The last time I was in Europe was in 2005 – a 10-week Homeric epic me and a friend embarked on after we graduated; innocent and intense and excited 21-year-olds eager to explore the world and figure out what should come next in our lives and what shape our lives should take.
It was a long time ago, yet sitting on this plane now, 32 years old with another high school mate next to me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on my lap with a napkin bookmark about halfway through, I realize I’m still pretty much that same person, if a little wiser and less intense. With the dry cold-yet-hot plane air turning my nostrils to leather; the constant rush-of-air sound throughout the cabin; the zang of the warm gin & lemonade I’m sipping to cut through the metallic yeastiness of the canned Heineken I had previously, which I’d ordered to cut through the sugariness of the Jack Daniel’s & Coke prior to that, etc… With the in-house entertainment still clunky and shit, displayed on plastic Game Gear-like screens, I can easily imagine it is still in fact 2004… And wonder when Apple or Microsoft will finally enter and fix up that particular tech niche.
But I digress.
Unlike the great adventure of 2004-5, this trip didn’t slowly materialise over three years of late-night, booze-hazed conversations clouded by faint despair that there has to be something better… If nothing else, a nicer place to spend late booze-hazed nights. It came out of the blue in a lightning bolt of awesomeness – my friend Josh, a travel agent, won two places for a $8,500-per-person cruise and invited me to join him. Naturally I didn’t say “yes”… I said “HELL FUCKING YEAH.”
Up to that point I’d given zero thought to returning to Europe. Once the Promised Land of gorgeous women; dirt-cheap, top-shelf beer and wodka; history and kultura that I could feel in my blood… I burned through all that in my original trip and its immediate sequel six months later, and as life went on and my perspective broadened, I discovered Thailand and Japan and the Australian Outback and realised there was so much more to explore. The US had been next on my list; an existentialist road trip through red-dirt deserts and redneck towns, marked by roadside diners and white Baptist churches. But as Fate would have it, I’d be pulled back instead to exquisite restaurants and towering cathedrals, back to the cradle of Western civilization and the continent where my heritage lies and my love of travel began.
And so Europe feels like that amazing old friend you lost touch with but now they’ve come back into your life and you remember how amazing the time was that you guys had together, and you can’t wait to see them again. It’s amazing to know that when I step out of this big white tube it’ll be into an entirely different world, yet one that’s familiar from those past adventures which, when I think about it, didn’t ‘change’ me as a person but brought me absolutely in touch with the person I really am – which is a beautiful and immensely valuable thing that travel does. I believe that’s all that ever happens to you – you don’t ‘change’, you only get closer or further removed from the person you really are. And after a year of feeling drama, stress and the cancer of corporate monotomy eat away at my being, I’m looking tremendously forward to relaxing, rejuvenating and getting back in touch with my true self, my anima artificis to quote my Instagram name… With that which truly speaks to me.
BUDAPEST – 2 NOVEMBER 2015
Budapest is actually two cities: Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube, and to this day Hungarians living in the capital still identify with their side – those from Buda tending to be of wealthy/aristocratic backgrounds and sticking their noses up at the commoners from Pest; those from Pest contemptuous of the snobs from the sleepy north side of the river.
Pest is a gem of a place, built almost entirely in the nineteenth century and reflecting all the beauty and grandeur of that era – every façade, balcony, doorway an ornate masterpiece adorned with flower boxes and gold leaf and wrought iron. Combined with the gorgeous hues, clear light and crisp air of cloudless autumn days, it makes for an incredible experience… Like setting foot inside an Impressionist painting – feeling the sunlight and fresh riverside breeze, hearing the clang of trams and the ebbs and flows of conversation. My first stroll along the riverbank – killing time while Josh undertook a ‘hotel inspection’ for tax-deduction purposes – literally made my heart swell… I felt like Ricky Fitts watching that plastic bag dance through the air, gripped by the emotion of being back here again and finding it as beautiful as ever.
We were obviously in favour with Hungary’s gods. We got a shuttle to our hotel without hassle or delay, and when we got there, had our room upgraded to the second-highest storey with a river-facing view – almost directly opposite the Royal Palace in fact; a perfect visage over the Buda side of the city. But if we thought it was stunning in the afternoon, nothing prepared us for the same scene at night-time – the Palace lit up in all its glory; cruise ships elegantly floating up and down the river; the Chain Bridge looking like what the lead-up to the Pearly Gates must look like when the angels decorate it for Christmas.
The next day we went for a long walk around Pest – at one point finding ourselves, much to my delight, at the Oktagon where Paul and I first stepped out of a taxi and spent our initial days in Budapest all those years ago. To be honest, back then it seemed like a pretty grey and dismal place, in the middle of winter with no leaves on the trees and a bitter wind swirling around the eight corners of the car-jammed junction… But now the ugly ducking had become a swan, bathed in light, gentle curtains of leaves drifting down onto the sidewalk like yellow snow… Beautiful women with long hair and scarves strutting past… The electric buses with their long black horns still careening down the main drag of Terez Korut.
