Conference Adventures in Budapest

Here is the wanderlust-ful Red we all know and love. Apparently shoring up for 24 hours in the international standards of comfort at the Budapest Marriott will do that to you.

After a reasonable presentation to a lackluster audience on Saturday morning, I ditched the conference and transferred and upgraded my existence from the allegedly-**** Hotel Astoria in Pestâ’s city center to the unquestionably indulgent aforementioned global hotel chain, along the Pest border of the Danube River. All rooms come with balconies. And plush pillows, duvets, Western showers (i.e., the attachable shower head is not so languorously held in the wall claw that the force of the spray sends it toppling and dousing the bathroom), and Western premiums ($25 Sunday brunches).

After an hour and a half curled up in a nearby historic coffeehouse with a coffee, pastry and The Best of Everything (classic novel re: New York City twenty-something career girls in the 1950s – I highly recommend), I wandered back to the conference and convened with two new and fast friends, a pleasant, stylish if mildly harpy Canadian PhD from Northwestern and friendly, emotional, loose-interpreter-of-monogamy Israeli PhD from Cornell. We set out for the sight-seeing highlight of the trip thus far, the Socialist State Park.

After taking a streetcar (e.g., Boston’s Green Line) one stop, the gal and I being fined $10 a piece for not having a ticket (we couldn’t find a machine to buy them and were hoping to beat the self-serve ticket-validating honor system on board), walking between several stations amid rejections by numerous store vendors, we found an open ticket window to buy a ticket for the bus to the outskirts of town and this state park. 90 minutes later (of which only 15 were on board anything), our city bus terminated at a large, depressing station reeking of the glory days of Communist rule. The layout of rows of bus stops easily evoked lines of people waiting listlessly for the daily trudge in and out of the city center to work, and the surrounding cement apartment blocks only added to the joie de vivre of the station, embraced from behind by abandoned rail lines. We boarded a yellow express bus and rode another 15 minutes to the delightfully, fabulously (unintentionally??) camp Socialist State Park.

Set to the side of a two-lane highway in a mix of fields and several people’s backyards, this is a large open circle layout of all the former Socialist statues that adorned Budapest during the heady days of Communism. Essentially put out to pasture, the statues of Lenin and two we assumed to be Marx and Engels (though that might be the wishful thinking of the budding intelligentsia) welcoming guests inside the brick arches – are a variety of soldiers and peasants and busts of famous Socialist Hungarians soldered in various forms of glory: handshakes, charges to battle, mid-stride, arms raised high in the air – there’s no short of ebullience emanating from these shrines.

The overall effect (perhaps forthcoming someday in the collection of patriotic monuments on the Washington Mall once our democracy is overthrown by some salty stepped-upon-too-long country) is absurd and homoerotic. Too many athletically-carved men in too many poses of jubilance, with barely a woman to be found. It’s all bizarre and exceptionally entertaining. Provocative, surely, but decidedly not in the way the denizens of Socialism ever imagined, though I suspect from the tongue-in-cheek and sardonic tone of the gift shop, exactly how the creators of the park sought to inspire.

It takes about 30 minutes to wander through and mock the sheer failure of Communism, and we soon were en route back to Buda and the upscale, stalwart old-school Hotel Gellert, home of the best known thermal baths in Budapest and where we hoped we might have a drink before dinner. The Phd from Northwestern introduced us to some great dry champagne, Hungaria. I was just thrilled to find someone who loved drinking champagne as much as I do.

We then went around the corner (a 5 minute walk that was the subject of a losing bet on my behalf when the Israeli bet us there was a fourth bridge over the Danube that we insisted was not there. It was – turns out there are nine bridges in all over the riverI learned today when I finally read my guidebook closely. We owed him two drinks instead of the four total he would have owed us.) to Cafe del Rio – one of those mammoth outdoor nightclubs reminiscent of Tanzania or cheesy, outer-borough waterfronts nearby to major cities (e.g., Waterworks in Marina Bay). We had an ok dinner, another bottle of Hungaria, and retired to literal mattresses (rubber) on platforms in open-front cabanas set apart from the soon-to-be-packed dance floor. It’ss just like that episode in Sex and the City, Northwestern PhD I simultaneously exclaimed.

Over a third bottle of Hungaria we talked about our studies, our families, fashion, etc., and tried to avoid watching an adolescent Hungarian couple hook up on the mattress next to us. They took a break when every so often their respective friend came over and updated them/checked in, and immediately resumed their pantomimed intercourse as soon as possible. Good times, good times. Give them a break, they probably both live at home and this is the only time they have to hook up, the Israeli said sympathetically, enjoying his free show.

Finally, we hit the dance floor. Still in my navy track suit and sneakers with my Manhattan portage messenger bag across my chest, I felt not unlike an old NJ-Korean friend heading into the city’s clubs in his storied high school years. Especially once I tossed our bags in a pile around which we could dance so as to keep an eye on them without having to carry them.


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