I left the city of Vienna with a new-found sense of wonder. I suppose when it rains, it pours, and just like that, a spell was broken after Prague.
Upon entering Budapest I was riding off a unique high. I felt desired, invincible, and in control. That is until I reached my new couch-surfing host. His profile appeared to be a wholesome Minnesota man who taught English abroad. I immediately thought of Grafton teaching English in Prague and accepted.
To be fair, he truly was a kind, quiet guy. We shared a mutual interest in art and he decided to tour me around his creative residency. There wasn’t much of a connection between us, but that was a bit of a relief after all the attention I received in the past European cities.
This art exhibit was dark. I am certainly not one to stray away from discomfort, and sometimes gravitate toward misery and despair, however words cannot describe the pain I walked through in this live exhibit. It was after that night that I removed the rose-colored glasses. Perhaps it isn’t always best to play naive while traveling alone as a female.
We walked back to his colonial style, crumbling pre-war loft. It was rather cute when I first placed my things in the daylight, however in this light of night I became skeptical. We said goodnight and went off into separate rooms, sharing a single wall, and a connecting door. He originally told me the room was empty because his female roommate was out this summer. There were clearly remnants of a woman in the room, however it struck me as unusually bare. Almost staged; the few scattered painting on the desk, the large wardrobe filled with just a handful of garments, even the bunk beds appeared to be half-lived in. It felt as if whomever lived here was on holiday, and just moved in with a suitcase before departing.
It was most-likely the chills lingering from the art exhibit, however I was sober and now questioning my safety. I decided to chalk it up to my wild imagination and would reassess in the morning.
The morning came and he had to leave for work early. I am not proud to say that for the first time in all my airbnb experience, I decided to invade his privacy to secure my doubts. I had a gut feeling that I had to appease. I cautiously walked into his room to scan the room without touching anything. I passed his unmade bed, clothes scattered across the floor. Heaps of books piled on the floor, lonely without a bookcase to store them. It would have been a nostalgic ode to Hemmingway, if it weren’t for the women’s panties I suddenly caught sight of. There on his drawing desk were at least 10 different pairs of women’s underwear laid out meticulously.
My mind raced as I gathered excuses as to why a full-grown man was holding these hostage. Surely they were his roommates? But WHY would they be laid out on the desk? I couldn’t decider the reasons behind what could just be an innocent laundry day. All I knew was that I had to leave.
I didn’t trust my gut once in college, and it may not have physically hurt me (thankfully two people came to my rescue), however the fear remained for years to follow. I promised I would never ignore that internal alarm again. So I immediately used his wifi to search for a hostel.
It was around then that I received a text from James, my new friend from Prague! He said he had some free time between work and would love to come check out Budapest with me. Relief swam through my bones. THANK GOD. Someone I knew I could trust.
I said goodbye in a note to the couch-surfing host, along with a bottle of wine – grateful, polite and giving him the benefit of the doubt. I walked to Central Market Hall, where I waited for my hostel check-in over my first bowl of goulash. On a side note, I always find international fast food chains fascinating: the Burger King next store was very familiar, and completely foreign with the different languages wrapped around a whopper.
This was the first time in Europe I would be paying for a hostel, and it felt like I was truly living it up. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking along the canal, enjoying cups of coffee, lunch and dinner to myself. It was a peaceful time to embrace being contentfully alone. I’m not sure which side of the river I was on… the Buda or the Pest side.
James spontaneously came into town the next day and I was more excited to see him than expected. There was no doubt about it, we had a wonderfully unique time romping around the streets of Prague almost a week ago. However that felt like decades ago, and I couldn’t help but sense we had to restart now that we were in another city.
He made it easy to pick up where we left off – no awkwardness. However there was the lingering memories I just made in Vienna that were confusing my head and heart. What is this all but adventurous? I was shocked that someone would actually come to me, and if I am being honest with myself, anxious wondering how this could possibly carry on over time, across continents.
Over the next few days we explored the Buda side and Pest side, although to this day I can’t recall which is which. Enjoying castles, speakeasies, glasses of wine, and goopy mush they call food. We had big plans for the checking out the famous Hungarian thermal bathhouse. What we pictured to be an intimate, quiet retreat quickly became a tourist infested cest-pool. We gawked at the wild children screaming in the large luke-warm pool, and immediately set on a mission to sneak into the most exclusive pool this joint has to offer.
It took opening a few unpromising doors to get there; sweaty old man saunas and chemically induced baths to eventually stumble upon the best pool of them all.
In this nested corridor downstairs we crossed a hall, and snuck in through a door that looked either off limits, or just closed for cleaning. YES. THIS WAS OUR BATH. We jumped into the water. It was fairly deep, yet reasonably temped. I almost thought our bathhouse a complete fail until we found this room. Here was where time did not exist.
We mosey’ed out of the closing facility and detoured through a make-shift carnival. The city was waking up as the afternoon turned into evening. The merry-go-round lights were going on and there were silly paintings of over-sized cartoon people for sale. It was the first time I watched a man create a painting out of spray paint and fire.
The following day James surprised me with tickets to the Hungarian Ballet. We were going to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Hungarian! Aside from high school dance and cheer competitions, I had never been to a real live performance.
The hall was majestic; columns expanding like ancient trees into the ceiling. The detail in the walls would make the Romanov’s blush. The lights dimmed as curtains opened to reveal two dancers on stage. A stunning dark-haired man, dressed is burgundy suede, and a beautiful woman with gold embellishing her graceful, white tutu. I was overwhelmed by the wardrobe, the set design, the live orchestra and of course, the flowing moves.
I turned to James, wondering if he was just as impressed. His soft eyes were burning right through me, like wax to a candle. Luckily the darkness could hide me flushing as we exchange the warmest smile. I knew this was also his first ballet, however couldn’t tell if he bought the tickets for his entertainment or mine…
We sat through the next hour in dreamy silence, as the violins and cellos flooded the amphitheater. Our balcony was tucked high away above the crowds below, and I couldn’t help feeling like a princess myself. Not sure if it was the wine or the company, but I found myself stoned in entrapment: perhaps it was mutual as he reached for my hand with a slow, gentle squeeze. The warmth from his palm was enough to sustain my cold fingers for years.
After the performance finished and the curtain fell, we stumbled into dinner and drinks. Everything with James was easy and light-hearted. When I was with him there was nothing stopping us. Nothing holding us back. We conspired and smirked about people as if it were our private joke. We mischievously walked the Budapest castle district as night fell. Nobody was around as we laughed loudly into the empty streets. At one point we came across these blockade stanchions, the tall poles that restrict cars from entering a road, and thought it would be hilarious to leap frog across them. He made it look so easy, prancing across each one. I went next, immediately getting stuck on the first one and toppling over like a Russian doll.
I liked who I was when I was with this man. The rainforests could be on fire, the oceans rising, disease could spread across the land, and I don’t think I would be afraid.
I couldn’t shack the question though: is this real life? Or just two people on holiday? I have allowed people to enter my life under false pretense in the past, and I am doing my best to learn how to weed them out. Everything in my being knew James was a good guy. However everything in my being also wanted to self-sabotage good things, because I do not think I deserve them.
The next morning held a looming bittersweet goodbye as we both knew this is where the train stopped. He would return back to Prague to continue working on apps, I would would hop aboard a plane into my next unknown adventure, aimless and a bit melancholy about it all. I didn’t know what was next for us, and I did a great job at pushing people away. I left for Greece with a big hug, and a cold heart, confused as to why I couldn’t just accept the possibility of love without fear.