Easter in Budapest

I apologize for how long it’s been taking me to update on my adventures. Life here is just so busy, between traveling and the occasional class. It’s hard to find the time to sit down and recount an experience, because before I know it I’m off somewhere else. What a problem, huh?

Over Easter break I traveled to Budapest, Hungary to visit my high school friend Clint. This would be my first real trip out of Germany (save a previous day-long foray into Austria), my first big solo journey, and my first visit to a country where speaking German and English would not necessarily be enough to get me by.

The journey began immediately, because I was flying a Hungarian discount airline, WizzAir, to Budapest, and all the discount airlines in the area fly out of the Frankfurt-Hahn airport, rather than the main Frankfurt Airport. Still, Frankfurt-Hahn has Frankfurt in the name, so it can’t be that far away, right? Right? Wrong.

Hahn is actually an hour and 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt. I have no idea where it actually is. All I know is that I hopped on a bus outside of the train station in downtown Frankfurt, and when I hopped off all I saw was a small airport and wide, desolate fields – definitely nowhere near Frankfurt. Thus the eternal question remains: Where the hell is Hahn?

The rest of the trip was uneventful – WizzAir was very painless to fly, even for a budget airline, and the journey was fairly quick. Clint met me at the airport in Budapest, and away we went.

Immediately, it was clear that Budapest was not like the other European (read: German) cities I had seen. Their buses and metro cars just looked…dated. Not necessarily archaic, but still clearly from an era that Germany (at least the cities I have been in) has definitely since moved past.

Riding the public transportation was also immediately overwhelming because the Hungarian language is just so radically different from anything I have experience with. It’s a language where it’s hard to tell both how a word is pronounced based on its spelling and how a word is spelled based on its pronunciation. Thus, hearing stops called on public transportation or reading them on a sign did not necessarily mean I had my bearings. I immediately resolved to shamelessly cling to Clint.

I arrived on a Saturday evening and the first order of the night was to go to an Irish pub (naturally) to see the end of a soccer game. After that, we had some drinks at an outdoor café area, outside of a bar that was essentially a converted metro station (the city had begun to build a new station and then abandoned the project). This sort of set a theme for the trip. Budapest is a fascinating, lively city plagued by a constant lack of money. Amidst beautifully preserved, classically designed buildings there will be crumbling structures in near ruins. It’s almost part of the city’s charm—it gives Budapest something that makes it distinct from other European capitals (besides, you know, the unintelligible language).

That night also involved hitting up a Budapest club, a secret/illegal bar (you literally had to know exactly where to go and ring the doorbell to gain access) and then watching/participating in karaoke until six in the morning. Not a bad first day in Budapest.

A Soviet statue in the middle of a Budapest park. Guess we're not in Western Europe anymore!

The next day got an understandably late start, but eventually Clint and I wandered out for a proper city tour. Overall, Budapest is an incredibly beautiful city, with a fascinating juxtaposition of classical European architecture with more eastern-inspired art-nouveau buildings. There are also clear reminders of the Soviet legacy in Budapest, with many starkly utilitarian buildings butting up against the classic architecture or art-nouveau structures. There’s even a Soviet-era statue remaining in one of Budapest’s parks, which I found absolutely fascinating. Apparently a deal was made with the crumbling Soviet government that the statue would remain if the Soviet Union agreed to protect some Hungarian graves on Russian soil (or something like that), and so to this day there remains a statue honoring the Soviet Union in the middle of a Budapest park.

One of my favorite sights was the Parliament in Budapest, which simply has to be seen to be believed. It’s massive, excessive and beautiful—sort of like the Rathaus in Munich on steroids. Apparently only a small fraction of the building is even used for day-to-day operations.

There was one building across from the Parliament that I was intrigued by, because the façade was covered in small metal balls that seemed to serve no aesthetic purpose. I asked Clint, and he told me that each ball was situated over where a bullet hole used to be, remnants of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets, which was eventually crushed. This uprising is well-remembered throughout the city, as we stumbled on several memorials related to events or people associated with the 1956 revolution.

After the parliament, we crossed the bridge across the river into the Buda side of Budapest, in order to walk up to Buda Castle, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. The climb is steep, but it rewards trekkers with a wonderful view of the city as well as a close-up look at the castle itself. There is also a lovely church in the vicinity, St. Matthias.

Looking at the two different sides of the city (Buda and Pest) from the view at Buda Castle. The Parliament is that big fancy looking building.

