I thought I had my addiction under control.
I always considered the travel bug one of those socially acceptable vices—akin to an obsession with word games or Tuscan reds—that contains hidden virtues. Doing the Saturday New York Times crossword can train your mind, and collecting Chianti Gran Riservas, your palate; travel, at its best, is a cleansing regression to earliest childhood. When your vocabulary is limited to a few dozen words and you find yourself miming hunger by pointing to your mouth; when unfamiliar streets and baffling geography make you lose your way back to your guesthouse; when every day feels like the first day of school and the cultural learning curve is Himalaya-high—that’s when you have become an innocent abroad, and you know you are truly traveling.
It’s been a while, though, since Europe made me feel as fresh-eyed as a child. Since I took my first trip overseas (England, BritRail Pass, age 13), I’ve puffed on hookahs in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and hiked the Celtic pilgrimage routes to Galician-speaking Fisterra in Spain. But the prospect of a trip to Oslo or Naples no longer thrills me the way it used to. Excitement today involves eating llama steaks in a Quechua-speaking village in Bolivia’s altiplano. Or, to really experience the glorious disorientation of travel, decoding the rituals of a backstreet ryokan in Osaka. As grateful as I am to the old continent, which was the gateway drug to my wanderlust, lately it hasn’t provided that salutary return to childhood I crave.
Now, though, as my wife enters her final months of pregnancy, it looks as though my days of spontaneous getaways are over. Fatigue looms, not from jet lag but from 4 a.m. diaper changes. Willingly and joyfully, we are on the verge of becoming what many would agree are humanity’s ultimate homebodies—new parents. Erin, who spent a week in Hungary on her post-university walkabout, figures I have just barely enough time before I need to devote my spare hours to stroller-shopping, nursery painting, and Mommy and Me classes. For the sake of domestic tranquillity, it’s probably healthy for me to get Budapest, that symbol of unattained yearning, out of my system before I embark on the new journey of parenthood.
Go ahead, Erin tells me, feel like a kid one last time, if you must. Just don’t forget to bring me back a snow globe. (It’s a little ritual we have.) And it’d better be a really good one, she adds.
Which explains why I find myself standing on a hill overlooking the curve in the Danube, the river that splits Budapest in two like a sultan’s scimitar. I clutch a canary-yellow guidebook in my hand, trying to puzzle out one of the weirdest cities I’ve ever seen.
After all these years of navigating the capitals of Europe, I pride myself on landing like a cat, ready to hit the ground running. But Budapest is making me feel more like a bumble-footed toddler. Part of the problem is the language. Magyar, a Finno-Ugric tongue of obscure Siberian origin, can sometimes feel like an elaborate conspiracy to confuse outsiders. In Vörösmarty Square I overhear a young woman squealing what sounds like “Seeya!” when she greets a friend, and an elderly couple chirping “Halló!” as they wave good-bye to one another. (It turns out that “Szia!” means “Hi!”) Normally a little linguistic bafflement doesn’t bother me, but everywhere I go, urgently punctuated signs seem to have dire warnings to convey. “VIGYÁZZ!” screams a placard on a bank facade, “BEJÁRAT A MÁSIK AJTÓN!” A session with Google Translate back at the hotel renders this, “Look out! Entrance at the other door!” I consult a street map outside the Parliament building and realize even the compass is screwy: in Hungary, E goes at the top of the map, and the sun sets in the N.
I definitely feel like a kid again. I also feel like an incompetent fool.
I turn to friends of my wife for help. Amanda, who came to Budapest from Toronto to teach English a year ago, admits she’s made little progress in learning Magyar. “It’s an impossible language,” she moans, as we join the crowds at the outdoor stalls of the Pálinka and Sausage Festival. “I mean, just look at the names of these drinks!”
“In Hungary, if you can make it into jam, you can make it into pálinka,” László tells me. Sour cherries, wild pears, mulberries, and even beets serve as mash, suggesting the peasant traditions behind pálinka drinking, and indeed most of Hungarian cuisine. Historically, the upper classes of Budapest embraced the simple flavors of the countryside, which explains why even the city’s best restaurants offer cauldrons of paprika-spiked goulash and fish soup.
Maybe it’s the pálinka kicking in, but I feel I’ve gained a tiny insight into Budapest. Part of its charm, I tell László, is the juxtaposition of urbane sophistication and down-to-earth values, like the way the rustic wooden shacks where people have gathered to savor cured sausage and fruit brandy fit so well with the neobaroque architecture of Buda Castle. And look at that crazy statue, I say, pointing to a bronze bird with the wingspan of a California condor and a sword in its talons. It’s the perfect mix, I suggest, of wildness and civilization.
“Now you know what I’m up against,” says Amanda. “Egészségedre!” she adds, as she lifts another glass of pálinka, this one flavored with honey. When I try to echo her, it comes out “I-shake-a-leg!”
