Placed safely in a refuge of Andersen’s Pub, the lights dimmed like that of a primeval cave and a fiery glow of sixty watt bulbs located sparsely along the irregular walls, I sit at a table that hums with the bass of a subwoofer on a wall ten paces from my left heel. Out of the corner of my eye stands the barkeep, himself in an obnoxiously tight plain white shirt, a tacky barbed wire tattoo vaingloriously strapped to each bicep. Behind him the creative names of cocktails omnipresent in the cavernous pubs that line the streets.
Equal parts engaging and confusing, these quirky concoctions are tagged Pink Musketeer, Woo-Woo Mission, Bitter Harem Bandit, and Stolen Suitcase. I reckon after two of these, the names either make perfect sense or just don’t matter, though I doubt I will ever have equal parts stupidity and desperation to try. If you ask me, keep it professional, whisky neat and if not, pour me a beer – though why ask the guy in the glasses sitting at the bar with his laptop open, his air askew and his lips slightly murmuring the words of his present thoughts – one of the mysteries of the universe, I’ll tell ya.
Aided by the seven sips of a glorious Hungarian draught, I am prepared to write a prose of the world which I have now found myself in. Lost for weeks in a state of complete contemplation yet little action, I have finally broke free of the proverbial chains and with a few figure eights around this huge town, a forgotten map and few sore toes, I am finally back.
I can barely see the keys as I type, though the wide rim of the half-liter that sits chilled on my right glistens with the reflections of dark wood, chalk boards and fellow pints on the wall. Outside this darkened cavern, the sun is shining brightly on the cobblestone streets, along the crumbling facades with balconies stuffed with ferns, blooming vegetable planters, and colorful annuals. The tree lined streets hiding the raunchy sex shops but accentuating the colorful cafes with their small tables, stools, and hand-drawn signs offering espressos, long coffees, and their own versions of the drinks emblazoned on the wall to my immediate right.
Days later, I reside in a cafe on the other side of the Danube, a floating beast strapped with ornate bridges of iron and concrete. I listen to pleasant jazz among recently dusted bookshelves laden with colorful books. The titles mean nothing to me, though by the look of faded color and worn spines, these novels have seen better days – this does not weaken the message within, only strengthens it.
People pass in and out, beaming smiles and crooked frowns past an old lacquered piano pushed into the corner and covered again with more books, papers, hats, and coats – this surface collects dust.
My feet are sore, despite the massage I received two days hence at the old Ottoman bath house that I explored for three hours or more. Packed with a pair of shorts, a towel and some sandals I disappeared into the pampered bowels of the spa, with its Ottoman dome and warm pools of soothing delight. Modesty is rarely used in these houses, as I went first to the shower and my cheeks turning a rosy glow I was reminded almost immediately of gym class in the sixth grade after wrestling. Strip down and go shower. With everyone else, who has stripped down as well.
Goddammn, well here we go.
Nothing like walking around socializing with everything out and about, kidding – no socializing – stick to your corner and do what you need to do. Put those modest shorts back on and head to the massage table and get a deep tissue rub-down, worked with careful and experienced hands, the knotted muscle melts down to a tender string, after months of walking and strenuous activity.
Sit up and go down to the cool baths, the one where you walk down a slowly descending ramp into the water, the legs of your shorts billowing with air and then finally make the long awaited glide into the water, the sensors on your skin crying out in a delightful sensation of fright and calm. Let the wave flow over you, cooling your body down and letting the blood in your carefully manipulated tendons do its work and repair the damage done.
The air outside the door is cold, as the glass enclosure opens to reveal storm clouds above and I, dripping wet from the pool skip lightly across the stones to the refuge of cedar rooms and hot stones. I sit down on the wood, after being greeted both by the cloud of steam from the sauna and by the gruff baritone of a pot-bellied local with an ostentatious yellow speedo and tattooed sleeves of marine animals baring their teeth running along his arms. My body feels enveloped completely by the warmth, my nostrils struggling to remain clogged, their stubbornness soon to be overrun.
The man who greeted me raises a small water bottle filled with clear liquid, says something unintelligible, and then offers me the vessel. I shake my head, clearly surprised that this fish-loving maniac expects me to take a swig of hard alcohol while sweating out all my toxins. I take it, in some realms it is pointless to argue, just accept and deal. I take off the lid, and give a sniff – my once blocked nostrils surrender soundly, a crushing defeat before the onslaught of peppermint shnapps. The man beckons me to the hot stones, and makes a dumping motion.
