Tired, hungry, sore neck, sore throat. All things that make for a cranky combination, and I currently possess in my array of emotions upon landing in Budapest. The flight was a good three hours, and I haven’t had proper sleep in a while. But we’ve gotten pretty good at not sleeping (taking a night bus to Vilnius and sleeping in a cafe, spending the night at the Vilnius airport), and I’m sure that I’ll be able to take hold of Budapest just like any other sleep-deprived city adventure I’ve partaken in. We get into the city and head to the hostel, which won’t let us check in until 15:00. However, they’ll gladly take our money so I fork up a 10,000 forint (about $36) note and she gives me an absurd amount of change. Hungarian forints are a lot like monopoly money. They’re colorful and huge and in ridiculously large values. So for the $12 room I’ve purchased I receive a clump of money and coins that I have no space for. This both excites and irritates me. Paying 1000 monies for an item makes me feel like I’m making a sturdy investment. But I’m literally just buying a coffee.
With a mound of money in pocket, we head to Apricot coffee for a quick cup and relax. I’m a little delirious.
So we drink our coffee and continue. Budapest is one of those cities that gets hyped up a lot. There are some that deserve the hype, like Prague or Paris or Berlin (in my opinion). But I’m not sure Budapest is all there for me. We walk around the Jewish quarter, stumbling into some very overpriced and trendy “second-hand” stores that sell completely new items. I jumble through hoards of American tourists and stag parties getting drunk off cheap beers at noon and wonder what all the hype is about. Honestly, the next few hours is just a conglomeration of me being irritated by listening to the conversations of American tourists.
They just complain so much. Which in turn, makes me complain so much. But to be honest, I don’t want to complain about these silly American tourists, because I really enjoy eavesdropping on their nonsensical conversations like; “ya, I mean like, I guess we could. I guess I’m just like, completely exhausted, you know?” or “do you think there’s running water?” or “I have NEVER thought about tying my shoes that way before”. Such strange dribble from the mouths of my lovely kinfolk. I know I shouldn’t get annoyed, they’re just trying to have fun on vacation. But I don’t know, it’s fun to make fun sometimes.
So we wander around the touristy hipster jungle of the Jewish quarter and get back for a quick nap since we can finally check in. Our hostel room is so nice and so cheap, and we sleep a perfect nap away. We arise fresh and renewed and go back out to hit the town. Our neighborhood is actually pretty nice. It’s a bit more local and there are few tourists, so we wander the streets and grab dinner in a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. We stroll along the Danube and cross the bridge into Buda to peer at the Parliament building in the dusk light, and that’s quite nice. Budapest does have lovely architecture. It’s a bit like Prague but with larger street sizes. So it’s nice enough.
I find myself weeding through hoards of tourists as we get to a famous ruin bar in the Jewish Quarter. It’s a concept of bars in a run down place, but there’s a line far out the door so we skip it and go to a much chiller bar next door. They have their own beers on tap, and we pretty much have the place to ourselves aside from a talkative drunken Hungarian at the bar.
Hungarian is an odd language for me, but perhaps that’s because I’ve never heard it spoken on a regular basis. It is weird though. As a language, it just sort of popped out of nowhere. I guess if I close my eyes really tight and let my mind wander, Hungarian sounds a little bit like Finnish…but even that’s a stretch. ‘Thanks’ in Hungarian, ‘köszi’, sounds a bit like ‘kiitos’ in Finnish (at least they start with the same letter…). It’s one of those languages I probably will never wrap my head around, so the basic hello and thank you will do for now.
The next day we stroll a bit more. It’s a lazy Sunday, and not much is going on. We go to a cafe that Ivana’s friend from University recommended, and it’s extremely decadent. I get a hot chocolate thicker than a chocolate mousse and go into anaphylactic shock while feeling like an Aztec prince. The place is kitschy galore, covered in old dusty teddy bears and beanie babies and nonsensical Soviet paraphernalia. It’s difficult just to walk through the place. We leave and go back to the ruin bar with a line out the door, as they have a local farmers market every Sunday. I’m glad we eventually went because it’s a cool place.
