yet, amidst the selfies and cobblestoned streets there is a grittiness that belies this majestic exterior. Heavily tattooed arms, seedy corners, and police cars crisscrossing through town also let you know this ain't Kansas. It is a place of authenticity, toughness, and originality. I love it here.
Of course, if you’d been through what Hungary had over the past 400 years you might have a little chip on your shoulder too. Its turbulent history has undoubtedly shaped its modern day temperament, and I would guess even its policies; not the least of which has been its staunch and controversial decision not to accept Syrian refugees. My crash course in Hungarian history, courtesy of a bus tour and a late night stroll past informational placards gave me plenty to think about.
First, I learned the world has Hungary to thank for the water carbonator and Rubik’s Cube. Nice to know the source of years of pain attempting to line up 6 faces with 9 same-colored stickers can be attributed to a Hungarian guy. I also found out that Edward Teller, a Hungarian physicist became known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb.”
As I discovered more I was both amazed by Hungary’s rich history and embarrassed by how little I knew about it. I’d glanced at the cliff notes over the years, but my thesis would have undoubtedly been marked, “incomplete.”
For instance, I didn’t know how the country was liberated in 1686, nor was I aware of the Ottoman-Hungarian Wars. It had also escaped me that Hungarians, like the Chinese, built a fortification wall to prevent the Mongolians from invading from the east. There seemed to be as many uprisings and sieges as songs on a jukebox, the major hits being the Hungarian Revolutions of 1848 and 1956, in which the Soviets, who'd once stormed down Budapest Streets, were ousted from the city.
Though history is always written by the winners, one couldn’t deny this place had been through the ringer and was still standing. And proudly. It is a country of grit and character - two qualities we could all use a bit more of.
As the bus crossed the Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube, “Hungarian Rhapsody” played in my ear in between the tour guide’s spiel. How clever, I thought. Soon after, I took the city by foot, trying earnestly too see as much as possible during my all-too-brief stay. I was sad to be leaving tomorrow, but took solace in knowing I could return some day. I knew this place would still be here.
Natalie, a 20-something student from Israel, recently shared with me the best piece of advice she’d ever received: “The best piece of advice I received was from my counselor during my studies in the boarding school with Ira a long time ago. It was to be patient with people and help if I have the opportunity because one day somebody will help me, and it will be a person who I won’t even know. And I can tell you that it really happened in my life a few years ago. So, it’s the best advice ever!”