Finally we came to Heroes Square, a vast open space adorned with bronze statues of the great figures of Hungarian history, all arranged around a single awe-inspiring figure atop a central pillar way up in the sky: Liberty, holding the Royal Crown in one hand and a Christian cross in the other. Beyond this was a big park which we wandered through before rewarding ourselves with a pit stop at a nearby bar/restaurant, to indulge in cocktails half the price and double the strength of those in Melbourne. As we sat there on an upper deck, overlooking the grass peppered with orange and red oak leaves, the water glistening gold in the sun, the horizon lined with Gothic and Baroque spires… The sound of middle-aged Russian women in stern discussion to my left; a young Polish couple laughing behind me; a Hungarian family in quiet conversation to my right… I think it’s fair to say the reality of being in Europe after a 10-month wait had finally sunken in, and what an awesome feeling that was 🙂
Yesterday we crammed into a bus full of old people and set off for a formal tour of Pest, taking in the Opera House, Heroes Square, then over the river to hilly Buda for St Mathias Church/Fisherman’s Bastion. It was interesting to hear how the Hungarian guides convey their history – they’re open and non-plussed about their role as an Axis country in the war, but understandably so: Hungarians played virtually no role in the Holocaust and did the vast majority of their fighting in the east, fighting alongside one tyrannical power against another. As the tide turned, the Soviet steamroller rolled west and the Warsaw Uprising broke out to re-establish a free Poland, the Nazis again summoned the Hungarians to fight alongside them to crush the insurgency… Except this time the Hungarians didn’t show, quietly refusing to take up arms against their traditional friends and allies… And probably sensing, too, that the Axis would be history soon.
What I found interesting is that Hungarians don’t seem to take much pride in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when they were one of the Great Powers of Europe. As the guide kept talking it made sense though: like the Lithuanians and Ukrainians in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which Austro-Hungary later acquiesced in ripping apart), Hungary was very much the minority partner. The power and decision-making rested firmly with the Hapsburgs over in Vienna, who viewed their coalition with Hungary as a necessary compromise with a lesser culture… An attitude one particular Austrian maintained into the 1930s with disastrous consequences, writing in Mein Kampf about his disdain for Vienna and its mixed populace of natives, Slavs, Magyars and Jews.
What the Hungarians are undoubtedly proud of, and rightfully so, is their 1956 rebellion against Stalinism, sparked when university students tore down and smashed up a statue of Stalin just a short walk from Heroes Square. This was the first major ‘fuck you’ to Soviet-imposed Communism in Europe, and one whose swift and brutal response – with Russian tanks rumbling through the streets, and hundreds of dissidents rounded up for imprisonment and execution – has left a distinct trauma on the national memory. It would be another three decades before the next great act of defiance in the Eastern Bloc, but, as our guide put it, the first nail in the coffin had been delivered.
Anyway, onto lighter matters…
Life aboard the MS Ama Verde is fantastic. The luxury is extravagant – copious amounts of food, unlimited drinks, live piano music in the main lounge area… Which is were I’m sitting right now, a plate of cakes, a cappuccino and a Cuba libre in front of me… And all around me, glassy water surrounded by hills blanketed in trees ranging from deep green to bright yellow, only now starting to be dotted by the lights of villages… Hungary to the left, Slovakia to the right… A deeply serene and beautiful scene that I wish I could bottle and take back with me to Melbourne.
For whatever reason, swimming pools have been a major theme on this trip. Beginning with the five-star ‘health centre’ at the Sofitel, where Josh and I soaked to the uplifting strains of Enya, every day so far has either started or ended with a swim. Our first night on board the boat, as it cruised down the Danube for an ‘illumination cruise’ taking in the night lights of Budapest, opera broadcasting over the sound system for added effect, Josh and I decided there was only one way to do this in style: in the open-air pool on the roof, freezing temperatures be damned. To our surprise we caused quite a sensation – groups of oldies came up to check out and joke about the two ‘crazy Aussies’, giving me the distinct feeling of being some kind of zoo animal after a while… Which, given how much we’d had to drink, and the fact I was in underpants, was probably warranted. At one point a couple of guys grabbed our night gowns and pretended to throw them overboard, then popped them on and disappeared for a while downstairs… During which time one of the Bulgarian bar staff, suitably impressed by our bravado, returned with a tray of palinka shots “to keep us warm”… which we eagerly accepted at the time, and which Josh’s body violently rejected at 8am the next morning in what was one of the less picturesque scenes of the trip… Me in the shower gulping down the hot water to rehydrate myself; Josh bursting in to stick his own face down the toilet and regurgitate whatever vile substance remained in his stomach.
Anyway, I’ve written enough. Both my cappuccino and drink are finished, and outside, floating along on this vast tranquil body of water with the sun almost set, the landscape now cast in the dim purple light of dusk, I’m going outside to take in the last vestiges of the day and think to myself, like any good Aussie… “How’s the serenity.”