Gabriel was fast asleep. It was a hot summer night, and Jules and I were watching the storm and enjoying our last hours in Budapest. The open window let in the sound of the rain and the smell of damp earth. ─ “This reminds me of growing up”, said Jules. “I used to sit at the porch sipping chocolate milk and counting the seconds between lightning and thunder”. The eye of the thunderstorm had passed right above us and was now on the other side of the Danube. Each time lightning stroke, entire city blocks came out from under the shadows. – “Look at that. There’s so much we haven’t seen”, she added.
The feeling wasn’t new. Each time we get back home, we bring back mere fragments of the places we visit. A sunrise here, a walk there, it’s the same everywhere. Allow me to demonstrate with a map and some more dubious arithmetic.
Europe is one of the world’s seven continents. Hungary is one of Europe’s 44 countries. Budapest is one of its 19 counties. The Budapest county is made up of 23 districts. We went to two of them, one on each side of the Danube, meaning that we visited about 1% of Budapest. So that’s 1% of one of the 19 counties, of one of 44 countries, of one of seven continents. So, asserting that I know Budapest would be like proclaiming that I have read Ulysses, despite never having gone past page seven of 700.
Yet, I don’t need to know something to enjoy it. In fact, freed from the shackles of reviewing, comparing, ranking and opinionating, I can simply collect happy fragments. Budapest is particularly fitting for this sort of patchwork, as it is itself a medley of three cities – Óbuda, Buda and Pest – unified in 1873.
“Why didn’t they call it ‘Óbudabudapest’?” I asked, on one of our first walks through the city. We had settled into a travel routine where Jules did the guided tour, I took the photographs, and Gabriel swatted at the camera and made half of the images blurry.
With the grace of a seasoned guide, Jules gave a straight answer to a silly question: “Óbuda is older but smaller than the other two, so didn’t make it into the name. They did however give some consideration to ‘Pestbuda’, as the name was colloquially used before the unification”.
We had wandered into the middle of Kossuth Square by then. Jules opened her arms and slowly circled around. ─ “All these buildings are newer than they look. They were designed for the same competition, held shortly after unification. The winning entry was used for the Parliament Building, and two other designs were chosen for the Museum of Ethnography and the Ministry of Agriculture, over there across the street”.
Gabriel and I turned our attention to the Parliament Building, a neo-Gothic construction of monumental proportions, built alongside the Danube shoreline. “Inside, inside!”, yelped Gabriel. “We can’t, your mom forgot to buy us tickets”, I said.
It was a shameless lie. I was the one responsible for that sort of thing, but tickets to visit the inside of the Parliament Building were sold out for weeks ahead. To make matters worse, the better prepared tourists that have bought said tickets were roaming around the building, meddling in my photographic duties.
Not everything about summer crows is bad, though. The hot weather, the long-anticipated yearly holidays, and the kids everywhere come together to make a raucous but high-spirited disposition.
Later that day, as we were sitting inside a tram, a mother and daughter boarded. – “How old is the girl?”, asked the conductor. “Six”, said the mother, looking at the floor. “I am certainly not! My birthday was last week!”, retorted the indignant girl, head held high. The entire carriage burst in laughter, as the conductor waved his head and ushered the embarrassed mother and the offended girl inside.
Gabriel also gave us our share of embarrassment. At St. Stephen’s Basilica, he was startled by the church organ and erupted in an uncontrollable bawl (to his credit, the music was ominous and arguably fitting of a horror movie).
At the Fisherman’s Bastion, while we enjoyed the view and a drink, he burped like only a drunken 200-pound sailor could. The sound echoed through the packed café, and every single head turned in our direction. With no drunken 200-pound sailor in sight, everyone assumed it had been me.
Back at that window overseeing the summer storm, Jules and I went over everything we had missed, from the early morning flea markets, to the lazy afternoon thermal baths, to the sunset in the hills.
Our panorama of Budapest was fragmented and incomplete, like a dark room that only gets momentarily lit by lightning strikes. Yet, those fragments were warm and personal, like pictures in a family album.
There was still an empty page left at the end of that family album. The following day, we woke up early and followed the contours of the Danube up to Esztergom, a town which sits right next to the border with Slovakia.
It was beautiful, yet there were no summer crowds in sight. With a mere 50km (30 miles), we had gotten out of the 1% of Budapest and away from 99% of the crowds.
We collected our last fragment of Hungary in the middle of the Mária Valéria bridge, atop the Danube and already with one foot in Slovakia.