Adventures / culture / food / Out and About / Things to do

An American Abroad: A Week with the Hungarians and Some Final Thoughts About Europe

This is the thirteenth in a weekly series that was planned to cover my travels until the end of June. Unfortunately, I had a bit of an accident, and it has delayed the writing process a little. The series chronicles my travels in Europe and the interesting things I came upon or wished someone had told me before I left. I spent three weeks on a rail and boat trip that ended in Budapest. This article covers the end of the journey. 

If you take the train to Budapest, try not to get off at Kelenföld station. It’s in the boonies of the city and is very hard to navigate if you don’t speak decent Hungarian. If you do end up in Kelenföld like I did, the ATMs are by the bus station, and you can buy a tram, bus, or subway ticket at any newspaper stand. Conveniently, you don’t have to worry about buying separate tickets, since all tickets are usable for all forms of city transportation. A ticket costs about 300 forints. While that sounds like a lot, the forint is currently hovering at around 200 to the dollar, so it’s actually pretty cheap.

The city itself is a remarkable mishmash of spiny Gothic Revival, grand Neoclassicism, and Communist utilitarianism, brightened and restored by EU money. Although more and more Hungarians are learning English, here especially, it would be beneficial to pick up some of the language. Hungarian is a very unique language and seems more closely related to Asian languages rather than European ones and since it is not a Romance Language, knowing Spanish or French won’t help you here.

Sightseeing: Andrássy út – If you want a scenic walk through the center of the city, this is the street to take. It dead-ends into the Hősök Tere or Heroes Square, which contains two of the biggest art museums in the city and is in front of Városliget, the huge city park complete with lake and fake castle. The walk is well stocked with a scattering of little museums that contain interesting collections of artists and artifacts not seen in the bigger exhibitions.
Szépművészeti Múzeum– One of the two big museums in Heroes Square. This museum is focused mostly on old school fine arts, with quite an in depth collection of portraits and landscapes. It’s a bit pricy, and you have to pay separately for a special photography ticket if you want to take pictures of the works.
Margitsziget – A lovely island park situated on the Danube between the two halves of the city. It is accessible by Margit Bridge via tram, car, or walking. The park is beautifully landscaped and is great for walking or you can rent foot carts to pedal around in. The island also contains medieval ruins, a little zoo, a musical fountain, swimming pools, a water park, open-air theatre and cinema, and clubs.
Parliament– The Parliament building is an iconic and gorgeous example of gothic architecture. It is also right on the banks the Danube River, a great stop on the way to a scenic walk along the waterfront.

Eating: Traditional Hungarian foods to try:
Pogača– Hungarian version of focaccia, little round pockets of breads often with melted cheese on top. Great for snacking.
Lángos– Fried cheesy bread isn’t the healthiest thing in the world, but a yummy fast food nonetheless.
Palacsinta– The Hungarian version of crepes are either rolled into tubes or folded into triangles and can be filled with either sweet or savory goodness.
Sour cherry cake– Sour cherries are abundant and popular in Hungary and this cake is the perfect blend of the cherry’s sourness and the cake’s sweetness.
Túró Rudi– A children’s candy bar that consists of chocolate coated sweet cheese, sometimes with jam in the middle. Sounds weird, tastes amazing.

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Last Thoughts on Europe
After spending three months traveling around Europe, I have made a lot of mistakes. Stupid ones, understandable ones, ones that were forgivable, and ones that made me look like an idiot American. Looking back on my time abroad, I’ve complied some tips to help you avoid the mistakes that I made the most.

Ped Xing– Traffic rules in many places seem to really only be there to decide who was in the wrong post-accident. Pedestrians cross when they feel like it rather than wait for the little green man to tell them what to do. In places like Paris jay walking seems to be a sort of urban sport. One exception is Vienna, where you can get hefty fines for not using the crosswalk. If you’re not sure as to the rules, see what everyone else is doing and try to blend in. And always, be wary when stepping into the street, I have been nearly run down by aggressive motorists more often than I would like to admit.
Plan your travels-Know where you want to go and what you want to see. Especially when travelling alone and near the end of a long trip, it can be really easy to get lethargic, hole up in your accommodations and promise yourself that you’ll go out tomorrow and see the sights. This is perfectly fine if you are staying in one place for an extended time, but when doing a whirlwind tour like mine, every day counts. Researching the places you are going to visit and picking out sights to see can make you more excited about where you are going and keep you from burning out. Also, knowing where you’re going to sleep for the night and how you’re getting there is very comforting when in an unfamiliar environment.
GPS Dependence – Although the GPS on many phones can work without data or Wi-Fi usage, it is best not to rely on it. Coverage is sketchy and in some cities, like Venice, even if you use data the satellites can’t always find you. If you use it without data, it is best to load the map before getting out of Wi-Fi range and track yourself from there as the maps that load purely off of GPS tend to be, in my experience, fuzzy splotches of color.
California lovin’– Europeans, while derisive about Americans [even though they listen to our music and watch our movies and TV shows], will immediately thaw out if they find out you are from California. I had people begging me to take them home. So when people ask where you are from, tell them California, not America. You’ll get a much warmer reception.
To tip or not to tip– I cannot tell you how many times I was sitting in a restaurant or B&B breakfast area agonizing over whether I needed to tip and how much. Do yourself a favor, look it up before going out or flying into the country. And write it down somewhere, especially if you’re going to multiple countries. It will save you a lot of agonizing.
Speak the language– You don’t have to be fluent, but if you’re going to a non-English speaking country it’s polite to at least know a handful of useful words in the local language. Plus, it just makes things easier when you are in a strange country to have a bit of a linguistic foothold to help understand the world around you. Words like yes, no, please, thank you, and sorry, can endear you to whomever you try to communicate with, and phrases like ‘Do you speak English?’ are often extremely helpful. However, I have found it is best not to lead off with that question, but instead make a show of trying to use the local language before asking. Apps like Duolingo can help you brush up of the basics of many major languages. [Duolingo is also available online without an app download]. And please, don’t do the annoying American tourist thing of talking to non-English speakers like they are deaf children; chances are if you over-enunciate loudly and repeatedly until they give you what you want, it will just alienate whoever you are dealing with. And if they don’t understand you, shouting it won’t make it better. Plus, it makes the rest of us look bad.

Well, this is the end of the series and my travels. It’s been a great experience all around and I will miss travelling. For now though, it’s nice to be back in my own home where I don’t have to calculate the exchange rate every time I go to the store.

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