In almost all respects that worked better than the sorts of holidays I'm used to with detailed itinerary planning, and long complicated negotiations about sharing space with people who aren't normally housemates. We didn't have the slightest ambition to see "everything", we just wanted to have a good time together in a new city, and that was incredibly successful. I mean, it's easy to say that it was low effort considering that my gf put in most of the effort and I just tagged along, but I wouldn't have contemplated organizing a trip of that size and complexity, I would have just assumed it was beyond me, but partly because planning I'd have considered essential is actually entirely disposable.
ghoti was also much better at writing up the trip than I am, she did so promptly and concisely; my version is likely to be rambly and boring. Basically it was everything that I wanted out of a holiday. We saw a really good mix of seeing famous tourist sites, though mostly just in passing, with just soaking up the atmosphere of the city and going to parks and cafés and playgrounds. So I can say that I've seen things like the Parliament building which is even more neo-gothic than the Palace of Westminster, the chain bridge, Andrássy Street and the opera house, Buda Castle Hill (accessed by a most delightful funicular) and so on, but we just saw them as part of the landscape, we didn't go in for official guided tours.
We spent time in places that are iconic, but also have something going on in them, the zoo with its architecturally impressive elephant house and is close by Heroes' Square, but also lots of very cute animals (I was especially taken with the brown bear, and they had a really good Australian section). The thermal baths (many, many thanks to everybody who recommended that, we wouldn't have thought of it on our own) which has some incredible mosaics and statuary, but is basically a giant leisure pool. And we didn't go to any of the major art museums, but rather to a couple of quirky little exhibits, a temporary one with life-size, animatronic models of dinosaurs tucked away behind the Mammoth shopping centre in the suburbs, and Miniversum, a fantastic model railway museum with a scale representation of Budapest spanning several rooms, plus some Austrian and German cities. And to Memento Park, where they have preserved some of the Communist era public art.
And we rode on the metro and the trams and wandered around mostly Baroque parts of the lively centre of Pest, and used Pokémon to help us find interesting bits of public art in the streets around our apartment. Having small children who needed to spend some time climbing on things each day was actually really great; we played in an extensive playground on an island in the middle of the Danube, and found a playground near the dinosaurs with painted wooden statues of Hungarian folklore (or maybe a specific fairy story, I'm not quite sure), and wandered into the glorious (but not particularly touristy) Bikás park mainly because it's on the way back from the Communist statues, and played on a little scrap of ground that happens to be right by Deák Ferenc Square.
We did really well for food. I wasn't sure how easy it would be to be vegetarian in a foreign city where I don't speak a word of the language. Also the apartment was advertised with "cooking facilities" but actually only had a microwave and kettle, so we ate picnic style for those meals we didn't have out. Anyway, most places had English menus and enough English we could communicate about dietary requirements, and most had at least one dish made out of cheese and sour cream as well as lots of meat based goulashes and preparations of goose meat for the omnivores in the party. And we tried some Hungarian street food in the form of lángos, as well as plenty of icecream, from rather good gelato to icecream from a patisserie based on the cakes for sale inside.
So basically, ghoti was an amazing genius at organizing a holiday that was fun and exciting and full of interesting new experiences without being exhausting. And at taking into account the wishes of such a large and mixed group and making sure that everybody had the best possible time.
The thing that was less good about just turning up without really doing any research in advance was that, well, Budapest is one of the places I've always wanted to go, primarily because of its Jewish history. However, I didn't get round to looking up any of the history properly, so I didn't really know how much was still there to see. And I didn't properly discuss with the rest of the party how they felt about Jewish-focused tourism; I just assumed that nobody else would be interested and that I should focus on secular sites so as not to be a drag, whereas I think in reality my people would have been interested if I'd had a clear idea what I wanted to see. Also, I know really far too little about contemporary Hungarian politics; I have a vague awareness that the ruling party is somewhat right-wing and somewhat negative towards ethnic minorities, and that the ultra-right and overtly anti-semitic party Jobbik has substantial influence in parliament. That's not really much to go on, I really should have done more research because I went out literally not knowing whether it's safe to be openly Jewish and enquire about Jewish tourist spots in Hungary. I mean, I've seen articles, mostly from the US and certain bits of Netanyahu's propaganda machine, which would imply that the UK is full of antisemitic violence and it's not safe for Jews, so I really don't know if my vague fears about Hungary are at all well-founded. So anyway, I chose not to wear any ritual headcovering or obviously Jewish jewellery, and I was conscious that I'm light-complexioned and basically pass. Which meant that when my partners' teenager told me that he felt unsafe because he's often been taken for Jewish, I couldn't really give him reliable information, whether reassurance or caution. I feel especially silly for not having talked to my brother, who lives in Hungary part-time with his Hungarian Jewish girlfriend; I mean, he's somewhat hard to get hold of but I could have made more effort, and then I wouldn't have been nearly so much at sea.
