Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Köszönöm, Budapest! Part Két (2)

     The lady’s fiery glare scorched through my conscience. Her lips moved fervently, yet I could neither understand nor even hear a word she said. My mind spun at a million miles per second. Everyone surrounding me spoke in Hungarian, so my brain made no effort to distinguish between the unfamiliar syllables. The plethora of faces surrounding me meshed into a gigantic blob of unrecognizable colors. I have to get out of here, I thought to myself. 
     Suddenly, a man wearing an apron pierced through the crowd as he yelled at the bystanders. The ferocity of the horde's clamors subsided at a steady pace. Though I still found myself in the midst of the commotion, the older man's presence created a sense of protection within me. The lady's scowl followed me, but I decided to return to my previous focus: fulfilling my chocolaty craving. Once that small issue was resolved, I could proceed to find my friends, who I had no doubt were outside.

     The crowd formed unruly lines which the cashiers were somehow able to decipher. When it was finally my turn to order, a majestic chocolate delicacy taunted me from a nearby display. Its fluffiness rivaled that of the softest cloud. The rich chocolate color dressing it conveyed its flavor. Syrup flowed from its top to the white plate. I had to have it. 

     Why is my speech romantic as I describe a dessert, you ask? I suffer from a severe chocolate addiction. It is the source of one of my many guilty pleasures. 

     My luck changed during my brief exchange with the cashier. She might have been more accustomed to clueless tourists than the rest of the general population, so she did not complicate our conversation. I simply pointed at the decadent cake and read the screen on the register to know how much I owed her. She did speak a few words to me, but my complete lack of Hungarian language knowledge had deemed me mute. After she gave me the plate, I threw her a grateful smile and walked towards the door.

     The cold air stiffened my face like an ice blanket upon exiting the bakery. I struggled to maintain my resolve to ignore the daggers of ice stabbing me, but this cold was unlike any I had ever before experienced. The oddest factor was the brightness with which the sun shone. Its golden radiance could have fooled anyone into stepping outside with a mere t-shirt. Yet, there I was freezing to death with a thick coat and two pairs of pants. I could not help but wonder for how long I would have to wait on my friends.

     I anxiously dug into my chocolate cake. Each bite was as delicious as my sweetest dreams and most bitter of nightmares. Such exquisiteness seemed impossible to resist, and yet I was incapable of enjoying it to the fullest extent for some reason. Apprehension convulsed my nerves. Something was wrong. I had been outside for about ten minutes, and none of my friends had appeared from inside the bakery.

     Could they have left without me? Fear and denial battled each other within me. No, I thought, they must still be inside. I decided to go back into the bakery and dive into the crowd to look for them. The mass had changed but not shrunk. At least my paranoid attacker was nowhere in sight. I covered each corner in that bakery looking for my friends; they were not to be found. Walking out again, I yelled all of their names into the street as bystanders threw me baffled looks. Oh my God. They really are gone. And these people think I'm insane.

     I took the only reasonable course of action a lost girl in a foreign city could have taken: I panicked.

     Countless questions plagued my restless mind.
             Did they forget about me?
             Is this some sick prank?
             Did they get abducted?

     As absurd as it may seem, scenes from the movie Taken ran through my memory. Except the probability of four girls getting abducted all at once seemed pretty slim. I knew something extreme had to have happened to force them to leave me.  

     At this point, I had not seen them in over half an hour. They could have been anywhere in the unknown city. But, where? Even if I knew where they were, how would I get there? The signs in the metro stations were ALL in Hungarian, and so far I had not had the best luck in terms of finding someone who spoke any of the languages I do.

     I realized then my only choice was to try and find my way back to our condo. That is, if I could remember the way from which we came. We had taken so many turns throughout our path that I did not remember the exact way back. At least I knew I was still in Pest, which was the same side of the city in which our condo was located. Now I just had to walk.

