Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Köszönöm, Budapest! Part Három (3)

     Cold. Icy. Frigid.

     I could continue for ages about the daggers of ice stabbing me to death on that freezing March afternoon. No amount of layers was adequate. Two pairs of pants, two thick sweaters, a winter coat, a hat, gloves, and even earmuffs (Who wears earmuffs anymore? Apparently, I do) proved insufficient to battle the hostile Hungarian winter.

     And yet, everyone around me seemed so unaffected by it all. I guess humans are, after all, creatures of adaptation. Unfortunately, I would not be in Budapest long enough to adapt to its extreme cold.
     Despite the weather and the fact that I still had not found my way back to the condo, I was enjoying every facet of Budapest. The city's gothic architecture was splashed with contemporaneity creating a rare, underrated jewel. Throughout my trek, I discovered the name of the city is actually compound reflecting its division. Buda is the older part, while Pest is the more modern sector. The two parts are connected by the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. It is a magnificent suspension bridge hovering over the River Danube. Pairs of tongue-less, stone lions adorn each end of the bridge. I longed to cross to the Buda side, but knew that would severely derail me from my mission of finding the condo.

     A quaint souvenir shop in a corner caught my attention. I figured I might as well buy some mementos while there was a chance. A surge of warm air welcomed me into the small store. Speakers blared a melody composed of vivid violin strings. The notes actually made me want to dance even though I was oblivious to the meaning behind the lyrics.

     The store clerk uttered, what I assumed to be, a greeting. I simply smiled and waved in response. How lame it is not to be able to communicate properly, I thought as I gazed at some postcards. After deciding on a couple of them, I directed myself to the counter. The clerk pointed at the screen on the register to signal what I owed her. As I rummaged through my leather wallet to pay her with exact change, a bright pink Post-it note slipped from one of the openings. Well this is further proof of my idiocy, I grunted inwardly.

     How ironic it is that you can completely forget you have the answer to your problems right in your wallet. The answer to my problems came in the form of a long-forgotten piece of paper.

     Unfolding the note proved my suspicion to be accurate: it contained my friend's cell number. Too bad my phone was dead; this was a mission for my awful Hungarian communication skills.

     I paid the clerk while smiling. She did not even glance up to meet my eyes. Her concentration was focused on a tiny television broadcasting a Hungarian daytime drama. To be honest, the show looked kind of good. Its quality definitely rivaled that of Hispanic telenovelas. Focus, I scolded myself, get the lady's attention.

     "Köszönöm!" I exclaimed a little too loudly as my hands waved in the air. The clerk barely even blinked. I guess the show really is good, I granted.

     There had to be a way to shift her attention away from the TV. I desperately needed to use her phone. The cordless was nestled just behind her. So close, yet so out of my reach. Think, Laura, think. Why was it my incapacities felt entirely exposed just because I could not communicate?

     A high-pitched shout emerged from me, "Köszönöm!" I then proceeded to twirl to the stringy tune of the violin. She had to notice me dancing around the store like an idiot. This lady would think I was either the most grateful or the most annoying customer she had ever encountered. Still, her eyes did not wander from the drama for even an instant.

     My hopes dwindled, but I refused to surrender. She would let me borrow her phone. An absurd idea sparked in my mind. Embarrassing, but promising. If she did not dart her eyes away from the TV with this, then I did not know to what lengths I would possibly sink.

     I swung my arms and legs in jumping jack motions while singing, "Köszönöm! Köszönöm! Köszönöm!"

     At this, the lady finally looked up at me. Of course, the moment I decide to make a bumbling fool out of myself would be the precise instant more customers walk into the store. Childish giggles flew from the doorway accompanied by what sounded like an adult holding back laughter. I was sure a video of me acting like a fool would eventually pop up on YouTube.

     I had a mantra for embarrassing circumstances I encountered abroad: Who cares? You will never see these people again!

     This mantra liberated me, but the momentary embarrassment was still raw.

     The lady gaped at me dumbfounded with her mouth shaped into a perfect 'O'. I stopped jumping to savor my victory. My index finger and thumb formed the sign for 'phone' as I held them to my ear. The clerk laughed as she mumbled something in Hungarian. She then handed me the phone. I swear the "Hallelujah" song sounded off triumphantly in my head.

