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Spin the Globe: Mickey Rapkin is Hungary Like a Wolf in Budapest

AFAR chose a destination at random and sent writer Mickey Rapkin with 24 hours’ notice to a Central European city where tech trumps goulash.

I HAVE BEEN IN BUDAPEST for less than 12 hours when I find myself at a Wolf of Wall Street theme party. Scorsese’s film is projected on a two-story brick wall at the back of the nightclub. Monopoly money litters the floor. Watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s floor-to-ceiling face staring down at me, I can’t help but laugh. I live in Los Angeles. Had I flown 15 hours, on two planes, just to land back at my doorstep? A Hungarian man next to me throws a few “dollars” in the air and shouts, “Make it rain!”

I hope he is joking.

Budapest has long been touted as the next Prague, a city criticized for trading its soul for tourist dollars. That first night had my Spidey-sense tingling: Was there anything local left to explore? Or had the next generation of Hungarians already forsaken its past for some misplaced idea of Western cool? I mean, if I’d wanted a craft cocktail, I would have stayed home. I would soon discover I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of this seismic shift under way. It took a deep-tissue massage from a blind man at a Turkish bath for me to find clarity. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The last time I did any significant travel alone was in my early 20s. I’d had my first cell phone then, a clunky thing that barely sent text messages. Now I had the whole world in my pocket. I posted from LAX about my last-minute trip, and within nanoseconds my Facebook page ping-ping-pinged with “must-see” recommendations. Did you know the third-largest synagogue in the world is in Budapest? I didn’t. Have you heard of Action Bar? It came highly recommended despite a curious disclaimer: “Google it first.” Smart advice. One website informed me that at Action Bar “you can watch guys have sex on stage.” Budapest had been a blank slate at check-in; upon landing, it felt as if I was setting off to explore the world’s tiniest sandbox.

Determined to have my own experience, I left the Budapest airport and went analog, shutting off my phone and ignoring every recommendation except the human kind, face to face. A friend-of-a-friend, Peter Szucs, the editor of a Hungarian fashion magazine, had agreed to be my unofficial guide. Szucs has Justin Bieber’s old haircut and an easy smile. He was responsible for taking me to the Wolf of Wall Street party. He’s also responsible for introducing me to a wine bar called Innio, an industrial-chic spot with a 400-label cellar, where I drink too much Hungarian white wine and sheepishly admit how little I know about Budapest. When I confess this, Szucs says, “This is better.” I’m a tabula rasa. So he gives me a first-grade geography lesson using an adult’s vocabulary: Budapest is two cities, split by a river, he says. “Buda is the old lady. Traditional. Posh.” And Pest? “Pest is the strong man, with a penis. The revolution.”

Before we part ways, I ask him to give me a few useful Hungarian phrases to get around. He laughs and tells me a joke instead. “A selfish man dies and goes to hell. What is his punishment? The Devil says to him, ‘Now you have to learn Hungarian.’ ” He smiles again, saying, “Most young people here speak English now.” It’s a point of pride. He pushes me out of the cab and rides off into the night. Everywhere I go, it seems, Hungarians want to show off what’s current, what’s new. The next morning, jet-lagged and hungover, I meet up with another local connection, Balazs Varro. He’s the communications manager of a Hungarian start-up called Ustream, which, as the name suggests, streams live video over the Internet, such as NASA’s feed from the International Space Station.

The company’s offices are located on Andrassy Street, the backbone of Buda, and if you’ve seen HBO’s Silicon Valley you can imagine what the place looks like. It’s almost a parody of the Valley, with a Ping-Pong table and a foosball table. Naturally, Varro, in his early 30s, wears an Iron Man T-shirt.Tech culture is rife in Budapest, with numerous companies launching here, such as Prezi, a web-based competitor to Microsoft’s PowerPoint, and NNG, whose algorithms likely power your car’s GPS. Varro is proud of this evolution and tells me about Bridge Budapest, a consortium of entrepreneurs that provides fellowships to qualified Hungarians and places them as interns at Prezi, NNG, LogMeIn, and Ustream, both at home and abroad (Ustream has offices in San Francisco). “The objective is to change the minds of the youngsters” in Budapest, Varro explains. “Most of the people think, ‘I will have a family, and I will have a good-paying job and two cars, and we will have picnics on the weekends.’ But you don’t have to work your whole life in a factory. There is opportunity. Nine out of 10 start-ups will fail. Start a new one.”

I begin to sense a distinct push-pull between this city’s Old World charms and Old Navy aspirations. It’s telling that when I ask Varro to recommend a local restaurant, something I won’t find in a guidebook, he points me toward Pesti Diszno Gasztrobar, a Hungarian bar serving international cuisine, a symbol of the city’s evolving foodie culture. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “if you were talking about Hungary as a foreigner, you’d say, ‘Hungarians eat goulash and drink Pálinka [brandy].’ Now you have restaurants in the Michelin Guide.” For my taste, the mangalica stew at the Gasztrobar is gamey. But point made: The Berlin Wall fell and triggered an earthquake. Still, an industrial-chic wine bar? An Eastern European answer to Silicon Valley? Where was Budapest? You know, the old Budapest from the brochures?

