A long hiatus once more. But this precious experience has to be recorded for posterity! I read somewhere - "There are some people in life that make you laugh a little bit louder, smile a little bigger and live a little better." You have to be lucky to have plenty of such life-giving forces in your life. I certainly have been. To a friend that knows me from the primary years and pigtails stage, to a couple of high school friends, to some soul-mates from business school, I feel I have been incredibly blessed to have these women (and a couple of men!) in my life.
Anyway, as one approaches and dives into the frothy forties and associated midlife crises (!), there's always an urge to reconnect and revitalize, whether with one's friends, spouses or even oneself. So this is how I got this brilliant idea to catch up on a short holiday with my mates from the far off days of b-school (17 years ago to be precise). The proposal was received with unstinted enthusiasm and because two of us were gong to be travelling from USA and the other two from India, Europe was the natural midpoint and selected destination.
Much discussion followed as we wanted to select a place that none of us had been to, and this criterion effectively excluded most of the well-tramped destinations in Europe. Finally we agreed on Budapest. Tickets were booked (again a lot of back and forth). To avoid any value-added comments and what in IIMB we used to call CP (class participation), I took upon myself to figure out a place to stay. Airbnb came to the rescue and we booked a lovely spacious two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Budapest (more on that later).
As the day of departure approached, excitement levels peaked, though tempered by one of us dropping out of the trip due to work pressures. I flew to Mumbai to join my friend S and together we flew to Budapest, arriving almost at the same time as L from Chicago. Our airbnb host Laszlo came to pick us up from the airport and was doubtless chastened by the loud conversation and laughs and inability to listen to any of his tidbits regarding interesting landmarks of the city. The apartment was sparking clean, prettily decorated and super comfortable. Budapest was rainy and chilly the first two days and we spent the first evening doing boring things - buying groceries at TESCO and hunting frantically for a travel adapter to charge our phones (Note: Check on the pins/electricity sockets at your destination before you travel, do not assume you have the right adapter). One weird experience we had on Day 1 was two incidents when our selfies were photo bombed by random Hungarian men! The first time, we thought it was just Hungarian friendliness, but the second time, it was getting spooky and L was all set to poke her umbrella into the next guy who tried to act fresh.
The next few days were spent exploring, walking (miles and miles), chatting and EATING. Hungarian food is delicious even for a vegetarian like me, and their wines are lip-smacking. Even a teetotaller like me started sampling small portions at every meal. Budapest is beautiful and historic and extremely tourist-friendly. Almost all the main sights were within walking distance of our apartment so we didn't really get to use the public transport much except to note that it seemed comprehensive and efficient.
What stayed with me at the end of our trip were conversations and the implicit warmth of the people. Conversations with my friends of course, many and many of them over meals, coffees, wine and amazing views :) But also conversations with complete strangers. Like the affable elderly man (Laszlo again, seems like the most common Hungarian name) on Eurail, who spoke 7 European languages and spoke to us for a couple of hours in halting English. About farming, his family in Wales, our beautiful smiles and much much more. The pretty Hungarian shopkeeper who met us wearing a Hijab and told us she had converted to Islam to marry her Ghanaian boyfriend. We met her a couple of days later in a wholly different modern avatar and almost failed to recognise her when she came over to chat, having spotted L in a dress bought from her shop! The handsome young father who patiently helped us select a bottle of honey at the supermarket and then politely asked us if we needed his help to complete our shopping. The bus driver who refused to charge us the bus fare on seeing how lost and clueless we were, was just one in a line of people who debunked the myth of the dour East European. Wherever we went, we were met with friendliness charm and warmth. Perhaps, it was our irresistible charm that did the trick! Or maybe Hungarians are really that nice :)
S and I were also bowled over by the highly evolved design sensibility in Hungary. There is a lot of hand made work on offer, not just traditional but also very edgy and contemporary design. Be it jewellery, ceramics, leather or home accessories, the aesthetic element was very prominent.
The killer reason to travel with friends? You can truly be in the moment. There are no kids (or husband) clamouring for your attention. There's no stress about mealtimes and bathroom breaks. You can explore the nightlife (Budapest is a party city!). You don't have to mediate WWIII. You can have a bad headache and it's really not that big a deal (because no one depends on you). Finally you can say anything cos you know what? You know they won't judge (Try this with good friends only!)
On the last day, S and I sat on the Gellert bridge with our shoes off and dangled our feet over the bridge. A mild breeze blew in from the Duna (Danube). There were cruise ships below, the majestic Buda castle to our left and the historic buildings of Pest to our right. We didn't talk much. We had a long journey back home ahead of us but for the moment, we were content to just be and gratefully revel in the silent magic of the day.
|A view of the Gellert Bridge with Castle Hill/Buda on the left and Pest on the right|
|Eger from on top of the Castle|
|Our first meal- Langosh and Goulash|
|Before biting into breakfast - Retes (pronounced "Ray-tesh") or Hungarial strudels|
|View of the Pest side of the city from on top of Buda Castle|
|The inside of St Stephens Basilica|
|All variety of Retes and breads|
|A square in Eger|
|Our living room|