In a place where even the word for “cheers” is a multisyllabic tongue twister, I’m clearly going to need some expert guidance.
The following day, I meet with András Török, the author of A Critical Guide, which is now in its seventh edition (complete with “idiotproof” maps and a primer on “That Awful Hungarian Language”). He is sitting at a marble table in the Café Gerbeaud, a genteel jewel box of a confectionery in a square off Váci Utca, the city’s pedestrian-only main drag. He’s eating Dobos torte, a caramel-topped sponge cake delightfully layered with chocolate and buttercream, and sipping on a mélange, an equally delightful mix of coffee, honey, and foamy milk. The bushy ’stache I remember from the cover of the 1998 guide is a little whiter, but Török, nattily attired in a camel blazer and brown cords, remains the image of the consummate boulevardier. He tells me what the city was like during the Communist era. “While our Western counterparts were working as waiters in the evening, saving up for vacations in the Bahamas, we pestiek (that’s the word for Budapest people) were reading very long novels, listening to cheap records from Czechoslovakia, and sharpening our wit for criticizing the illiterate ruling Communist elite,” he says. “We were eggheads, and we had time for everything: going to museums, attending concerts, exploring the city. If anything, we were overcultured.”
I enter a sauna and observe that one can find relief for steaming skin by scooping up handfuls of chipped ice from a giant stone half-shell. I watch as the silver-haired man in a black Speedo next to me gazes at the ice in his outstretched palms, lost in contemplation as it deliquesces from the size of a bowling ball to that of a ball bearing—a pastime that, in its exquisite absurdity, may be rivaled only by watching paint peel.
A visually challenged masseur named Zoltán palpates my flesh and maintains perfect pressure throughout. (Török had taught me the phrase “Ne olyan erősen, kérem,” which translates to “Not so hard, please,” just in case.) Afterward, I catch a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror and see that I’ve found exactly what I was looking for: Tenderized by expert fingers, my skin pinkened by steam, and wearing a diaperlike loincloth, I not only feel newborn, I also look newborn. It’s taken only a few hours in Budapest’s baths to transform me into an overgrown, middle-aged, prune-skinned baby.
A day of purging your body of toxins turns out to be the perfect preparation for a night on the town. The following evening, I meet Török near the Deák Ferenc Tér metro station and he leads me to a fluorescent-lit bar around the corner from City Hall. “It’s a talponálló, which literally means ‘standing on your soles,’ ” he explains.
The bartender, a thickly made-up woman in her 50s, ladles white wine into tall glasses from a stainless steel tub and tops them off with squirts of soda water from an old-fashioned seltzer bottle. Fröccs, as Hungarians call their beloved wine spritzers, have their own gleeful semiotics: A “buffalo’s kiss,” for example, is four parts wine to one part seltzer; an “assistant janitor” is mostly bubbles. I take in the scene as we find a patch of fake wood counter to lean on. Two men in paint-stained overalls are selecting the next Magyar heavy metal tune to play on the jukebox, while three students feed forints (the Hungarian currency) into a video slot machine. “A place like this,” confides Török, “is really for people who want to drink cheap wine. Before work, after work, instead of work.”
The rest of the night is a little blurry. I recall a side trip to a hole-in-the-wall snack bar, where I break the first rule of exotic gastronomy: Never eat anything bigger than your head. But I can’t leave Budapest without trying a lángos, a huge holeless doughnut, deep-fried to a golden brown. Daubed thinly with sour cream, topped with shredded cheese, and redolent of garlic, it instantly satisfies all the brain’s pleasure centers—the fat center, the salt center, the garlic center. This, I tell Amanda and László, could be the best food ever invented!
Or maybe, I realize, it’s time for me to find a taxi.
The Children’s Railway brings me some cheer about what the future has in store. Watching these little people act out their grown-up dreams reminds me that kids can be really great company. I have no idea, of course, whether my own son will end up having a penchant for finger painting or choo-choo trains. I hope, though, that whatever he ends up doing, he’ll do it with the kind of passion these kids bring to punching tickets and raising and lowering gates. And one thing’s for sure: As soon as he’s old enough, one of the first big-ticket presents he’s going to get will be a really cool model railway set.
Back on Váci Utca, I stop at a souvenir shop to buy a snow globe. I select a model in which tinsel swirls around a crowned Turul bird on a bridge over the Danube. Cradling it in my palm, I feel its fragile heft and think about the brand-new adventure awaiting Erin and me. Becoming parents isn’t going to make us any younger, physically, but it will add to our lives someone who will rejuvenate our visions of the world on a day-to-day basis.
Actually, I doubt it’s even going to slow us down very much; knowing us, we’ll be on the road again soon, this time with a son in tow. And with any luck, one day he’ll make it to Budapest himself, for a ride on Europe’s weirdest railway.
Wanderlust, I’ve been told, is a hereditary condition.
>>Next: The Surprising Story of Moscow's Food Revolution