We rang the doorbell a second time. After bouncing on anxious toes for a minute, we heard the crackly voice of a man over the intercom.
I raced to the speaker right above the doorbell, both set into the old stone of a doorframe in Budapest, Hungary. It was almost midnight and it was still hot out.
“We have reservations for a room here but our bus was late and we missed check-in,” I said, the words hurrying out on a wave of concern.
“Sorry, hotel is closed,” said the man.
“No, but we have reservations,” I said. I could feel my blood pressure surging.
I’m getting pretty good at traveling. Contrary to what one might think, being good at traveling is not the ability to get from one place to another in a seamless fashion. Rather, it is the ability to remain seamless in composure as one encounters every conceivable disaster that inevitably accompanies leaving one’s comfort zone. Coming to Europe this summer, I was delayed for three hours in an airport, nearly missed a connection in Iceland, almost lost my luggage in Berlin and barely caught my bus to Prague, all while shouldering a 35 pound rucksack (how to pack a rucksack should be a post in itself). But what amazed me was how easy it all was. The last three years must have made me immune to the gut-churning, heart-pounding, eye-watering feeling of being lost (“It should be called being ‘creatively misplaced,’” a friend in Athens once told me). I have been creatively misplaced a lot.
But not having a room to sleep in at midnight in a strange city was a first for me.
There was no response on the intercom so my friend and I assumed he had hung up on us.
Katka and her family agreed to let me stay with them while I’m in Prague. She and I decided to take a week to see parts of Europe neither of us has been to yet.
The bus that morning had taken us from a city we both consider home to the neighboring town of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Bratislava is nice enough, but it’s not Prague, and by 6:30 that evening we were on another bus headed for Budapest.
This was not a city I ever planned on going to. Three years ago I would have written it off completely (and did, several times), in the hopes of traveling to more refined locations like Rome, Madrid, Dresden, whatever. Budapest sounded like a ragtag city for wandering yuppies.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
A little window slid open in the heavy wooden door we were standing beneath letting a broken beam of pale light out into the dark street.
“Hotel is closed, not open till weekend,” said the man from the intercom, who looked as blearily grumpy in person as his voice had suggested.
“But we have reservations,” I said again, a small whimper escaping my chapped lips.
“New hotel. Not open till weekend,” he repeated before shutting the window in our faces and taking with him the only real light on the street.
Katka and I looked at each other. We both enjoy a healthy dose of adventure, but this was a quite a spoonful and there didn’t seem to be anything sweet to help it go down.
We were both hot, sweaty, tired and sore (I’m in the middle of cross country training right now and Katka is making sure I get my miles in, so neither of us can feel our legs, which makes walking a difficulty).
“What do we do now?” asked Katka, her enormously large blue eyes blinking up at me with question and a trace of annoyance.
I had one job. Literally one. Book the hostel.
“Let’s walk back down the street,” I said. “Maybe we missed something.”
Back down the block, past the sleeping bums who had curled up in front of doorways, past the Sir Lancelot night club that seemed to be open but deserted, past the rows of silent trees and silent cars, past two taxi drivers…
Taxi drivers know everything. If I ever decide to take over the world, I’m building my secret service entirely out of taxi drivers and waiters.
Katka doesn’t like taking the lead on talking to people we don’t know (because she’s smart and likely to be the last of the two of us to get kidnapped and murdered), so I walked up to the two men who seemed to be having a comfortable chat, leaning against the side of their cars.
One of them was thin and wiry, dragging on a cigarette, clothes too big for his frame. The other had a beefy belly and thick arms. His eyes seemed much more alert but a lot less kind. Neither seemed dangerous, but that was probably just because they were wearing capris.
“Hi,” I said, approaching the duo, realizing that this too was something I would not have been comfortable doing three years ago. “We’re looking for our hostel but it’s not here.”
They spoke no English and the only Hungarian I have picked up so far is the word “Yes,” which I’m still fairly certain I’m mispronouncing.
But, like knights with glistening armor and gleaming swords, they came to our rescue. They talked amongst themselves for a moment before the skinny one pulled out his phone and looked up where our hostel should have been. He followed our well-beaten path down to the end of the block, had the same conversation with our grouchy doorman (but this time in Hungarian), and stopped some random guy entering his apartment to ask about the hostel (that dude didn’t speak Hungarian or English and we were all just like, well, okay, great then).