Less than thirty seconds later, I am getting high on peppermint infused steam rising wickedly from the corner. I close my eyes and let it sink in. Everywhere. Sweat pours off my body, origins unknown, I feel as if I just took a dip in the Danube but here I sit in a cedar barrel of steaming air, reaching a ethereal destination of peace and wholeness.
I greet the air outside with a sigh of relief, quite like jumping into the pool after a good soaking in the hot tub and its only to the showers that I go next. There is a large urn of ice in the center of an aquamarine-tiled room, with a pictorial sign that suggests the steaming man stick his entire head into the mountain of frozen water.
When in Budapest.
Laughing, I thrust my face in and like a true Norseman, rise up and bellow with ecstasy.
I rush into the showers to wash away the hazardous sweat before it dries on my skin and I come out refreshed, a new man.
Into the baths, a vast enclosure of red stone and worn columns from an age long past and the dome above letting the remaining day’s light through subtle holes barely noticeable from the rising steam. The great pool, a perfect circle with marble steps descending into the watery depths, greets my wandering toes.
I adore the sensation of self-control, knowing the warmth awaits but fending off the temptation to give in. I allow the urge to crawl, start to walk, and then into a full run, all through my body until I am near a point of breaking, with a smile I dip my foot in. Then the next stair and down into the warm water. I close my eyes and feel that incredible fire run through my corporeal being and then like the water surrounding me, wash away. I am left on the stairs, kicking my legs slowly in the water, relaxing with no sense of urgency. Loving the moment.
Tall walls and sweeping ceilings, a cavernous space with mats on the floor and a coffee maker in the middle. A natural meeting place, where words are passed around and ideas are grown. A bright young boy runs around the apartment in a constant state of metamorphosis, first a plane, then a honeybee, next he is scurrying like a wolverine and then rolling like a serpent across the lacquered floorboards and I sit observing with a smile growing at each new configuration.
Generosity and kindness has brought me into this beautiful place, by the whim of my hosts, one man and his son, who have shown me the beauty of this city does not solely reside in the grand stones on the main square but also in the small places behind doors and around corners. Bursting at the seams with wisdom both past and present, the father is a chiseled version of an unknown sage who allows himself the freedom to blossom with his son, and allows his own inner child to still roam free – walking more than 40 steps on his hands whilst listening intently to opera. I’ve only known him for two days, but each time I leave the place I still have a residual smile spreading across my face. A good sign, methinks.
There is a lesson in each experience. Here and there, I accrue these thoughts, ideas, and formulas to improve my life. I have learnt more hard truths about myself in the last four months, done more crazy things, made more mistakes and solved more problems than I ever had in that span of time. Traveling solo has opened me up to possibilities previously unknown, unexpected, and soon understood.
Two gentlemen sit idly across from me, an American on the left by the sound of his accent, though often enough folks nowadays are taught english with an American accent making their own lilts indistinguishable – its so close to the real thing that I am taken aback that they are not native. Regardless, his grasp of the language is good and he seems to have a gentle demeanor, silent and listening, with that lean look that often comes with a hard traveled life. The individual next to him seems younger, his clothes more ruffled, a shadow of a beard scratches his chin and his eyes are searching, seemingly wanting to speak, speak, speak. The quiet American looks on, waiting, marking short notes in his journal chuckling to his mate’s jokes but has that faraway look of someone thinking about two things at once, not fully engaged.
I am currently sitting in another coffee shop, this one with books around it as well but the tables don’t match, the chairs are different heights and it looks, to my delight, that the bench that I am now resting on is a pew from an old church. Considering the alternative, its in a better place – one of inspiration, smiles, dusty volumes picked up by curious hands, perused by interested eyes.
Last days are always the most emotional, saying goodbye, making sure you did enough in that particular place to make your stay worth it. Budapest was a beautiful place to spend this week, an entire week I was here and another will be spent at a farm west of here near the Austrian border where I will be living in a round house with a wood fire and have two dutch volunteers for company. They have quite the work to do before winter and with the cold approaching, they are hard-pressed to complete it all.
As for now, I think I am going to purchase some peanut butter and jelly for the week ahead, maybe even a little chocolate to get me through the hard work. One can never have too much chocolate after all.
My next and long-awaited entry will be in regards to Sarajevo, the favorite Balkan city with hidden mysteries, and a conglomerate of culture, love and beauty unrivaled in Eastern Europe. It took me only the beauty of Budapest to realize the great beauty that was Sarajevo, and my inspiration to write about my memories there. So after zig-zagging across Europe, I am leaving this side of the world after months of travel and into the West I will go. Wish me luck.