One of the downsides of solo travelling is that it invariably requires a person to spend a considerable amount of time in their own company. While that wasn’t entirely different to my everyday experience as a single occupant at home, it was really noticeable when I was sitting by myself in a place like Ellátó Kert, which was another ruin pub in the Jewish Quarter. All around me there were groups of people gathered around long tables, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, talking away in all sorts of different languages. Even when such a scenario presented itself in a place like Edinburgh, London, Dublin or New York City, I was able to listen in on the conversations and in a strange way feel like I was a part of them. The others around me would never know it, but in my mind, I was making all sorts of interesting and amusing contributions to their anecdotes. But when all I could hear coming from the bar’s DJ was an instrumental version of the John Lennon song Imagine being played on what I was sure were the panpipes, everything suddenly felt very silent and melancholy.
In an effort to spend less time by myself and to become a genuine member of a group, I took part in four free walking tours around Budapest, which was three more than I had originally intended. Although the tours were advertised as being free, they were presented by freelance guides who don’t receive payment from any employer, and therefore participants were encouraged to contribute whatever they felt the walk was worth. This was understood before the group set off, although it always left me eyeing the others in my walking group with suspicion as I tried to work out what a reasonable sum would be to put into the guide’s wallet at the end of the tour.
The walking tours were a good way of seeing parts of the city I hadn’t planned on visiting and small hidden gems I would have absent-mindedly strolled past if I didn’t have a local guide pointing them out, such as the tiny figurine of Theodor Herzl which could be seen on a gate outside the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street. Herzl was considered the father of modern political Zionism and promoted the effort to form a Jewish state, and his birthplace was next to the site of the colourful synagogue. Some other aspects of Budapest that I might not have picked up on without taking part in the walking tours were the tree outside the hotel where fans of Michael Jackson eagerly gathered during his trips to the Hungarian capital in 1994 to film the promotional video for HIStory and again in 1996 when he performed for the only time and which since became memorialised with his images following his death, as well as the enormous piece of street art which celebrates the fact that a Hungarian was the creator of the Rubix Cube.
On the Communism tour, which was led without a hint of irony by a woman named Barbie, we were told the story of the only remaining monument in the city to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi German occupation and how it was built in Liberty Square, which houses the United States Embassy on its western side. In response to the landmark, the US erected a statue of President Ronald Reagan on the opposite side of the square which marked his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.
There were some sights which I tried to enjoy in my own time, such as the House of Terror and the Hospital in the Rock, where the English guided tour group I was on momentarily halted to allow another group to pass from the opposite direction in the narrow underground cave and their guide said to mine, “thank you for your patience.” I wanted to believe that the pun was intended, but it seemed too good to be true. After all, how could a man who has English as his second language come up with a joke that even I would probably think twice about trying?
The temperatures in Budapest weren’t quite leaving me in need of hospital treatment, but as a typically pale west of Scotland male who had packed nothing but jeans and long-sleeved check shirts, I was struggling with the days which came with uninterrupted sunshine. My most difficult experience came after my encounter with the man who had spent the summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke. It was only when I woke up that morning that I appreciated how terrible an idea it was to have downed two measures of apple flavoured Jim Beam whiskey as shots, something I ordinarily would never do with whiskey. Everything was happening in achingly slow motion, like watching a YouTube video on a poor internet connection. Even getting out of bed was a dramatic theatre production in the style of a tragedy.
At Szent Istvan Bazilika, Budapest’s largest church, I found myself in awe of the majesty of the building, which is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary. Even though I hadn’t set foot inside a Catholic church since my mother’s funeral in 2014, I felt a compulsion to dip my fingers into the holy water on the way in. I couldn’t be sure if I did it because many of the people in front of me had done it and it seemed like the right thing to do, if it was some desperate attempt to cool my beating forehead or if it was out of the hope that it might bring me some luck. In any event, the holy water was lukewarm and I only felt self-conscious about whether I had blessed myself correctly. It has been said that once you learn how to ride a bicycle you never forget, but there is a reason no-one has ever said the same about which shoulder is touched first when a lapsed Catholic blesses himself.
Amongst the rich fine arts, the bright mosaics and prominent statues, the basilica also houses the “incorruptible” right hand of Saint Stephen in the reliquary. The relic was stolen by a cleric and later discovered in a county of what is today Romania in 1044. For several centuries it was transferred around different parts of the Ottoman Empire before eventually being returned to Hungary in 1771 and, finally, displayed in Szent Istvan Bazilika since 1950. Crowds of people were gathered around the holy right hand, which was held inside a treasure chest within a large glass case and didn’t really look much like a hand at all. A metre or so away from the religious artefact was a slot machine which carried an invitation to insert 200HUF (approximately 60p), which would in turn light up the display for two minutes.
There was an inescapable feeling that tourists were just waiting around for someone else to put a couple of coins into the slot so that they could see the hand lit up, the way that everyone wants to feed someone’s pet dog a scrap of food, but they don’t know that it’s acceptable and so they wait until they see someone else doing it first. I must have been standing in front of the hand for a good ten minutes before a tour group eventually arrived and the woman leading them advised everyone to have their cameras ready as she positioned herself by the coin slot. They all huddled around the holy relic like it was an exhibit at the zoo, and I was right behind them, just as eager to see it. The coins fell into the slot and the case was brightly lit like a Christmas carousel, and the only disappointment was that it didn’t rotate or play a musical hymn. It was another example of the Catholic church making money hand over fist.
