Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Brokedown Budapest.

Ah, Budapest. Famed throughout the world for its beauty, this city is practically impossible to classify; riddled with paradoxes, it is a spot where the Christian West met and clashed with the Islamic East, and today its Neoclassical estates and Bauhaus townhouses mingle chaotically with its opulent Turkish baths. Little physical evidence remains of Budapest's medieval past... the cost of being such a coveted prize in the imperial wars of Turks and Hapsburgs, and then later in the airstrikes and sieges of the Second World War. Adding further to this urban identity crisis are the drably imposing blockhouses, the legacy of the city's hurried reconstruction under the post-war Communist regime. The finishing touch to Budapest's unique flair is the fact that it is split in two, straddling the vast river Danube, Buda's fortress on Castle Hill watching, ever vigilant, over the bustling streets of streets of Pest on the other bank.

My first day strolling down this streets, I found Budapest so breathtakingly gorgeous that, at one point in my excursion, I moaned aloud in admiration. Should I ever marry, I promised myself, I would insist on honeymooning here. As I stood at the midpoint of one of the city's three bridges spanning the Danube, gazing at the Gothic, palace-like Parliament, the past centuries flooded my senses, filling me with awe, as well as gratitude that I should have the opportunity to see all this with my own eyes.

My second day strolling down these streets, I accidentally strolled right into the middle of an extremist hate rally... without realizing it. I initially thought it was some sort of parade, what with all the cordoned-off streets and toddlers cheerfully waving red-and-white striped flags. The heavy (and heavily armored) police presence made me reconsider this first impression, and when the main event—an irate mob shouting slogans and delivering salutes reminiscent of those seen in old fascism documentaries—appeared, I was forced to completely overhaul it. I observed more of those striped flags in this group, now draped like capes over the shoulders of youths dressed in black and wearing ski masks. Feeling somewhat of an outsider to the enthusiasm of the crowd surging around me, I snapped a few hasty photos and then got the hell out of there. Considering what I learned happened later, my decision turned out to be a prudent one. This strike force, members of a radical right party, met up with another set of demonstrators—a combined gathering of nonviolent activists for tolerance and Roma campaigning for their rights—and decided to express themselves politically, attacking first the pacifists (hardly a fair fight, if you ask me) and subsequently the riot police who attempted to stop them. Several dozen canisters of tear gas later, the demonstration was halted, its members scattered after a hearty effort to spread their compelling message of "saving" Hungary—apparently by destroying it (the numerous vandalized cars and shops along the avenue they marched on can attest to this).

Feeling a need to unwind, I took a retreat to the SzĂ©chenyi Baths, the largest thermal bathhouse in Budapest, offering an array of indoor and outdoor pools with water temperatures ranging as high as 104°F. A crippling sense of exhaustion, coupled with a loss of direction, had crept up from nowhere and overtaken me: my next stop, after a three-day exploration of Budapest, was to be Croatia, but here it was already the middle of Day Five in Hungary's capital, and I still had made no effort to move from my plush hostel. Quite simply, in spite of my encounter with the neo-fascists, I did not want to leave Budapest. I enjoyed wandering its wide avenues by day, and slurping goulash and sipping sweet white wine by night. Weeks spent traveling alone, answerable to no one but myself, and now I was beginning to chafe against even my own vague, self-assigned itinerary. The pressure to make the most of each country, each city, see and do everything I was "supposed" to... all of this was burning me out.

What if I don't want to go to Croatia? I wondered as I floated in warm, watery meditation. I had, after all, started this voyage with the intention to travel freely, no obligation and no schedule. Hell, the only reason I added Croatia to the list was because every single person in the States who found out I was backpacking around Eastern Europe had eagerly asked me, "So, you're going to Croatia, right?" to the point that I had started to worry there might be some kind of secret I was missing out on there. And now it seemed like most backpackers I had met went there to party on the beach—a somewhat sad activity to try on your own. (To any Croatians out there who may be reading this, I mean no offense—I am sure yours is a fine country.) Okay, Croatia's out, I decided with a (dignified and authoritative) splash. We'll save it for Eurotrip 2: The Revenge. But where to go now? I couldn't stay indefinitely in Budapest; that would defeat the entire idea of backpacking AROUND Eastern Europe. Tomorrow, then. I'm leaving tomorrow. I'll figure out where when I get to the train station. All I knew is that I had a plane to catch out of Prague on October 3...

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