It’s covered in nonsense and rubbish and hipsters but it’s a nice atmosphere. We just have a little walk around and then go to a ramen shop across the street. I know, ramen in Budapest. But Budapest is cheap, and hipster ramen places are usually expensive. This is Ivana’s first ramen too, so I found it more interesting than getting a goulash from a touristy place.
Ivana’s parents are coming to pick us up soon, so we start making our way to a mall on the edge of town which we agree to meet at. They rent a place on the Southern Croatian coast every summer, and the drive home conveniently runs through Budapest. They’ve been driving since 6:00, so that Mr. Stavrovsky can watch the France-Croatia final this afternoon. He’s a man on a mission, and we get picked up and hurriedly make the three-hour drive to Košice.
The Hungarian countryside is pretty flat, so I spend my time listening to Slovakian being spoken at intense speeds. It’s a pretty language, certainly a lot prettier than most Slavic languages (but maybe I’m biased). We get into Košice and before I can sightsee, I have to watch the second half with Papa Rovská. I’m welcomed with open arms and care, and a non-alcoholic beer to enjoy the game with. Croatia was the obvious favorite, as the Stavrovska family just returned from there.
Now we’ve watched the game, and take a walk just to the grocery store to pick up some veggies for dinner. Grocery stores are always one of the first places I visit when I arrive in a new country. Just wandering the aisles aimlessly, looking at cheeses and spices and candies and whatever else endlessly excites me. I learn so much about a place when I see what people eat on a daily basis. Slovakia, for example, loves its cheese and pickles and seeds and right now has a love affair with fresh berries. Beautiful.
We eat our roasted veggies and get to bed. Everyone’s pretty tired, and I have to get some rest before stepping into a new country.
Slovakia is my fifty-fifth country. Lithuania was my fiftieth, and I absolutely should have done something special for the occasion but instead did nothing. It’s amazing that I’ve been able to make it to so many places so soon in life, and I’m so incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to do so. For me, travel is something that helps me get out of bed in the morning. When it’s cold and dark, and snowing icicles in the cold Danish winter and I have to get up at 6 am and go to a class I hate, travel is the only thing getting me out of bed. I wake up and linger in bed a while, cursing my life choices and educational path while feeling trapped. Moments like that make you want to linger in bed forever. Then I think, “wake up, you haven’t even been to Scotland or Portugal or India or so many other places yet. Get out of bed and see the world.” It’s travel that makes me move, the possibility to see and experience new things. The desire to meet new people, make lasting impressions with amazing individuals from around the world and be a part of their journey. That’s what gets me out of bed every morning.
Several months ago, I hosted two Frenchman from Cannes in my flat. They found me on Couchsurfing on a walking tour from Cannes to Nordkapp, the most Northern point of Europe all the way in the tip of the Norwegian tundra. One of them, Rémi, texted me the other day that he just made it to Nordkapp in time for sunset. It’s taken them seven months, overcoming the Swiss Alps in winter, the boring Danish countryside in Spring, and the Norwegian wilderness in summer. Meeting the two was a highlight of my year, and I am so honored to have been a part of their journey. At the same time, Rémi remarked how much of a highlight it was for him to stay with me, and how excited he is for me to visit one day in Cannes. It’s these exchanges I crave most in life, that make me keep exploring and continuing to travel and meet people.
I am left with this thought as I journey into Košice, my first city in my fifty-fifth country. There’s a promenade lined with bars and shops and a central water feature.
It’s been raining a lot and because of that, nobody is out. We go to a local cafe with 1 euro espresso (I love Central European prices) and wait for our mutual friend, Slavomir, who grew up just a few streets away from Ivana. They only met for the first time in Aalborg, and I met Slavo before I met Ivana. It’s weird to see a friend from Aalborg all the way here, but it’s so humbling to be shown someone’s hometown. People also have a completely different air about them when their home. They just seem to smile more, and breath a bit more deeply. We walk together, walking to Europes Eastern most Gothic cathedral.
It’s lovely architecture, it reminds me a lot of towns around the Czech Republic. But for Slovakia’s second biggest city, it certainly isn’t that large. Still, it’s a relaxed atmosphere and I appreciate any form of beautiful architecture around a town.
Here’s a monument of all the victims of the multiple plagues taking place in Košice history. We go and grab an ice cream, and eat it next to the Russian liberation memorial.
