The farther east I go, the happier I get. The cities get more dilapidated, and the languages get more alien, both of which things I find fascinating and charming.
Budapest is a real trip. My jaunt was only two short days, during which time I found things both to like and dislike. More time, I’m sure, would balance out the scales in one direction or another. At the very least, I can really get behind those baths. But who couldn’t?
I actually stayed in a hostel for once, which was an excellent choice, as it was in an ancient Hungarian apartment building, complete with rusting wrought iron railings and cracked marble stairs. It was tucked off a humid, tree-laden street that I liked the best out of all the streets. Despite my cold, I took a walking tour bundled up in the rain and thunder, got an excellent history lesson of Hungary, and made a friend to hang out with the rest of the day.
Of course I loved the central market, chock full of produce, sausages, souvenirs (which also get better towards the east), and authentic food. I ate the biggest lunch of goulash stew and Hungarian gnocchi and bread and wine and a cheese pastry, and ogled all the traditional fabrics.
My new friend and I ran over to one of the Turkish baths on the Buda side of the Danube before they closed, which was amazingly worth it. It was tiny and cavelike, dark and stoney. In each of the four corners of the main room were four different pools, each a different temperature, ranging from cool to scalding. The middle pool, the biggest and surrounded by thick columns, was perfectly warm and glistened under a ceiling of dark red and navy and amber stones, backlit by the sunset. I liked to lean back, slowly fill my lungs full of steamy air, floating and bobbing and staring at the jeweled stars.
It was also women’s day, and I have to admit that I admire Europeans’ seemingly complete lack of modesty. My favorite was the gorgeously plump Hungarian woman doing splits next to me in the water on the pool stairs, without one stitch.
Budapest also boasts of ruin pubs, which is one of the few ways, apparently, that you can get me to go out at night with enthusiasm. The country is pretty poor, even enough to prefer leaving crumbling buildings standing in favor of spending money to tear them down. So, a few years back, someone brilliant rented out an abandoned basement, added a few touches but mostly left the decay to speak for itself, and sold some alcohol. Meant to last for the summer, voila, ten years later there are ruin pubs all over the city, each with its own complete and varied personality.
I had a bananas train trip to get to Bulgaria. It took a total of 31 hours, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if there was toilet paper in any of the bathrooms. But as it turns out, yours truly is tremendously researched and took the advice of fellow travelers to always carry tissues, in general, but especially into bathrooms. Forgive me if my facts are a little hazy, but at various points in the middle of the night, I’m pretty sure I passed through 4 countries (Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria), which makes for 6 passport checks, one each for entering and exiting. This does not include copious ticket checks. I should also mention that upon arriving, Snejana had a hardy laugh at my delusion that there would be wifi on the train. I have been spoiled with all these touring buses; Eastern European trains are decrepit metal things, and the stations they stop at are literally piles of broken cement in the middle of dusty, blank, overgrown fields. I was supposed to transfer twice, but at each stop I made, I was told something different in something barely resembling English, and I ended up changing 5 trains and 3 different arrival times. However, I made excellent headway on my book and made friends with a Canadian and two Swedes (who had ice all over their faces but warmth in the surprising favors they paid me). My optimism was barely spoiled, save for anxiety over being late for my hosts.
And anyway, the duration was more than made up for by the infinite fields of bright faced sunflowers, spanning the rolling earth and being tucked in by a sleepy horizon.
It seems what they say about Americans and Europeans is true. Americans are much quicker to offer smiles and jokes and warm words, but once a European has decided to like you, you become, in the truest sense, bonded for good. And so shines through a truth of my own: I dearly wish we could just combine the best of the two. I wish that I could receive easy and reassuring countenances when participating in transactions in the public sphere, and that I could also find depth and intimacy and sincerity in the various relationships forged throughout life. This is a subject that I’ve thought about and discussed at length, and it’s even so much more complicated than it seems. It fascinates and saddens me to no end.
My friends in Bulgaria have not strayed from their culture; I have been treated like a daughter and sister with an obviousness that embarrasses me. In general, I have a difficult time being taken care of. I get flustered and internally troubled when my own blood does the normal things that families do to tend to one another, until I can calm my soul with some Tiffany-approved compromise of gratitude and contribution. Being here among a family with whom I can only speak half the members thanks to the language divide, and yet still being given unquestioning acceptance and consideration as though they have known me since birth rather than yesterday—this is a marvelous feat that confuses, blesses, and discomfits me. Offering money, cooking, or cleaning is not only refused, but occasionally offensive, and I am grieved that I can’t even communicate anything more than a measly thank you in the right language.
Save for one, these past days have consisted of waking up around eight or nine, eating a breakfast of bread and cheese and Bulgarian meats, throwing on suits and walking down the hill to the beach, where we stay til the afternoon. I am by far, without a doubt, the palest creature for miles and miles, though if you’ll believe me, there are now parts of me that more closely resemble butter or honey. Lounging and whatever and nothingness ensues for the afternoon, until I am introduced to something delightfully Bulgarian for dinner. I’ve eaten more cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta than I have ever eaten. Yogurt abounds: various strains of sheep, ox, and goat yogurt; cold yogurt soup with cucumbers; yogurt stirred with water and salt and drunk. Everything, everything is salty. At night we take walks around Sunny Beach or St. Vlas, eat treats and marvel at the parties and pleasantries. You can buy tiny fried fish (with skins and heads and tails, all) for a snack, or you can simply choose to put your feet in a fish tank for a titillating cleaning.
Yesterday we drove to Snejana’s tiny village where her mother’s house still stands. We picked fresh figs off the tree in the garden, and sat in the shade eating peaches while the juice dripped down our chins. She showed me an original part of the wall that was made solely from interlocking sticks and mud. The family relations and local men that are fixing up the house smoked cigarettes and told stories in a magical dappled sunlight.
Afterwards we walked over to a botanical garden in the same village, an unexpected trove of vibrancy in the midst of the neighborhood’s quiet abandon. An enchantingly short woman with round glasses and white hair and rubber shoes walked us through the flourishing entanglement, gabbing quickly in Bulgarian. Her family boasts over a thousand different types of cacti in their greenhouse, and she pointed out myrrh, lime trees, kiwis, eucalyptus. I am wholeheartedly seduced by the light, the heavy air, the green and the glass, the discipline and the dirt. I could have kissed the smiling wrinkled faces of the women under whose hands such life propers, as they sat among hanging gourds and outdoor sinks.
I apologize in advance; there have been several occasions already that I have forgotten my camera. It seems as though when I do bring it, I don’t use it, you know? Maybe when the iPhone 6 comes out (soon?) I’ll splurge and upgrade from the 3 to the 4 so that these pictures that I can snap from my pocket, at least, will be worth something.
My brain flits over plans and potentials most waking hours. My heart is receptive, and I’m trying to comb patience into the threads of my being until it stays there.