He made several phone calls, pulled up a number of webpages and addresses on his phone, showing me each in turn so I knew what valiant steps he was taking to help us.
Finally back at the taxi, the larger man gave his friend the smile that said, I think it’s cute that you found these two little strays, but you’re going to have to put them back where you found them eventually.
“We should just go to the McDonald’s and get internet,” said Katka. Neither of us have data and we both hate ourselves so much for it.
I offered our hero 1000 HUF (which is like two and half cents in USD, but infinitely cooler than American currency because they’re called forints, guys). He declined rather profusely and we scooted on our way so he could shuffle in the passengers coming up to the car. I hope he had a bumper night. I also hope one day he gets a castle.
The McDonald’s was basically a castle itself. Three floors overlapping each other with balconies and weird jetties decked with tables and booths climbed downward toward the register in center of the building like and inverse Mayan temple.
An unpleasant security guard (and the only unfriendly Hungarian I have met thus far) told us to order food before we used the internet (which, honestly, would have been reasonable to ask if he hadn’t done it with such lip). We got a large orange juice and pulled up our hostel booking.
“Oh no,” I said, feeling my stomach fall through my seat. “Katka, you will not believe what I did.”
“Really?” she said, calmly sipping the orange juice and looking up other hostels in the area. “Because at this point I think I’ll believe anything.”
“I booked the wrong day,” I said. “I guess I didn’t take into account that we wouldn’t be staying overnight in Bratislava. It was so last minute.”
Katka didn’t need excuses or explanations. She needed a place to sleep and a refill on the orange juice. The least I could do was the orange juice.
When I came back with a second cup, she had found us a place to stay. Because she’s awesome.
“We might as well stay here the whole trip,” she said. “Can you cancel the other booking?”
I did, swallowing bitterly the 19 EUR deposit I had already paid for.
Once more, we shouldered our packs.
Our new digs were pretty nice and right in a lively pub area where lights and faint chatter carry out onto the street late into the night.
When Budapest woke us up the next morning, we were ready to meet it.
Coincidentally, this hostel (LOL Hostel, for those curious) serves the greatest cup of coffee I have tasted on this continent. Ever.
Budapest is beautiful, as can be expected. We lazed around in a Turkish bath for most of the scorching afternoon, found a quaint little spot for lunch, took a couple of pictures. Took a nap.
When the sun went down, Katka and I both strapped on our running shoes and headed down to the river.
We run at different paces (mine being a bit of a wobble at the moment, and Katka’s rather resembling that of a Cheetah racing to take down something small and innocent). I started off well enough, but she passed me quickly. I looked down at my phone and liked my time (I’m on Nike+ Running if anyone wants to add me – let’s race!). I’m learning that we all go at our own pace. If life is a competition, it is only with ourselves.
Around me, the city was aglow with the love-struck fever of summertime. Couples sat along the stone retainer on the river, their feet hanging over the edge. Families strolled along the path that runs along the bank and bikers and backpackers rested their weary limbs on the benches overlooking the water.
Night had transformed the murky green waters of the Danube into hushed currents of dark indigo that reflected lights from the ferries traversing the river between banks of shadows. A tram crossed over the glistening Chain Bridge, each window lit so that as it slid through the dark it looked like a procession of druids floating through the evening. The castle stood above it, still and lustrous.
Budapest surprised me with its beauty, its culture, its sense of self.
I finished my run with a new personal best time (don’t get excited, folks — my personal best is like a quick walk at this point). Katka was waiting for me on the bank of the river, her own run long completed. We both knew our legs would be sore in the morning.
As a kid, I always wanted to be a traveler. As a teenager, I always wanted to be a runner. It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally turning into a bit of both.
Nothing else of who I am has been what I expected. I was hoping to turn into someone elegant and refined, much like this cities I once wanted to visit. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and wonder how on earth I ended up being this somewhat clumsy, somewhat lost, very self-deprecating anti-romantic with two half jobs and a tattoo. Sometimes I worry that I turned into the wrong person. Why am I not Paris? Why am I not Rome?
Maybe these are the critical musings of every twenty-something as we struggle to meet our own expectations in the face of a reality we hadn’t planned on.
But this week I realized that I am not as afraid as I used to be. I’m not afraid of getting lost, of losing things, of making mistakes. Because I’ve done all that. And this restless wanderer I have turned into has also made me stronger, bolder and insatiably curious.
So I feel a little like Budapest today, and it’s a nice surprise.