I also didn't really discuss in advance, and I should have, how I feel about going to places with a history of genocide. There are certain things about visiting Europe that I take as a given and in retrospect were completely unobvious to everybody else. So my non-Jewish partners seemed surprised that I feel personally emotionally affected by stuff that happened in Hungary in the 30s and 40s, despite not having any Hungarian relatives (or really any close relatives who were directly affected by the Holocaust anywhere). And it was coincidence that we ended up bang in the middle of the former Jewish quarter of Pest, in fact it turned out that our apartment was on the exact street where Jews were rounded up for deportation in 1944, and I stumbled on a plaque which was in Hungarian but there really aren't any happy sentences containing the words "Holocaust", "Jews" and "1944". And yes, that did upset me, running into that unexpectedly; I tried to explain that it wasn't that location, particularly, it's the whole country, in fact most of continental Europe, and generally worse the further east you go.
People expressed enthusiasm for going into the Jewish museum inside the amazing Dohany St synagogue, the biggest in Europe, and I vetoed the idea because while it does have some interesting art and artefacts it's mostly a Holocaust museum. fivemack found a route to the complex past another huge, but now boarded up, synagogue, the Rumbach Street one just round the corner, and we admired the place from the outside but it was late Friday afternoon so we couldn't have gone in even if I hadn't been uncomfortable about it. I peeked through the gates at a really beautiful shaded courtyard, almost like cloisters. And every available inch of space has a memorial stone with a name and '1944-45?' as the date of death. Having looked it up subsequently it's worse than that, I thought they were commemorative plaques for victims of the camps but it seems they are actually gravestones of the people who died in the Budapest ghetto and weren't allowed to be buried until after the war.
It turns out that although Rumbach St is boarded up, Dohany St has a currently active Neolog community as well as being a museum about how sad it is that there is no longer much in the way of Jewish life and culture in Budapest. Again, if I'd been more organized I might have been able to attend services there or somewhere else; I was somewhat cheered by finding an active Jewish cultural centre by serendipity, because it was providing free WiFi which was accessible from the Miniversum exhibit across the street, and chasing Pokémon to the source of the WiFi we saw a building with the Hebrew letter shin all over its windows, and therefore used the free WiFi to find out what the building was. That even has a Reform community. Because I didn't do enough research in advance, what actually happened was I got sad for a really stupid reason. We arrived on Saturday evening, and my Christian partners casually looked up online where they could attend Mass the next day, and just rocked up at the amazing Basilica church. I felt really privileged to be able to go with them; I never normally go into major churches when services are happening because I don't want to be a rude tourist, but since my partners had invited me it was a really memorable experience. But I got completely choked up over how much harder it would be for me to attend services in a random European capital with that little preparation, I'd have to call ahead and probably turn up with ID and have my bags searched and convince the security guards that I'm generally familiar with Jewish sorts of settings, hard to do in a foreign language and unfamiliar culture. I was cross with myself for not having done that preparation, but also the contrast made me suddenly sad that it was required, even though that's a normal fact of life.
fivemack also found me a memorial for the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved Hungarian Jews by forging diplomatic passports to get them passage to Sweden. It's a nice counterpart to the Stockholm Wallenberg memorial familiar to me when I attended the Great Synagogue just around the corner. I was explaining to partners' middle child who was commemorated, saying that he had helped Jewish people to escape, and she asked me
why were they in danger?I gave some kind of vague answer to the question, saying that people who wanted to kill Jews had power and an army and had conquered much of Europe including Hungary. And I didn't cry in front of the seven-year-old, I put on my best face of answering just one more in a long stream of all the questions asked by a curious child in a new country surrounded by knowledgeable adults. I didn't go away and cry by myself either, because it was the day we were travelling home, and our flight was delayed, and with one thing and another kid basically didn't leave my side until we got in at 4 am.
Sunday was the fast of Av, when the Jewish calendar tells me it's ok to cry about bad stuff that happened in history. I ended up leading prayers for a stone-setting, and reading Lamentations for a few dedicated members of my little community (who still don't really believe in 9 Av, they think it's some weird Reform custom they indulge in to humour me), and spending much of the afternoon being mostly tired and out of it. But I did eventually get a chance to cry about the ways I didn't quite cope with Budapest, and angelofthenorth held me, and now I'm putting some of my feelings on DW because that's what it's for.
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