The next day featured more sightseeing, with one particularly notable stop: The Budapest Opera House. Clint had floated the possibility of going to see the opera this night, because apparently they sell some incredibly cheap tickets ideal for students, costing 500 – 1,000 Forints ($2.80 – $5.60). I thought this sounded like a great idea—I had never been to an opera before, so why not see one in one of Europe’s greatest venues?

We arrived at the opera wearing the same clothes we had been walking around in all day, meaning I felt very underdressed for such a fancy occasion. But, given how much we paid for our ticket, we were in good company once we went to our seats – the attire was decidedly more casual in the cheap seats.

The opera itself was an interesting experience. There were some major impediments to our understanding of the performance: 1) we didn’t know anything about the opera (Puccini’s Tosca) beforehand; 2) it was sung in Italian; 3) the subtitles were in Hungarian; 4) perhaps most critical, from our vantage point, we could only see about 25 percent of the stage, and it just so happened that most of the play occurred on the other 75 percent of the stage.

All that said, it was still a great experience – just getting to hear the opera in the building’s phenomenal acoustics was an experience in and of itself, as was just getting to sit there and take in the beauty of the building. It was easily the highlight of my trip.

Inside the opera house!

That night we hit up a couple of ruin bars, something Budapest in particular is known far. Basically, these are bars that take up residence in old, abandoned buildings – so, from the outside, it looks like there couldn’t possible be a bar inside, because the building is practically falling apart. But the insides of these bars were too cool – gritty, but lively and loud. They were unlike any bars I had even seen before.

Ultimately, Budapest is unlike any other European capital, particularly because of its fascinating mix of east and west. It definitely deserves to be at the top of anyone’s European travel must-sees, and I’m extremely grateful I had the opportunity to visit.

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Some assorted observations

Life is definitely starting to stabilize. On Tuesday we began our intensive language course (sprachkurs). Now every Monday through Thursday we will be receiving language instruction for four hours a day. Yikes! But I know the course will be incredibly helpful as far as gaining fluency in the language, and thus far I have found it to be quite enjoyable. The course level I was placed in is perfect for my abilities, and I can already tell my German competency is improving.

It is getting disorienting moving between German and English, though. I’d like to begin to speak more exclusively in German, even with my fellow international students, but that’s not really possible with all of them because they have varying levels of German experience. So, English can’t be eliminated completely, but I hope I can begin to rely on it less and less.

I’m excited for some of the opportunities we have as part of the course. We will be meeting this Friday for a night out in Marburg’s bars, going for a hike to a 19th-century Prussian watchtower on Sunday, and making a group trip to Wiesbaden (the capital of Hessen) next week. So although I am becoming more settled here, the opportunities for exploration are still far from over.

Assorted observations about life in Germany

Water Fountains: They don’t exist. Period. I have yet to see one here. I mean, I’m sure they exist SOMEWHERE, but they are nowhere near as prevalent as they are in the United States. This seems particularly strange to me, because it seems that water fountains have a wide appeal – why wouldn’t people want immediately accessible, free water? When I pose this question to Germans, they say you can just drink from a bathroom faucet if you really don’t want to buy water. And while I realize the water coming out of the faucet is probably just as good as what you might get out of a water fountain, that still just doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer.

Side note – I have also had an incredibly hard time finding a replacement water bottle here, such as a steel/aluminum bottle or a plastic nalgene. People just don’t use those here – they either buy a new bottle of water or reuse and old plastic bottle.

Recycling: In a display of true German precision, recycling is a big deal here. When trying to dispose of an item, it’s common to be confronted with several bins, each intended only for certain items – single-stream recycling is apparently not en vogue here. There are bins for paper, plastics, garbage, green glass, brown glass, clear glass… they’re into their recycling here. I think I am supposes to sort my own trash in my dorm room. We’ll see how that goes.

Cigarettes: Smoking is far more prevalent here than it is in the United States. There are areas inside the university’s union building and cafeterias for smokers, and it’s impossible to go out to a bar and not come back reeking of smoke. They also have cigarette dispensers throughout the city streets, which I think is very strange, specifically because it means ANYONE with money can buy them – even children.