     Four dial tones later, my friend answered the phone, "Hello?"

     "Hey! Where are you guys? You totally abandoned me!"

     Relief washed over my friend's voice, "Laura! Oh my gosh, I'm so glad you're okay! We all got separated by the crowd in the bakery. I kept on calling you, but your phone jumped to voicemail."

     I sighed, "It died. I know, I know, how unprepared of me to let my phone die in a foreign country. Are all four of you together?"

     She then informed me one of my friends was also wandering around the city as she tried to find the condo. At least she had a working phone, so her quest was not as difficult as mine. My friend told me which train number to take and gave me directions to reach the condo.

     I returned the cordless to the store clerk and said, "Köszönöm!" in a real grateful tone this time. The lady's smile conveyed an apology; this small gesture reminded me of the importance of body language during nonverbal communication. I shot her a thankful smile and waved.

     Cold weather enveloped me as soon as I walked out of the store. This time, though, it did not slice through me like a sharp knife. I was ecstatic at being reunited with my friends again. The metro station was simple to find. From there, it took me a mere 15 minutes to arrive at our condo.

     That night, the five of us decided to explore the city's famed nightlife. We started the evening at a bar near the condo. The pub's archaic décor offered a striking contrast to the area's modernity. Still, a live band covered well-known English songs with a unique Hungarian twist. We sipped on cocktails, shots, and Hungarian beer to warm up from the night's bitter cold. After relishing in drinks and dancing for a couple of hours, we moved our party to a coveted underground nightclub.

     The plastic flapped-door was sketchy at best. As we crossed the entrance, a couple of the flaps smacked us on the faces. Apparently, this club was more underground than we thought. A winding staircase led us downstairs to a dark, crowded room. Powerful bass thumped from the speakers situated in each corner of the club. Partygoers pranced around the room festively. It was simple for us to join in the celebration. We were young. We were in a foreign city. And, we were glad to notice Hungarian men were stunningly attractive. This is a very well-kept secret, I thought to myself as a group of handsome men made their way toward us. We spent the rest of the night delighted to dance the cold away.

     The moment for which I had been yearning had arrived. Relaxation in the form of a steamy wonderland. The glorious Széchenyi Thermal Baths greeted us. It boasts a total of 18 baths; 15 are indoor pools, while 3 are outdoor. Each bath varies in temperature ranging from around a frigid 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) to a steaming 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit). We started by trying several different indoor baths and were heavily rewarded by the alleviation it provided to our weather-beaten bodies. I steered clear of the coldest pools; there was no point in soaking myself in freezing water. If I wanted to feel cold, all I had to do was step outside.

     The beauty of the large outdoor bath taunted us. Through the glass doors from which we stood, the bath resembled the pool of a luxurious tropical resort. Although, we very well knew the temperatures outside were nothing but freezing. People walked past us in their bathing suits, braving the low temperature, just to enjoy the outdoor bath. Its water was, after all, a boiling 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, the temperature outside was below freezing. To soak ourselves in that thermal bath, we would have to run down a long flight of stairs in our bikinis and walk a not-so-long distance. Still, that not-so-long distance would seem eternal while semi-naked in below freezing weather.

     That is when it hit me.

     What is the point of going to a whole new place if you fail to experiment?
     What sort of memories can you hope to create without a sense of adventure?
     What is a little cold once you get to try something for which you have yearned?

     Don't be a wimp. A little shiver won't kill you. 

     I pulled my friend's hand, and the five of us created a chain of arms. We ran down the stairs careful not to fall. My body barely noticed the indecently low temperature to which I was exposing it. I credit adrenaline for that perk.

     A whole new type of shiver crawled through me when my feet entered the steaming bath. I slowly submerged the rest of my body into the inviting waters. Only my head remained above the surface. The contrast of cold and hot at once was a magically rare feeling.

     This is what heaven on earth feels like.  

     As I basked in that amazing moment, one particular phrase ran through my mind:

                                                   "Köszönöm, Budapest, Köszönöm!"

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