No matter how many times you visit a place or see it as a tourist, it never really seems to make sense the way it does when you finally live there. Having visited Budapest only once before for about five days, I thought I had a good handle on what to expect here. Nearly two weeks into my time here, every preconceived notion about this city has gone out the window.
I knew Budapest was beautiful when I saw it for the first time two years ago. That’s why I came back. But now, as I spend my first few days living in my first real apartment in a city thousands of miles away from home, I am forced to reach beyond the limitations of a tourist and test my ability to cope with being an outsider.
Being an outsider here is not hard. In Hungary, very few people make eye contact, flash a smile or nod in recognition (all things I am guilty of back in the States). They believe in snap judgments and staring - a lot. “Flashy clothes” are taboo, despite the fact that women here wear some of the ugliest (and might I add, most revealing) clothing imaginable. And when you are 6 feet 3 inches tall, it’s hard for them not to stare. They know I don’t belong here.
Of course, all the challenges of being an outsider do not make my experience any less relevant or significant. It’s a beautiful city, and when the weather is not rainy and cold, sweeping views of the Danube River, which separates the two sides of the city into Buda and Pest, are an incomparable sight.
Other perks include 24-hour gyro and falafel stands on nearly every block (who knew, in Hungary, of all places?) In addition, Hungarian wine, among the best-kept secrets in the world, is cheaper than water in some cases.
But despite all its best intentions to be a tourist-friendly city, Budapest still has some work to do on its English-speaking credentials. Unless you are visiting extra touristy sites, finding an easy way to communicate can be hard.
My few weeks of outsider status carry little significance when compared to the 1000-year history of one the world’s most embattled kingdoms. The Magyars, what Hungarians call themselves in their native tongue, have barely enjoyed a millennium of peace since their first king, Istvan, was crowned in the year 1000.
The constant struggle and juggling of a country between superpowers has taken its toll. Hungarians today still carry the weight of a thousand tumultuous years, and many still smart from the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which reduced their territory by two-thirds. In few words, Hungarians have always been conquered outsiders, never triumphant victors.
This means that in modern Hungary, where the effects of 40 years of communism are still very present, finding a way to fit into the European Union is a struggle as well, so being an outsider in a city so wondrous doesn’t seem that out of place. For a country (and a city) so used to standing on the fringes of greatness, it is finally being allowed to flourish on its own terms.
As my Hungarian improves (and it really has, despite sharing its ancestry with precisely one other language in the world) and I get settled into my monstrous apartment that overlooks the beautiful Heroes’ Square in City Park, I am beginning to feel a little bit more welcome. For all that is said about Hungarians, there is never quite a feeling of belonging until they finally let you into their small, yet exciting, brotherhood.