     Each step I took soothed me. This was not the first time I had been alone in a foreign city. True, I was able to properly communicate all the previous times, so I focused instead on the beauty of Budapest. For this city was truly splendid. I longed to drown in its beauty to never forget a single detail, miniscule as it may have seemed.

     Upon turning a corner, I instantly knew this was not the right path to the condo. I had never seen that which stood before me at that moment. Forgetting such a sight would have been impossible.

     A magnificent building graced my view. Its walls were patterned with an intricate design. Two towers dashed from the edifice into the sky above. A dome donning golden ornaments adorned the top of each tower. Before me stood the Dohány Street Synagogue.
     A small voice in my head urged me to continue the search for our condo. But, the ceaselessly curious wanderer within me yelled at the top of her lungs to explore the synagogue. She (but really, I) threw every possible argument against the small, safe voice:
                            1. Your friends are not abducted
                          2. You've never been inside a synagogue
                           3. You might never come back to Budapest
                               (And my personal favorite lie...)
                            4. You won't take that long in there
     The splendor of the synagogue's interior overtook me. Rows upon rows of wooden benches lined the right and left sides of the synagogue. A myriad of lamps glowed hanging from the embellished ceiling. The end of the aisle led to an opulent organ. The wanderer within me was pleased beyond a shadow of doubt.
      I continued exploring the massive synagogue beyond its area of worship. Curiosity led me to the Holocaust Memorial Park in the rear courtyard of the synagogue.
     A peculiar weeping willow stood proud in the middle of the courtyard. The tree's singularity enticed me to close the distance between us. Its silver leaves sparkled under the sun. Upon taking a careful look, I noticed each metallic leaf had a unique engraving on it: a name and a number. I realized then those leaves contained the names and tattoo numbers of Holocaust victims.
     Shivers crawled through my spine, yet they were unrelated to the low temperature.
     Each name listed on the tree represented a person murdered. A hope extinguished. A life eliminated.
     An inscription in the Holocaust Memorial stated the Nazis murdered at least 400,000 Hungarian Jews. 
     Four hundred thousand people murdered.
     Four hundred thousand hopes extinguished.
     Four hundred thousand lives eliminated.
     I was incapable to fathom what such a number entailed. 
     "Quite the infamy, isn't it?" a husky voice shook away my melancholic daze. I turned to find an elderly man regarding me with kind eyes.
     "How could the world allow this to happen?" I asked him. Something about the man made me feel comfortable enough to ask him such a question. I noticed then the kindness in his eyes concealed a profound anguish.
     "When one is not the sufferer of a great tragedy, it is easier to turn a blind eye to the circumstances than to face the adversities they bring about," his wrinkled hand fumbled on a particular leaf from the weeping willow. 
     My voice sounded unrecognizable to my own ears, "All my years of history studies have taught me one terrible truth: genocide has been a part of the world and it will continue to be. There's always someone ready to extinguish entire groups of people for the simplest of reasons." 
     The man's fingers lingered on the same leaf, "One must not lose hope in the eventual redeeming of the human race. She would not have wanted me to lose hope." At the man's mention of a 'she', my eyes scanned the leaf he held. The name 'Tikva' was encrypted on the metal. A number accompanied her name, though it did not gain my attention. I solely focused on her name.
     "Can I ask how you knew her?"
     His ageless eyes watered as they stared at the leaf, "She was my wife. We were newlyweds when she was taken from me. Today would have been her 90th birthday." A lump constricted my throat. For a moment, I could see them. This elderly man, who stood before me, and his wife.
                                      Eternally together.

