Today I’m going to digress with a trip to Budapest. I’ve found that everything and everybody in Budapest is – how can I describe it? – well, let’s just say, very Hungarian. Not that that surprises me. I mean I knew everybody and everything would be Hungarian, but I didn’t know exactly what that meant. And I guess that that is what traveling is all about. You can watch all the Rick Steves’ shows and all the Viking Cruise commercials in the world, but it just doesn’t register or have any meaning until you experience it for yourself.
But because I’m supposed to be writing about Dublin and Ireland, I felt compelled to find some connection to try to justify the digression, and I did! THE FIRST SETTLERS OF THE CITY WERE CELTS! I’m not kidding. And I guess that too is what traveling is all about. Just when you think a culture couldn’t be more different from the one you just came from, you find out that way back when the same people settled in both places.
Here are a few things I learned this week in Budapest.
There are two sides to this gorgeous city. Buda – on the west side of the Danube – means “water” and Pest – on the east side – means “furnace”. And like all cities with two sides, there is a rivalry between Buda and Pest. When my tour guide Edina was considering a move from her apartment in Buda to a new apartment in Pest, her sister said, “You can’t. How would you explain it to Dad?”
Budapest is called “the Paris of the East” because of its beautiful boulevards, its stunning scenery, its art museums, and its river.
There are natural thermal springs and people bathe in them and also drink the mineral water. They even have mineral water filling stations throughout the city.
There’s a circus and a zoo. And “parties” – people come from all over Europe to have fun because things are cheaper here in Budapest than in other cities.
There are opera houses because Budapest is the sister city to Vienna from way back in the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
There is a museum called House of Terror that holds the memories of the atrocities that were committed here by the communist regimes during the time when the people of Budapest lived behind the Iron Curtain.
Here in Budapest is the second largest synagogue in the world after New York city. There has been a Jewish presence in Hungary since Roman times. Famous Jews of Hungarian descent include Zsa Zsa Gabor, of course, Tony Curtis, Harry Houdini – there’s a Harry Houdini Museum – and to my surprise Paul Newman. Both of Paul’s parents were Hungarian – his father was Jewish, but his mother was Catholic. (Paul Newman has always been one of my all time favorites. Because I taught The Outsiders for so long, I always think of the opening line of the book – “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind Paul Newman and a ride home. I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman…”) Paul’s Hungarian parents did a great job.
Because the Ottoman Empire also occupied Budapest for many years, the Turks built gorgeous bath houses and spas that remain. I went to the Gellert Spa that is just at the end of the green bridge on the Buda side. I can highly recommend a grape seed oil and sea salt massage from Esther. (The best way for a girl to really get to know a place is to try a bunch of beauty treatments. I could tell you about getting my hair blown dry, but words wouldn’t do it justice.)
There’s an indoor market place that is at least five times the size of Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Budapesters – what a cute demonym! – adore pastries, sausages, and paprika, and the market is teeming with a million variations on the theme.
And then there are the cafes. Again, words just don’t do them justice. My favorite was the New York Salon. I finally got to read my book in a gorgeous cafe, rather than the “quaint cafe” that we joke about at home. And for the sake of my readers, I had a gigantic ice cream sundae so that I could report that the desserts there are as good as they look.
But what I will remember the most about Budapest is its people. The people that I met in the hotel, in the cafes, in the spa, and in the shops were unbelievably kind, polite, helpful, and cheerful. On my last day there, I met two teachers from LA – Diane and Tony – who were going to be teaching at a Jewish school here in Budapest for a week. Their exchange is organized through the Estee Lauder foundation. (Estee Lauder’s mother was Hungarian.) Just the mention of her name takes me back to my days as an Estee Lauder sales girl. So Diane and Tony – so nice, so fun – and I decide to go to the Szepmuveszeti Museum, the national gallery, on a rainy, windy day in Budapest. And we meet Lili Orszag (1926-1978) – if only through her art. Her paintings, collages, and icons are “filled with characteristically Eastern European intensity and pain.” During her wall motif period she said, “I would use the walls – I would write on the walls like children write their desires on them.” I love that idea! I’m going to start a writing wall as soon as I get home. In addition to leaving behind beautiful works of art born from her anxiety, fear, and loneliness, Lili also left behind a few travel tips. She opted for the “convenience” of organized tours. And she wrote, “What I would like to do most is travel constantly.” Lili, I understand. I really do.
Do you agree with Lili?