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Budapest: a love story

Deep in the darkness that is, inevitably, part of every PhD journey, I found myself in Budapest. My first trip, over three years ago, came at the middle of my final year as a doctoral student. Dissertation data had been collected. Data analysis was done. I scheduled a trip to BP on my meager budget to give myself a mental break from the seemingly neverending tedium of the impossible masterpiece I was supposed to be writing. I wanted to escape the coming gloom of another Midwest winter, the stalking behavior of another student, the feeling of being slowly trapped in place by fear, snow, and unfinished dissertation anxiety. I wanted to go home, but not having a place that felt like home, I chose to go to Budapest instead.

Or, perhaps, Budapest chose me.

Upon arrival in Budapest, my friend picked me up from the airport to take me to my hotel. I arrived at night, over 30 hours after departing my US city, having purchased the very cheapest ticket money could buy. It was November, and Budapest in November, at night, is magical. Lights glisten, and the city vibrates with an insatiable energy that is tangible and invigorating. Not yet a tourist time of year, it was a local’s city then, and I felt a sense of relief, of homecoming, as we drove through the city streets to get to my eminently affordable hotel.

Budapest in late 2015 wasn’t the city it is today. I argue it was better then, better before the 2017 FINA swimming championships got its claws into Budapest and sent prices skyrocketing. But that is my tourist perspective, of course, a perspective from someone who wants to have Budapest the way she remembers it, when it was affordable and quiet. The reality is, of course, that I was just one part of the growing tourist economy that was gathering steam.

After arriving at my hotel, checked in and disposed of my luggage, we headed back out to see Budapest at night. From Gellért Hill in Buda, the side of the city characterized by the castle and hilly terrain, I could see all of Pest. The air was cool and crisp, and I was happy. I was happy for what felt like the first time in over a year (years maybe) – the weight lifted. Deep in Budapest, on top of a mountain, I was anonymous and, therefore, safe.

That feeling of security could have happened anywhere I’d chosen to go, I suppose, but there was something about this place that was so tragic yet hopeful, big but altogether so local, that called to me. It tugged at me, and I felt like I never wanted to leave. Budapest was checking all of my boxes – walkable, affordable, beautiful, surrounded by history – and I’d only been there a few hours.

I slept well that night and woke up early, only a little jet-lagged, ready for more. Our first stop was a parliament tour, a building that I still can’t help myself from taking dozens of pictures of every visit. It is, in my estimation, the most beautiful building in the world.

From every angle.

The tour provided more insight into the history of the Hungarian people and of the building. More expensive for tourists and non-EU citizens (because we don’t pay their taxes, y’all), the inside of the building is as beautiful as the inside, and I fell even more in love with this place, with this people who have endured so much since before they were a nation. A history lesson is for another post, but the original Hungary, the original Hungarians, have been occupied, dominated, and separated for centuries.

With only three days left in my visit, the inevitable end started haunting me. I didn’t want to leave. I said to my friend, almost in passing, “I think I could live here.” And by the time I left, I’d already started making plans to move. I could, I thought, move here easily. It would be just as inexpensive as student housing, and I didn’t have anything keeping me physically at school anymore, since I was at the writing stage of my dissertation. I couldn’t bear to leave Budapest, but I also couldn’t bear the thought of going back to the arctic for six more months. It felt interminable. Budapest was my way out. My escape.

So, skipping some details in the middle, I flew home and told my family I’d be moving back to Budapest. And I started making plans. I ended the lease on my apartment, leased a storage unit that could hold my car and few belongings, booked a flight, and found a flat in Budapest. Every day I took a step further toward Budapest, mechanically almost. I don’t know that anyone really thought it was going to happen, including me, until I found myself, a month later, with three giant suitcases, flying back to Budapest. To live.

I felt a little broken that trip but ready for whatever came next. Even just on the plane, I felt like I could breathe. A huge weight was lifted from my chest. Arriving in Budapest after hours of flights, it still felt like arriving home. Just like every trip has since.

It is my place.

In retrospect, I don’t think I realized how brave I was being – it was a completely new country. I didn’t know the language. I knew no one. But like I jumped into a move to pursue my PhD, I just jumped in to moving to Budapest, believing that I could do it, that the feeling of being home would be enough. And it was. That isn’t to say that it was easy, but it wasn’t hard because navigating an expat life in Budapest was hard – that was fluid and natural. Instead, it was hard because the dissertation process is hard by design. I was in Budapest during the darkest and hardest times of my life – as I finished my dissertation and learned how to feel safe again. I had to leave Budapest to start a faculty job that spring, but I left knowing I’d be back. And I have been back now twice, once for a month, once for a few weeks.

Budapest has never lost its pull on me. Every visit I learn more about Budapest, see it from a new perspective, and fall more in love. My last visit, just this summer, saw a different me and, as a result, I experienced a different Budapest. Finally, I’d started to see a path out from under the gloom and become happy. And I found that I was still happier here.

Like love, it seems that happiness can also increase exponentially. Every version of me likes Budapest more.

Since that first, fateful trip, I’ve given my family tours. Made lifelong friends. Learned the language. Grown. Recovered. Found happiness.

It is, quite simply, the first place I’ve ever felt like I was home. Budapest is me.

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