     All of those possibilities had been ripped from them before they even had a chance to dream of a future together. Sentimentalism for this stranger engulfed me; I gave him a consoling hug as tears quietly slid down my frosty cheeks. 
     I had never hugged a stranger before. But then again, this trip had proven to grant me many firsts.
     The man's eyes glistened when we let go, "Do you know why I still hold hope for the human race?" I shook my head in a silent response. "Because of people like you, who are young but still understand the suffering of others. And also because, " he smiled, "the name 'Tikva' means hope. I must honor her somehow."
     We continued a conversation about his wife. I sensed he had no one else to talk to, for he eagerly shared with me details of her personality. Never was I bored or confused at such a happening. Tikva sounded like a lovely girl. Yes, a girl. For she was only 20 when she was murdered.
     When it was time for the man to part, I thanked him for sharing his story with me. It is unusual for a stranger to tell another such private details of his life, and yet he trusted me with his most prized memories.
     "Köszönöm," he answered.
     "I'm sorry?"
     "It means 'thank you'. Köszönöm for listening to this old man ramble," he called back to me as he walked away.
     That is how I learned my one and only Hungarian word. 


Monday, December 2, 2013

Köszönöm, Budapest!

     Oh, the convenience of understanding and being understood. We often take it for granted, thus failing to realize this advantage might be unavailable elsewhere. Those of us who speak more than one language are guilty as charged. We can at times be foolish in believing the ability to walk through language barriers, as if they do not exist, is ours.
     Yes, I do include myself amongst those occasional fools. In fact, the epitome of my foolishness left me cold, stranded, and lost in a foreign city.
     Winter was bitter. Much more so to someone who had never before spent one in Europe. I crammed four days’ worth of heavy clothes into my typical backpacker luggage hoping the hastily chosen outfits matched. Though I had only been in Venice a couple of weeks, the excitement of discovering another European city enthralled me to no end. This was to be the first trip I would take on my semester abroad.
     I knew very little of Budapest, Hungary, and my decision to visit the city had been an impulse. It happened before I even left Atlanta. A few days before departure, a friend who was already in Venice messaged me asking if I would like to join her, and a few other girls, on a trip to Budapest. The €35 round-trip price was her main selling point. In addition to the astoundingly affordable airfare, we were to stay in a spacious three-bedroom condo in downtown Pest for only €15 a night per person. Declining such an invitation would have been beyond absurd; especially after I Googled the condo. I would basically live on the lap of Hungarian luxury for three days.
     Perhaps the blame of my subsequent idiocy should fall upon my excitement of going to Budapest. I was taken with the idea of visiting Eastern Europe. The rich history. Its mysterious enigmas. The scars left by decades of Soviet rule. I yearned to drink it all in. As such, I did not think twice before boarding a plane which would take me to the first nation in which I did not have a language advantage. My thoughts during the brisk one-hour flight revolved around one of the few pieces of touristic information I knew about Budapest: the existence of the Széchenyi thermal baths. The prospect of submerging my winter-ridden body in boiling tubs sounded absolutely exquisite. Unfortunately, my hot date with the thermal baths would have to wait. I was dismally oblivious to how much I would need their warmth.
     A violent blast of cold wind overtook me the minute I stepped on the ladder which led out of the airplane. The term ‘freezing’ proves deficient. To someone as sensitive to the cold as I am, there are multiple levels of this most unfortunate weather (each growing in awfulness):

1.      Chilly: A sweater usually suffices. I might even risk wearing
a skirt with pantyhose if I feel particularly brave.
2.      Cold: I need my jacket, boots, hat, and gloves. No revealing
clothing anywhere in sight.
3.      Freezing: A winter coat is a must along with everything in the
aforementioned level.  
4.      Daggers of ice stab me to death*: Nothing in my closet is 
       adequate for such extreme conditions. Must wear two pairs of 
       pants at once AND pantyhose underneath them. 

*Please note the fourth level of cold weather was unknown to me until I innocently stepped  out of that airplane.

     We sought refuge through the airport doors, and were rewarded with internal heating. All we needed was to find transportation to our condo downtown. Of course, at an airport one can almost always find at least one employee who speaks English. Budapest was definitely not the exception to this rule. Hence, we encountered no troubles boarding our bus. I was still ignorant of how ill-prepared I was for this trip.

