The Hungarian forint is not in high demand outside of Hungary, as evidenced by the 10,000 forint bills being spit out by the ATM. The 30,000 forints I receive are equal to roughly $107 US. Knowing they will be nearly impossible to exchange later, I do my best to spend them all.
Even with its weak currency, Budapest is experiencing a renaissance. The old buildings in the center of Pest have been restored and there are new construction projects underway on nearly every block. The new and old have yet to fully mesh, and the transition between modern retail/commercial, and centuries old apartments is slightly jarring.
The rebuilt city squares are filled with statues, flowers, fountains, and pools. Also, Starbucks.
We walk along the Danube. It is less clear here than in Vienna with a stronger green tint. Buda stairs down on us from across the water.
Yachts full of geriatrics are anchored at the river’s edge. Young stewards carry luggage and push wheelchairs. Viking’s public TV ads appear to be money well spent.
Further down the river we encounter the “Shoes on the Danube Bank”, a memorial to Hungarian Jews killed by a fascist militia. There are surprisingly few tourists and those present are quiet and respectful. The sunshine and lack of clouds feels inappropriate.
We walk to the Hungarian parliament building and then into the mid-rise shade of the nearby consulates and boarding houses. I have no frame of reference for the Hungarian language but pick out the Hungarian Intellectual Property office on one the side streets. For some reason its sign is in English.
It is mid-afternoon and we are hungry. The nearest restaurant to the hotel is a spectacularly kitsch take on an American burger joint. Burger Jake’s is blaring country music and the burgers coming off the grill are the size of hubcaps. There seems to be an even split between locals and tourists.
The salads and fish & chips look the least ridiculous of the menu items so I order both and take them back to our hotel room.
At 5PM, taxis arrive to take us across the river to Buda for a wine tasting in the basement of a hotel, which is much nicer than it sounds. The sommelier presents us with well-rehearsed dad jokes and the history of each wine. I have never been a fan of wine, but everything presented is very good. I get wine now.
I sit on the corner of the table and talk to two of the Australian men, asking about the perception of Americans in Australian (and vice versa). The feedback is generally positive, with a bit of perplexition around America’s gun culture. I smile sadly and nod my head.
“Do you ever worry about some person shooting you?”
“Not really, but I don’t know if that’s because of numbness or denial.”
I try to answer honestly when asked about the American perception of Australia.
“We are almost entirely self-involved. Past Crocodile Dundee and kangaroos, most Americans don’t have any perception of Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter. We have to purposfully seek out the world’s news if we want to be exposed to it.
The U.S. actually is a great place to live, and I think the good outweighs the bad. It’s just like anywhere though. If you have a choice to pick where you live, you have to decide which bucket of bullshit you’re more OK dealing with. Everywhere has problems.”
The sommelier offers us the Hungarian variant of plum brandy before we head back across the river for dinner. It is smoother than the slivovice I had in Český Krumlov.
It is our final group dinner and we eat what I think is the best food of the trip. Sous vide duck, cabbage pasta, goulash, goat cheese, beef marrow, pork knuckle – all of it delicious.
There are toasts and we inadvertently make our guide cry as we express our fondness for her. She has been excellent.
I compliment the Australians on how positive they have been and how the general lack of complaint made the trip much better than it could have been.
For someone who generally operates on the premise of “prove why I shouldn’t hate you”, I am sad to say goodbye to the group. Walking away from the restaurant, we pause on a narrow island in the middle of a street to hug and shake hands.
“… and the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.”