Full of ice cream, we part ways with Slavo and head to a high school friend of Ivana’s for dinner. Shoshana and her boyfriend, Pali, have been cooking us her mother’s famous beef cheeks in wine sauce for hours.
They live in a perfectly kitschy Central European apartment (well it’s her parent’s apartment), with orange furniture and fake apples everywhere. Her mom just likes apples.
Dinner is served, and I get really quiet for a little bit because I fall in love with what’s in front of me.
I licked that goddamn bowl clean. Perfect tender and savory, with mashed potatoes to sop up all the goodies. Shoshana’s mother knows how to cook some beef cheeks. We sit back and drink some whiskey, and have a relaxed night. The first day is a nice intro to Slovakia.
We wake up and have a massive breakfast. Ivana’s mother is spoiling me rotten with cakes and goodies. I haven’t been this full in a while. There are brownies, fresh cake, delicious cheeses, fresh perfect fruit. I simply can’t eat it all. Yet I’m clearly not eating enough to be polite. I force myself, as I will probably continue to do for the next week, and eat as many goodies as possible without succumbing to type 2.
The plan is to ride bikes to Grandma’s summer house in the forest. We hop on our bikes and ride through a perfect forest road for about 45 minutes, getting caught in a massive monsoon downpour along the way.
We could stop and wait for it to pass, but we’re already soaked so we keep on moving. Ivana’s great-grandfather built this house back in the 1970’s, and it’s been her Grandma and Grandpa’s summer getaway ever since. It’s beautiful, and I take notes for my future forest dream retirement house.
It’s been raining nonstop (until we arrive, of course,) and uncle has raided the forest of all its mushroom goodies.
Ivana’s father, aunt, and little cousin are in the living room with the grandparents talking and eating cookies. I don’t understand what’s going on, so I just look around and enjoy the atmosphere.
I really enjoy spacing out and listening to other people talk sometimes. Luckily I surround myself with people from exotic lands. I’m still dripping wet, and Ivana’s grandmother has placed a little rug under my feet so I don’t get the floor wet. Ivana and I raid grandmas closet and come out looking like Japanese hipster tourists.
This summers hottest new fashion. Babushka pants, dad’s old shirt from when he was fat in the 90’s, and uncle Roman’s torn shoes from the 1980’s. I look beautiful and feel beautiful. We leave while it’s sunny, hoping it’ll stay sunny, and of course, get caught biking home through another dowsing of rain. Why not, our clothes were still wet anyways. In the evening, we meet up with another high school friend for some board games at a board game bar. We then grab dinner at a nice bar and get a beer at a movie theater that’s also a cool bar. The Slavic word for beer is really satisfying to me. ‘Pivo’ just sounds a lot more like beer to me than ‘beer’ or ‘cerveza’ or Danish ‘øl’. I like when words kind of sound like what they are, and pivo kind of sounds a little bubbly and malty to me. We talk over the beers and eventually head home.
The next day is relaxed, and we meet up with Papa Rovska for lunch. I get the local specialty, halušky. They’re potato dumplings, a bit like gnocchi, with a goat cheese sauce topped in chives, bacon, and sour cream.
Although, if I didn’t tell you what it is you may tell me it looks like a bowl of maggots. I wouldn’t disagree with you. But the right flavors are there, and the trifecta of cheese, potatoes, and bacon make any meal delicious so I enjoy a hearty bowl of it. We meet up with Shoshana and Pali for a coffee, and head to a craft center where Shoshana’s aunt is a teacher. Here, kids learn woodworking, textile, pottery, and other crafts in the traditional fashion. It’s really interesting watching kids work on tiny looms and other kids mold clay. It’s amazing to see kids work in the traditional fashion as well, and I’m glad to see them preserving traditional art forms. We say goodbye, actually get kicked out by one of the other teachers of the school, and go around town for a bit of second-hand shopping. Košice is a working town, so there are a lot of second-hand stores. US Steel has a huge factory that employs a lot of people, so it’s a big presence here. Tonight we have roasted veggies with the family, and stay in. I’ve been welcomed so warmly and had such a wonderful time so far, and I can’t wait to see what the next week holds.