Wed June 8
A six year old German girl sits down across from me on the 6 hour train to Budapest and proceeds to tell me what I can only assume is her life story because I can’t understand a word. Unlike the old man in the restaurant, she breezes past the language barrier with an urgency only children have. I smile and nod and we discuss many important things like the butterflies on her suitcase (dozens) and the age of her brother (4). Her parents laugh as she tells me agee thoughts on Budapest with the confidence of a university professor and the closeness of a friend. I study her cherubic face framed by unruly curls and not for the first time I lament a lack of common language.
At long last, we arrive in Budapest. Some advice for those of you arriving to Keleti station. It can be stressful if you have business to attend to in the station. Unless of course you’ve been here before or speak Hungarian, neither of which I can claim.
The station is old and bursting with people. Following signs with pictures does not necessarily lead you where you want to go, particularly when you’re searching for the international ticket counter. It’s not downstairs where the local tickets are purchased, but level with the floor you arrive on. The arrows send you into a questionable hallway full of shady shops and leering locals – at least this is my experience. I walk faster when I’m nervous, like how my dad drives faster when we are lost (genetics). I whip around the corner into a surprisingly large entry hall, and head toward signs that scream for foreigners: CHANGE! INFO! HOSTEL! The arrows point right but the room is straight ahead, so I do a confused dance in the hallway and finally tumble into a room with ticket counters. I have to go back outside to take a number and then wait for the information window. By the time I get the information I need I am sweaty and exhausted. Welcome to Hungary!
The lockers and the ATM are another story. I make a grown man laugh out loud when I try to mime what I need because he’s speaking to me in Hungarian and I can’t fake that. “I work here” he says, “you – outside!” Turns out he is correct, there is an ATM outside and not in the station, where he works. Thank you, sir! I never use currency exchange places and always go to a local ATM to get the best rates. Yes I am charged a withdrawal fee for a foreign ATM but I get the currency I need in the amount I want and travel with only what I need. In this case I need Hungarian Forinths, which are necessary to rent a locker downstairs. Coming back inside I realize I need exact change. I insert the smallest bill I have into the change machine and the resulting sound can only mean I have won the lottery.
I walk off in the direction of City Park and join the throngs of Hungarians biking, walking, running and entertaining their canine companions. It makes me want a bike, a dog and a boyfriend in no particular order, as long as it’s immediately. I read a few more chapters of Everything is Illuminated and head back to the station to pick up my bags and meet Krisztina, my couch host. Now I know what you’re thinking. Did I not renounce couchsurfing as a non-option for single female travelers? Yes. Have I changed my mind? No. This one is justified because a friend stayed here a few months ago and gave me the recommendation, therefore meeting my CS criteria.
We chat into the evening with Hungarian red wine and sandwiches. She is a travel lover and owns a collection of magnets so vast she will soon need a bigger fridge. I crash on her pullout couch and dream of Budapest.