Stepping off the plane yesterday, I was welcomed by the Budapest air. Taking it in, a certain dryness, the crisp freshness and an underlying sweet aroma, it dawned I’ve been missing this, just the air, for a very long time. Just then, I realised that it’s almost ten years, to the day, that I arrived in Budapest, by Eurolines bus, to work on my thesis at the Budapest Muszaki Egyetem.
In the evening, drinking Borsodi, a local beer, at a small restaurant, tucked away, but close to the now thriving but touristy Liszt Ferenc ter. It’s packed, mostly with Hungarians, and the only table available is a tiny desk, which seems to be there more for show than anything else, near the door of the overcrowded eatery. Artsy youngsters, possibly from the music academy across the street, walk in and out, most of them to say hi to and drink a beer with the owner.
I’m eating gulyasleves (goulash), probably the most Hungarian dish out there. It’s really been too long.
Taking, first the bus, then the metro, from the airport to Nyugati train station, next to which is the hostel I’m staying at, I had ample opportunity to listen to the Hungarians speak.
A beautiful language, and it’s also pretty much as unique a language as they come. Sure, it’s part of the Finno-Ugric (that’s Finnish-Hungarian) language family, but to say Hungarian is related to Finnish is akin to saying sheep and horses both hang out on farms. Basically, after grouping all the world’s languages in neat little families, linguists were, at the end of their exercise, left with two languages they couldn’t fit in anywhere else, hence, putting them together with a few minute dialects from the darkest parts of Siberia.
Well, almost. There actually is a distant connection between Finnish and Hungarian, as they originated with the same tribes who were pushed across Asia towards Europe by distant relatives of the Huns. And that’s also why you can still find those tiny dialects back in Siberia: they are the ones who stayed behind.
But not that these languages are very similar. All the words Finnish and Hungarian seem to have in common are autobus and sex.
I love the Hungarian language. It’s so rich in its tonal range, with so many vowels, it’s a joy just to listen to someone speak Magyarul. It’s almost that speaking Hungarian is like making love. Or is it just that when I listen to a girl speaking Hungarian, I want to make love to her?
As before, I’m quite surprised as how easy the language is coming back to me. Just a week ago, I struggled just to remember the easiest words. Now, I can read most of the signs, listen in on simple conversations and make myself heard, say when buying tickets.
Speaking of the girls, they’re still as beautiful as ever. The mix of Magyar, Turk, Slav, with a bit of Germanic thrown in clearly was a beneficial melting pot. And walking from Nyugati to Oktogon, it’s good to see that many don’t shy away from making interesting fashion statements.
Then, are there no drawbacks to this beautiful city? Well, prices have gone up significantly. Eating a steak at Liszt Ferenc ter can set you back almost 20 euros and, not surprisingly, when walking past those cafes, all I heard was a mix of foreign languages. When I lived here, ten years ago, my apartment cost me around 125 euros per month. That’s four meals.
Luckily, Szimpla, the place I ended up having dinner, is quite a bit more affordable. Soups and pastas for around 3.50 euros. Still a significant price increase over ten years ago, but comparable with western European inflation.
The food’s good and not pretentious and chatting to the owner, George, with whom I had a palinka of which I couldn’t make out if it was the best I ever tasted or just another cough syrup, I learned he really made a point of, and took some pride in, serving up not so fancy, basic, but good food, at reasonable prices. Not just for the expat student, but also for the common local guy.
Interestingly, George complained of one of the main thoroughfares changing into little Istanbul. The Turks are taking over Hungary, again! Then he expressed his relief that, after the Turkish occupation the Austrians had come in to balance the country, ethnically, I suppose. But indeed, one guidebook writes how Hungary, and Hungarians, is a pleasant mix of German functionality with ‘Eastern’ relaxedness.
The hostel, Best hostel, is, ehm, different. No drinking, no smoking, no noise after 11pm. And it’s cheap, although the receptionist wanted to have me pay double the amount until he found out I had reserved the one cheap bed which gets them on top of the list in booking engines.
Still, it gave me the impression that the hostel could be a front for some secretive Christian organization. They lure you in with cheap beds and before you know it, bam!, you’re the next follower of their obscure cult, ready to commit suicide at the uttering of the right code word.
However, the location is great, next to Nyugati train station, but still in a quiet area. In a typical downtown Budapest apartment block, it’s four or five storeys set around a courtyard. And they have cats!