My friend Rob swears against it. Last night, another friend, Samuel, declared it utterly despicable. Now that I think about it, I can’t think of a single friend who has ever listed Budapest among the cities they just have to visit before they die. A former Kiwi colleague of mine in Buenos Aires did once tell me that he loves the Hungarian capital, and he may or may not be living there at the moment. His must be the only positive review I’ve ever heard of it, other than my own.
I’ve gone exactly once. It was the final stop on a summer of 1996 month-long holiday that took me from London to Prague (site of my Tom Ripley fixation and where I also read The Fountainhead) to Budapest to Vienna back to Prague and, finally, back to London. Though I can’t recall many specific details about the city itself, my official spin on it after I returned to New York City was that I loved it. I still stand by that opinion.
The dark Gothic city certainly appealed to my aesthetic taste, and I’m a sucker for any town with a river running through it. The Danube remains one of the most impressive bodies of water I’ve ever seen, probably less because of its visuals than its status as the inspiration for a waltz I used to play on the piano as a kid (Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”). Seeing it was like meeting a celebrity. I don’t recall it being particularly blue, but I’ve always been a little color blind. I loved the Danube, and by extension, Budapest, anyway.
Samuel said that one of the reasons why he hated it (Budapest, not the Danube) was because he didn’t care for the people, and for him, people make the place. I understood where he was coming from, but as a loner who can have a fantastic time in a city without ever talking to a single person in it, I begged to differ. That said, aside from the guy who worked at the reception desk in the youth hostel where I stayed (it was the first and only time I ever checked into one, though in requesting a single room, I probably missed out on the true youth-hostel experience), I can’t picture the face of a single person I encountered during my week in Budapest.
That’s not to say I didn’t have memorable encounters. Budapest was the first city in which I ever saw a “rent boy.” One of the bars I went to was full of them. You’d think I would have known better, coming from New York City and all, but I was actually shocked and not just a little offended when a not particularly attractive young guy approach me offering sex for money. As I declined, I wondered why anybody would pay for something that so many people were giving away for free.
My other memorable encounter was with a taxi driver who tried to rip me off, setting off a 16-years-and-counting tumultuous relationship with cab drivers in various cities. One in Melbourne once recalled, somewhat disapprovingly, driving me home a week earlier as a guy “tried” to kiss me in the back seat, and another in Buenos Aires actually tossed me out of his car in the pouring rain for daring to suggest a faster route to my apartment (via la calle Paraguay instead of Avenida Santa Fe). I’d read tourist stories about taxi drivers in Budapest who rigged the meters in their cars so that the fares piled up at three or four times the normal speed. That wasn’t going to happen to me!
When I noticed what should have been a $5 cab ride rapidly approaching somewhere around $20, I demanded that the driver stop immediately. He started shouting at me in Hungarian, punctuating every sentence by turning around and glaring at me angrily. I stood my ground in the back seat. “Stop this taxi now!” I shouted on repeat until he did as he was told. I gave him what I thought should have been the correct fare and proceeded to exit the taxi.
That’s when he grabbed my arm to stop me. He wanted the full fare. He started shouting something in Hungarian which I assumed must have been a string of profanities. I looked at his hand gripping my arm and slowly moved my eyes upward until they met his gaze of fury. “Get your hand off of me or die,” I said calmly and deliberately. If he didn’t understand my words, the menacing look on my face must have gotten through to him. He let go.
I don’t think I took another taxi all week. Perhaps walking almost everywhere on foot gave me an appreciation for the city I wouldn’t normally have gotten. During the week that I was there, Michael Jackson’s HIStory tour came to town, so everyone was abuzz with excitement because an American idol was in their midst. He had been in Prague while I was there, and one night in yet another Prague McDonald’s where all the kids working behind the counter looked like supermodels, a group of teenagers approached my friend Andrew, who’s also black, and me and asked if we were his back-up dancers.
It was just the sort of happy random encounter that Budapest could have used, but my story about the taxi driver still entertains people to this day. (I told it again last week to my new friend David a few days after he got into a fist fight with three Bangkok cabbies.) If people are going to make a city for me, this is how they do it. They don’t have to be all welcoming and nice if they at least give me a few good stories to take home.
One More Reason to Love Hungary (other than Liszt, Bartok and the Gabors): Being Julia, the 2004 film directed by Budapest native István Szabó and featuring my favorite Annette Bening performance. Damn that Hillary Swank for stealing Oscar from her — again! — that year!