Thursday, April 14, 2016

I came to Budapest 10 months ago with few suppositions and even fewer ideas of what I was to expect from this mysterious, landlocked nation. If were honest with myself, I’d quickly admit that I wasn’t able to point out the former capital of Austria-Hungary on the map; if I could be any more truthful than that, I’d also say that, until June last year, I wasn’t able to tell Budapest and Bucharest apart.

When I leave this magical city a few days from now, I will have spent all four seasons in a country for the first time outside of South Africa and Taiwan. The only other time I have spent more than a handful of months in a country was between the years 2013 and 2014, while studied in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, for about seven months.

It’s an interesting thought, to call somewhere “home” for a year, while my status is neither a student nor a local citizen. A “nomad”, or more precisely a “digital nomad”, is what they call themselves. Do I fall under this category? Probably. Someone who works online and lives in a foreign country—it is, apparently, that simple.

Speaking of work, my job as an editor and copyeditor entails spending several hours a day in front of the computer writing. Writing—this constant bashing of keys on the laptop; this mundane activity which has taken over the world of communications for what has now been decades. After a day of this finger-straining practice, there is rarely any spark left in me to make me want to pull up a blank page and type. Frankly, between translating Chinese state-run media reports and editing copy from foreign correspondents, I’ve etched out enough vowels and consonants to last me a lifetime.

But when all mental energy is spent; when the weariness of the mind is superior to that of the body, a quick look out the window ignites novelty and rekindles my desire to write—not for business, but for pleasure, for leisure, and for joy.

When I peak out the window and squint at roadsigns and advertisements written in a foreign tongue, it serves as a quick reminder of where I am—not home. Curiosity and freshness are quickly sated in a familiar environment, but the same cannot be said when you’re constantly on the move, like a “nomad”, from one watering hole to next; from this oasis to that.

I am at Matinée (again), the little cafe hidden on a street corner, deftly camouflaged from throngs of tourists preying on the shops of the city’s longest avenue—Andrássy.

Kings of Convenience rings out in my earphones as I stare out the arched window next to my seat at the passers-by below. There is a little wooden nest box, painted red, yellow, and green, tied to the tree on the street corner. I’ve never heard a chirp from it, but as we enter spring, perhaps soon.

There are fluffy dogs and bicycles aplenty on these streets, as well as the occasional pretty tourist hauling her silver suitcase down the street, just as I did almost one year ago.

It’s easy to forget how beautiful this city is, in its own way. It’s old, bulky residential buildings comfort me, even if it they aren’t the most eye-catching collection of edifices in this part of the world. Vienna, after all, is just around the corner and extremely difficult to top in terms of architectural brilliance. But Budapest is…well, Budapest. It’s atmosphere is second to none, just like the cafe I now write from. I’ll be hard-pressed to find another like this when I cross the border into Croatia a few days from now. But I will.

It’s always hard to leave a place you like, but as my flatmate, Tom, remarked when explaining his departure from Berlin: it’s good to feel just the right amount of nostalgia.

Having arrived in Budapest with no expectations, this city has truly grown on me. And considering I only decided to come here three months before I left Taiwan, I really couldn’t ask for more.

When explaining why I chose Budapest, I always tell the same story about that night I sat down at Cafe 515 in Taipei with Katalin, a Hungarian who used to study with me during my university days. (I don’t know why I phrased it that way; it makes me sound ancient.)

Kata, ever the explorer herself—she’s current backpacking through Central and South America—told me about Budapest, the city in which she did her degree in sinology, and I surmised that it was the perfect city for an entry-level European experience. I wasn’t wrong.

Every time I explain to my friends what life is like in Budapest, I constantly repeat the words “simple” and “chill”, also never neglecting how comfortable I feel here, being, for the most part, anonymous. Nobody cares who I am here in Hungary, and I’m just fine with that. Maybe it’ll be the same in Zagreb—who knows?

When I close my eyes and think about Budapest, the first things that come to mind are the spacious Heroes’ Square and the majestic Hungarian Parliament, whose corners, arches, and domes have always brought a smile to my face.

When I think about Budapest, I also think about the Danube, the Duna, and the way it always calls to me and stops me in my tracks. I adore water—the freedom it grants when I’m in it and the stillness it affords when I stare at it.

The Danube runs through Croatia as well, but sadly not through its capital, for there I will have the Sava to meet and greet. Coincidentally, the Sava is a tributary of the Danube. I’m sure it has its own personality and its own rhythm as it arches through Zagreb.

I cannot conclude this journal entry with a parting thought, because I have fallen in love with this city and I don’t want to let it go. I will return, even if just for a day, to say szia and szervusz, and to enjoy the reflections of the winding Duna once more.

Viszlát, Budapest. JSF.

A gallery of my time in Budapest, Hungary can be found here.

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