I had set the remainder of the day aside for walking up the long and leafy Andrássy Avenue, where the iconic statue complex Hősök tere – Heroes Square – sits at its top, and then onto the City Park beyond. The square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has three main columns, the centrepiece being the Millennium Monument, which was constructed in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of the formation of the Hungarian state. I hobbled onto the vast space in the manner of a wounded soldier, although my woes were entirely self-inflicted. I was grossly hungover, tired and sweaty from the heat, and all the while feeling very sorry for myself. Around me, I could see other pedestrians, groups of two or three, who were shading themselves from the heat under umbrellas, and I couldn’t even summon the energy to feel fear of the threatening spokes. In Heroes Square I was little more than a vanquished villain.
If Hungarian beer wasn’t able to cure me of my ills and holy water wasn’t going to bring me any fortune, then the local food would usually do a pretty good job of making me feel better. While a traditional goulash soup or a paprikas dish was what I enjoyed most of all, nothing would sort a hangover or line the stomach for a night of drinking better than a lángos did. The idea behind a lángos seemed so simple and yet so wild at the same time, like mixing apple with whiskey. It was dough deep-fried in oil, which was then smothered with a coating of sour cream and finally topped with grated cheese which would never melt due to its cool shield below. I had rarely encountered genius in my life, but the concept of this treat came as close as anything. As I was enjoying my greasy saviour at the large street food site Karavan on Kazinczy Street, a North American couple was standing at the opposite end of the table from me. While I was devouring my lángos, they shared one between the two of them, taking one small bite each at a time, like a modern-day Lady and the Tramp. For the first time in a long time, I was feeling thankful to be single.
Although I had spent the majority of my trip alone, I had still managed to suffer an athletic bed-time injury during my time away. It happened at the end of my second full day in Budapest, when I was feeling exhausted from the heat and worn out from another day of constant walking. My hangover from the previous night was enough to stop me from drinking more than one beer, and I had decided that I would get an early night so that I could enjoy my final full day. I undressed and collapsed onto one of the twin single beds with so much force and exasperation that I immediately bounced off the other side, hitting my right shoulder on the bedside table in the process. I was lying in the small space between the bed and the wall, no different to the pile of clothes I had left strewn at the other side. I must have been there for ten seconds questioning why I hadn’t elected to sleep in the bed that was pushed in safely against the wall, though I supposed that it had been so long since I had something to cuddle in next to in bed that I couldn’t be sure how it worked.
When I saw the large mark on my shoulder the next morning it reminded me of the kitchen worker who had spent the summer working in Basingstoke. My aches were beginning to mount up. Already my calf was strained and it was hurting every time I walked. Rather than stride up and down escalators like I normally would, as though I was on an urgent mission, I would stand still and wait to be carried to my destination. The Metro stations in Budapest were so far underground that the escalators were the longest I had seen anywhere; from bottom to top they were the length of two Slash guitar solos in the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry. It was always around a quarter of the way up that the sweet smell of freshly baked goods from the Princess stall on the station concourse would waft its way down. Every Metro seemed to have one, and they all had the same pleasing aroma, a combination of pastry, cinnamon, almond, chocolate, apple, caramel and coffee, all enticing weary travellers to the ground.
Even that couldn’t compare to the sight which unfolded in Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city. Once you walked in through the grand neogothic entrance your eyes were greeted with every colour imaginable, and there was food as far as you could see. Traders come here every day to sell their fresh produce to locals and tourists, who would also shop for souvenirs on the upper two floors. There was a cacophony of chattering voices, fragrances and foods on offer. Salami, strudel, chicken, pork, venison, paprika, pickles, bananas, broccoli, coffee, vodka, wine, cheese, chocolate, bread, fish, fresh lemonade, candles, bath soaps. You could spend the whole day walking around the vast hall, taking it all in.
The more I was walking around Budapest and learning about the place, even with strained muscles, a bruised shoulder and sweat on my brow, the more I found myself falling for its old-world charms. The entire country has such a desperate history, having at various points in its past been occupied by the Ottomans, the Austrians, the far-right terror of the Nazis and the far-left dictatorship of the Communist Soviets. They spoke with great pride that, after it all, Hungary had gained entry to the European Union in 2004. I visited the country in the week where the British government had shut down its Parliament in an effort to leave the European Union without democratic debate and without a deal of any description.
On all four of the walking tours I took it was said how Hungary had lost every major conflict the nation had been a part of. It wasn’t clear to me whether they were unlucky or hopeless, or perhaps a combination of both, but whatever it was, I was relating it to my own long history of defeats in the field of pursuing romantic relations with women. I felt a certain kindred spirit with the nation, even if my own independence was somewhat less desired than theirs.