I go back to my hotel, Brody House, a hip boutique accommodation installed in a 19th-century fin-de-siècle townhouse in downtown Pest, where the plaster walls are aged to perfection, the furniture is like a mix of flea-market finds by way of Versailles, and because this is Pest—the “Brooklyn of Budapest,” I’ve been told by a local—there’s also a top-shelf honor bar and a staff plugged into the underground music scene. Brody House is part hotel, part recording studio, and part members-only club for artists and the like; for $160 a night I have my own sitting room, kitchen, and bedroom with soaring ceilings. I feel less like I’m checking into a hotel and more like I’m staying at the pied-à- terre of a friend, the kind who doesn’t mind if you have sex in his bed as long as you change the sheets. Shortly after I had arrived, co-owner Peter Grundberg, a British expat, told me about his design aesthetic. “Our concept was to almost freeze time,” he said. “We felt uncomfortable restoring things and taking a risk on making them sterile.” As far as I can tell, the only person in Budapest concerned with preserving the past seems to be this expat.

I romanticize the past, I admit. I go for a sunset jog along the Danube in search of a photo op, awed by the skyline, which includes palaces and ruins dating back to Marcus Aurelius. For lunch, I’m desperate to kick it old school, so I hit Rosenstein, a classic Hungarian restaurant rooted in Jewish culinary tradition, offering goose liver soup alongside eggplant spread. Yet this New Budapest (Nudapest?) keeps asserting itself. I have a cappuccino at Printa, a silkscreen studio that doubles as a coffee shop and cool-kid hangout.

A city rocketing forward at this speed can screw with your mind. The best meal I have all week isn’t a meal at all but, rather, a $60 plate of perfectly sliced jamón Ibérico at l’Occhio di Stile, a just-opened restaurant on the roof of the high-end department store Il Bacio di Stile. The place looks like it was designed by Judy Jetson, with a mirrored bar and more curves than Scarlett Johansson. But it offers a perfect view of the hulking Hungarian State Opera House, serving as an inadvertent metaphor for this modern city wedged into an aging facade. The Hungarian bartender, dressed in suspenders and a crisp Oxford shirt, tells me he is a New York Jets fan before he launches into a tirade about the team’s much maligned quarterback, Mark Sanchez.

My head spins.

I buy a last-minute ticket to see Puccini’s Tosca at the opera house, which opened 130 years ago. I have only a partial view of the stage, but the ticket costs only the equivalent of $2.65. High culture in Budapest is egalitarian in a way that feels spot-on. Jamón Ibérico may be a luxury, but music feeds the soul.

Szucs had told me I cannot leave Budapest without visiting the locals’-secret Rudas Baths, a Turkish soak near the Danube dating back to the 16th century. And so, on the rainy morning of my last day, I enter the historic hammam.

An attendant gives me a wristband that looks like a Swatch watch and unlocks a tiny, private changing cabin. He offers me a small white apron. “You can wear a bathing suit if you would prefer,” he says. But I think, when in Rome. Or rather, when in a city once ruled by Romans.

The light is low. Sunshine pokes dimly through the dome’s stained glass. I sit basically naked in a large sulfurous pool alongside 30 or so octogenarian men soaking around the perimeter. There is a steady hum of conversation but also a religious vibe. “They are arguing politics,” one man tells me.

The sauna smells of firewood tinged with vanilla. As I move through the space, the strangest sensation comes over me. I realize how few communal rituals we have in the States anymore. How few places exist for men of different generations to convene. Where they really look at each other. This strikes me as impossibly sad. Maybe we’re the ones who’ve ignored our past? I pay for a 30-minute massage administered by a blind man. I feel his hands wringing the tension from my back. And maybe from my heart, too.

I think back on a question I’d asked Varro, the communications manager at Ustream. Did he ever worry that the fellowship recipients who go to the states wouldn’t come home to Budapest? “No,” he said, with a smile.

I text Szucs to let him know I’d made it to the baths, and to tell him how romantic the opera house was. He writes, “Have you seen anywhere in Budapest that is not romantic?” He has a point. Wandering around Andrassy Street, with its endless rows of cafés, I realize I’m missing the forest for the teas. I finally understand: Budapest isn’t in danger of becoming Prague. It is its own living, breathing entity trying to stretch its legs, a mix of old and new, powered by an upstart class of cool kids determined to honor their past while charging face-forward into the unknown. This generation could never truly forsake its history for Scorsese films and small-batch liquor. The city is a living museum, and in subtle ways, it informs the new class. Earlier in the week, I’d toured that third-largest synagogue in the world, which was completed in 1859. The building is made of iron, the same kind used to build the Eiffel Tower some 30 years later. It seems Budapest had been at the forefront of technology even then.

On my last night in town, Szucs takes me to a bar called Anker’t to experience the city’s “ruin pub” scene, which has come to define Budapest’s nightlife. Ruin pubs are exactly what they sound like—open-air canteens operating out of abandoned buildings. The trend has upset some locals, who find the noise and litter disrespectful. But that train has left the station, or whatever the weird Hungarian expression surely is.

Tonight, beautiful people chat in a stone garden. The bartender mixes mojitos with the patience of Job. We have a chance meeting with Szucs’s friend Bea Palya, a seriously famous folk musician and Hungary’s answer to Norah Jones. She is leaving shortly for a four-night engagement in Transylvania. She is sexy as hell. We dance to American pop music—Alicia Keys and Kesha. I never want to go home.