University perks: There are a lot of things the other American students and I have become accustomed to at our home universities in the United States that are simply not the case here. One obvious example – internet access. Only some of the dorms here have internet access (and I think when they do it’s just through an Ethernet cable, not wireless) and I am not in one of those dorms. So if I want free wireless access, I have to take a bus down to one of the university buildings, a 15 to 20 minute ride. Except then, I am limited by the hours the building is open – on weekdays, the union is open until 8 p.m.; on weekends, its hours are severely limited (the library is at least open until midnight every night, although it is a bit farther out than the union). Back at Marquette, all dorms and university apartment buildings are wired, and many of our academic buildings are open until midnight (our library is open 24/7).  Many (although not all) American universities offer free gym memberships, but here in Marburg that would cost 80 euros a month.

Marburg also has 100 percent more castles than Marquette.

But there is a critical flipside to this, and that is the cost of tuition. We get a lot of perks at our universities in the United States, but, compared to German universities (and most other European systems), we pay dearly for it. German students pay about 500 euros a year in tuition (though they don’t even refer to it as such; it is paid as semester fees). Compare that to the $10,000 a year (with scholarships) I am paying to go to Marquette.

We (the Americans) complain a lot about everything we’re used to that our university here in Marburg just doesn’t provide, but I don’t think I’m too far off when I say there are probably a lot of American students who would gladly forego all the conveniences of their American education if they could simply graduate college without tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Helau!

Yesterday was easily my best day here, and very unexpectedly so.

Four of us met up this morning to head to the train station to spend the day in Frankfurt. We get free train rides within the state of Hessen as students in Marburg, and I figured if we didn’t have anything better to do, why not bum around Frankfurt? It doesn’t exactly have the best reputation in Germany as an exciting, scenic place to visit, but I know there are some parts of it that are kind of pretty, and again, it’s not like we were paying anything to make the trip. Plus, it only takes about an hour.

Confetti bursting in the air, with the Römerberg in the background.

We got into Frankfurt at about 10:30 a.m. and just started walking with a vague sense of direction, which eventually proved to be faulty (shock). I was trying to get us to the Römerberg, Frankfurt’s old city, but I was ultimately unsuccessful in these efforts. We worked our way back toward the train station to find a Starbucks so I could use the wifi to look up a map on my iPod.

On the way back, we kept noticing people dressed up in costumes, which seemed a bit odd.  We also began to hear loud music and noticed increasing crowds of people – clearly, something was up. There were barriers that had been set up along the roads that we thought had been left from a previous event, but we began to realize that something was actually happening today.

I began to figure that Frankfurt was probably having a Karneval celebration, something the city of Köln/Cologne is best known for, but which other cities and villages also celebrate. We immediately realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a uniquely German celebration, and we abandoned our plans of wandering around, instead finding a place along the barriers to watch the parade.

It was pretty cold out, and we stood for a LONG time – I would guess a total of 3 ½ or 4 hours – but it was incredibly fun. It’s not clear to me exactly who made up the parade participants, but it seems that there are hundreds of organizations throughout the city who create their own floats and performances for the parade route, dressing up in silly costumes, handing out candy to children and playing traditional Karneval songs. Many of the songs were well known by the parade watchers, who would sing along. Apparently Sweet Caroline is a popular Karneval tune, and we heard it several times during the parade.

One of the many, many floats in the parade.

In addition to the traditional songs, all the parade participants would constantly call out to the parade watchers, “Frankfurt! Helau!” to which the crowd which shout back, “Helau!” I guess this was some sort of traditional Karneval greeting – we thought they were saying “Hello!” but we eventually realized it was different.

One aspect of the parade that I thought was interesting was its use of some racial imagery in ways that would never be acceptable in the US – there were groups done up in blackface with images on their floats depicting caricatures of blacks that would be offensive to most in America, and other dressed in ponchos and sombreros as part of an overall Mexican theme. I realize that different societies will have different taboos, and it’s certainly not as though the parade participants themselves were entirely white, but I just thought it was interesting that what some Americans might find deeply offensive apparently doesn’t even register with Germans.

Other highlights of the day included: trying currywurst, a bratwurst chopped up with some sort of sauce poured over it and curry powder sprinkled on it; trying Glühwein, a hot spiced wine that is absolutely phenomenal on a cold day; and making friends with Patrick, who currently lives in Frankfurt and works as a dog trainer (he had an adorable dachshund with him and his parents trained German Shepherds – how German!).

It was just such an unexpectedly fun day – we were going down because we had nothing better to do and I wanted to get more familiar with Frankfurt’s train station, since I hope to be making many more trips during my time here. Yet instead we stumbled on a uniquely German celebration, essentially a giant party in the middle of Frankfurt. We didn’t quite make it to the old city today, but this was absolutely a day well-spent in Frankfurt. And hey, it’s not like we can’t come back another time.