I counted the coins left in my hand on the escalator – 345 florins – around £1. Most of the shops after check-in were selling water for twice that amount, but just when I’d resigned myself to carrying a pocket of coins back with me I found a bottle of Natur Aqua for the exact amount. It’s the dull story of a travel bore, but for it also symbolised for me a certain round completeness to the trip.
It was a trip of two cities, split over two weeks, with two weather systems and two moods for me. That two left me with a roundness – the peak and trough of a waveform taking me right back to where I started from. Except after two weeks of space, reflection, growth – it’s never the same place.
The first week was expansive as I got a taste of the travel bug, the possibilities of a new city and the freedom of having my own apartment after years of sharing. Around lunchtime I would head to the famous and fabulous Bar Szimpla to drink good strong coffee – where a latte is more of a machiatto – and use the wifi in the bohemium courtyard catching a splinter of sunlight as it dashed overhead between the tall buildings.
The buildings of Budapest are super-sized, with an ornate grandeur that reveals just how powerful the Austro-Hungarian empire must have been at its height, and it makes a strange contrast with the often impoverished citizens at their feet. I found the scale of the buildings a bit much, to be honest, which was why discovering the city park early on – blossoming an explosion of autumn colour – was such a relief. Here there were a kind of horse chestnut that looked like a brain, as big as a grapefruit.
Other than my first rainy day – that first week had brilliant blue skies every day, which was replaced with grey skies and showers the day I moved to the second AirBNB apartment. The apartment two was an opposite – the area much poorer, found beyond a grey walk from the station and not a tourist in site or earshot. There were no recycling bins at the entrance to the apartment courtyard and the view from my window was a brick wall.
But the charms were different – my neighbour, the father of the host, is a comic book writer and collector, offering me a vodka and showing me his signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, on the first night. The city park, Sczerny Baths and cinema were much nearer – and without a bar voted one of the best in the world by Lonely Planet on my doorstep I could get on with some of the more mundane tasks I’d set myself, like totalling up my receipts. And the Szrney Baths – which I only made it to once – were something else. Circuiting from 50 degree sauna, to plunge pool, to 60 degree, to plunge pool, and so on up to 80, then a swim outside in the naturally heated pool, then back taking the sauna up to 100 – and leaving feeling like I’d take a cocktail of unknown drugs, barely able to walk.
But it was lonelier – the 20 minute walk to my favourite bar would be followed by a somewhat sorry-for-myself traipse back home. I considered the fabric of life and how to be part of it you need to be woven into its warp and weft – over and under and over under all around you, and when cut off from that, you can become a loose thread. Who wants to be lint on the fabric of life?
But I reminded myself I’d wanted this – to get away from the friends and socialising that could normally stop me from reflecting on deeper issues and I passed thru it, with, on my penultimate-day, a greater sense of resilience and perspective and balance. I went that night alone to a couple of bars – and seeing a musician from Louisiana I recognised from the previous week, drunk, danced, talked politics and realised how different we were.
So it would have been possible to see the second week as greyer, wetter, more dour – but it felt exactly right – for it rounded out the tourist experience I had in my first week, making the two halfs whole.