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
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.
TO BE CONTINUED...