My final night brought with it one last awkward experience with language when I returned to the bar around the corner from my hotel, where I had previously found the cheapest beer in Budapest and the dusty barman who kept a clean floor. On this occasion, the elderly gentleman had been replaced by a woman who was a little younger and whose features were not quite as set in stone. She smiled the way everyone did when I attempted to greet them in Hungarian. Yo a Stevie. And I quickly appreciated that as with most people I encountered who were of a certain age, the barmaid didn’t speak any English. I ordered my Borsodi and handed her a blue 1000HUF note in exchange for the cold beer. She returned with a pinkish-red 500HUF note, similar to the colour of my forehead after days spent strolling in the September sun, which I subsequently placed on the surface of the bar to indicate that I was leaving it as a tip, partly as a form of compensation for the guilt I was feeling over my broken pronunciation and the fact that I was speaking almost entirely in English, as well as being part of my endeavour to get rid of all of my Hungarian Forints before leaving the country the next day.
The barmaid seemed taken aback that I was attempting to leave gratuity which was equal to the cost of the beer I had bought, though at a total of roughly £3.03 the drink and the tip was still cheaper than a pint of Tennent’s was at home. She picked it up from the bar and tried to hand it back to me, clearly believing that as well as being unable to understand Hungarian, I also didn’t know what I was doing with the currency. I shook my head and pointed at her, the universal language meaning “for you.” She smiled shyly, and as a display of her appreciation, a few minutes later she shoved in front of me a small piece of green plastic which held the details of the pub’s wifi connection and password. The writing was difficult to read and I continued to use the local 4G instead.
Long before I had finished my first drink, I was already starting to worry about how I was going to pay for my second beer. I was concerned about appearing overly lavish or crudely flirtatious if I continued handing over 500HUF tips, as though I was trying to buy her affection seeing as I couldn’t go through my usual means of talking to a woman and having it fall apart from there. So when I paid for my next beer I instead left 300HUF in coins. Some time later the barmaid appeared at the other end of the bar, where she picked up a stool and carried it over to where I was standing. She pointed at it, encouraging me to take a seat. I thanked her in both Hungarian and English, and as I was perched upon the barstool a local man who had been sitting to the left of me was at the jukebox requesting the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch. I considered what could possibly follow a wifi code and a barstool if I left another tip at the bar, and feeling uncomfortable about it all, I finished my beer and left as the barmaid was standing outside smoking a cigarette.
I returned to Scotland after five days in Budapest and spent a night at a Travelodge hotel in Glasgow, before taking the train home to Oban the following morning. The climate was much cooler than I had become used to on the continent, and by the time I had reached the reception desk the jacket which had spent a week stored in a wardrobe was wrapped tightly around me. I was standing in the vacant space for several minutes before a short young woman whose hair was almost the colour of one of the seven towers at Fisherman’s Bastion emerged from the back room.
“Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting for long. I was eating a chippy.”
“I haven’t been here too long. Sorry for disturbing your chippy. What did you get?”
The almost-blonde receptionist told me that she was only eating chips because although she wanted a chip butty, the shop had run out of rolls. I enquired if the absence of a roll from her dinner would mean that she would be grumpy for the rest of the night, and she laughed and checked me in while I was checking her out.
I dropped my baggage off in my room and freshened myself from my cabin fever before returning downstairs to the hotel bar some twenty minutes later. The bar area was deserted, with the exception of an elderly gentleman who was sitting upon a stool. He was wearing a polo shirt that was the colour of paprika and had a plastic patch over his left eye, the result of a recent cataract operation. I took a seat at the end of the bar, and the elderly man reached over and pressed the button at the front of the bar which activated a bell that had a sound not too dissimilar to the chime of a doorbell from the 1990s. The noise alerted the receptionist who hadn’t had her roll, and she appeared in a different role as our bartender.
“I remember you from before,” she said to me as she opened the latch to step behind the bar.
“It was maybe around two years ago. You were really drunk and I think you were telling me that you were worried about wearing double denim.”
The barmaid had done a pretty good job of recalling my plight, especially when even I had forgotten the details of that particular defeat, but I knew the phase of double denim doubt she was referring to. I ordered a pint of Guinness from her, which cost around the same as two-and-a-third pints of Borsodi, and revelled in the triumphant feeling that the Travelodge girl had remembered me. She returned to her post at reception, while the old man with the eye patch told me about how he has a friend who also likes to wear denim. He continued to describe the way that his much younger friend has a method of rolling the bottom of the legs up and how it is considered to be very fashionable, although he himself had never worn a pair of jeans. I was listening to the man, all the while considering how much better things were when nobody could speak English.
I pressed the button which summoned the receptionist to transform herself into the barmaid, it was as much an alarm bell as it was a doorbell. She appeared a short while later, though the Guinness that she poured from a can would be the last act of her shift and she was replaced by another multi-purpose Travelodge employee. Soon the hotel bar became busy with four members of a stag party from Sunderland who were loud and each dressed in a Bavarian dirndl. Later a larger, though quieter group who were also on a stag from Manchester arrived, and suddenly the tiny Travelodge bar had become like Szimpla Kert. I finished the last of my drink and took the lift back upstairs to my room. Not for the first time I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated as I climbed, carefully, into my bed. Already I was missing Budapest.