     Our arrival at the condo provided us with a surprise. Not only was our flat as aesthetically pleasing as the pictures had promised, but it was also a penthouse. The view of the city was unfathomable. Antiquity and modernity intertwined in the most intricately fascinating ways. Elegant Gothic structures adorned the panorama begging me to explore them. Contemporary buildings caressed the sky almost ignorant of the ancient grounds on which they stood. The splendid dome of a synagogue embellished the left corner of my view. At first sight, Budapest had already become the most underrated place I had ever visited. I found myself besotted. 

     After choosing our rooms and unpacking the essentials, we set out to delve into the urban jungle that is Budapest. Adrenaline numbed the pain caused by the daggers of ice. I had two choices: a) Waste my time in Europe because it was "too cold", or b) Suck it up and have the time of my life. The right choice is often also the most difficult, but I have no regrets. 

     The streets buzzed with activity. Men, women, children were everywhere. Budapest's intensity was a great contrast to the tranquility of my Venetian neighborhood. One particular characteristic captured my attention: Hungarian was an absolutely incomprehensible language. No, it does not resemble English in any sort of way. Neither is it a Romance language; so, I could not cheat my way through it the way I usually do with French or Portuguese. Hungarian was as foreign to me as air is to fish.  

     An ornate bakery window hooked our attention. The deliciousness displayed was all-out decadent. Cakes fluffy like clouds, juicy fruit pastries, and my personal favorite, creamy chocolate delicacies were sprawled across the sinful display. No girl can resist such charms, so we barged into the bakery eager to taste their treats. 

     Either Hungarians suffer from insatiable sweet tooth, or we had discovered the most popular bakery in the city. Whichever it was, the lack of space inside would have made a solitary confinement prisoner claustrophobic. We. Could. Not. Move. Our fellow treat-seekers were inadvertently shoving us from side to side due to the cramped conditions. The chocolaty goody in which I was about to indulge was well worth the sacrifice though. Its glory was visible from where I stood. I could almost taste its lushness. 

     I turned to my right to tell my friend we would meet outside after getting our pastries. Instead of her, I encountered the face of a stranger looking back at me. I planned to set out to look for my friends, but I needed the stranger to move. There was no humanly possible way to walk around her. The only option was for her to move. How do you say 'excuse me' in Hungarian, again? Oh that's right, I never bothered to look it up

     Well, this was awkward. I smiled broadly at the lady, who seemed a bit baffled by my sudden friendliness. She shot me a thin, closed-lips smile and looked away. Great. How do I get her to move? My strategy shifted to saying 'excuse me' in English, Spanish, Italian, and finally, French. Yeah, now she looked at me as if I had blurted out a long string of Martian insults. Next, I tried waving my hands to the side in vain hopes she would understand what I was trying to tell her. Her furrowed eyebrows and the protective way in which she clutched her purse proved she did not trust my intentions. I am certain at this point the lady firmly believed I should be committed.

     My desperation grew by the minute forcing me to take the rudest possible course of action. I moved her myself. It was not quite a push; I would rather think of it as a gentle shove. To ensure she understood my intentions, I smiled at her as I shoved her aside. Of course with my luck, I would do this to the one lady in the bakery who suffered from a persecution complex. 

     No wonder she had been overprotective of her purse, for it surely contained some hefty objects. She used it to smack me on the arm repeatedly. Who knew such a short lady would possess that sort of strength? I punched her purse away from my arm. She desisted from attacking me physically and proceeded to verbal abuse. The Hungarian insults sounded rough to my ears, and I somehow found myself yelling at her in English. Call it survival instinct or impotence at the situation, but I refused to just stand there and allow her to insult me even if I had no earthly idea what she was saying. 

     More people joined the commotion, yet all I heard around me was Hungarian. Some yelled at me, while others screamed at the lady. I was caught in the midst of a swarm of incomprehensible shouts. The world around me spun making me dizzy. I searched for my friends' familiar faces within the crowd to no avail. Where had they gone?

     I did not understand. I was lost. I was alone.