I’m writing from the Victoria Hotel in Budapest, Hungary, midway through a family travel extravaganza that was supposed to happen two years ago, before Covid stole our joy, and yours.
Back then, Jeff and I had planned to meet up with our daughter, who was living in the Czech Republic as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, then travel that part of the world together. But Covid shut down that part of the world, and our part, too, and Amelia had to come home three months early, which broke all our hearts.
This time around, with mended hearts, Jeff and I have just spent a few days in Instanbul, then Belgrade, where Amelia was finishing up a five-week study program in the Balkans through Clemson’s Poli Sci department.
And now we’re together in Budapest. We’ve just had a wonderful dinner at a cozy outdoor bistro where we met our favorite Hungarian so far – our server, Nikki, short for Nicoleta – and now we’re in our hotel room, all three typing away on our laptops. Amelia’s working on her final paper for the Clemson program, Jeff’s creating some ads for Lowcountry Weekly, and I’m doing . . . well, this.
The great thing about being your own boss is that you can actually pick up and go to Europe for three weeks. The terrible thing about being your own boss is that you have to work while you’re there. For the small business owner, “vacation” is a relative term. But it seems tacky to complain, given the circumstances.
Nevertheless, I must say I’m finding it difficult to write from these European hotel rooms, propped up in various beds, at various levels of comfort, when outside my window some of the world’s most storied cities are calling my name. Instead of attempting anything coherent or (God forbid) profound, I’ll just share some random impressions from this first half of our trip.
- In Budapest, the sun comes up ridiculously early this time of year. But the reflection of the Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube, all soft pinks and silvers, is so beautiful you almost don’t mind the sun streaming through the cracks in your curtains at 4:15 am. Almost.
- While Turks are charming and Serbs are brooding, Hungarians are unfailingly, almost outrageously, nice. This morning, while walking from Buda to Pest across the Margaret Bridge – yes, there’s a bridge named for me here – we kept stopping to take photos of the glorious scenery… and ourselves with the glorious scenery. Not one, but two Hungarians – one on a scooter, the other on a bike – stopped in their tracks to ask if we’d like them to take a picture of our family together. Who does that? And don’t even get me started about the adorable Nikki from the restaurant, and her lilting, hilarious English. Speaking of which . . .
- Everybody speaks English. From Istanbul to Belgrade to Budapest, it’s been absurdly easy to communicate with locals and fellow travelers alike. Music may be the universal language, but English is a close second. It’s kind of humbling, actually. We’ve been trying to mitigate our status as Ugly Americans by learning the words for “hello” and “thank you” and “bathroom” in all our host countries, but they’re hard to remember when everybody you meet in the hotels and restaurants and shops keeps saying “hello” and “thank you” and “bathroom.” (Okay, they mostly say “toilet,” but they know what you mean when you ask for the ”bathroom.”)
TWO DAYS LATER
Now we’re in Vienna . . . More observations . . .
- Hotel rooms in Eastern Europe don’t have irons or ironing boards. I thought that might change as we moved westward, but the Classic Vienna Hotel, lovely as it is? No iron or ironing board. I have to turn on the shower every morning and hang my clothes on a towel rack to steam away the wrinkles. The struggle is real.
• Nobody irons in Eastern Europe, but everybody smokes. In the outdoor cafes, in the restaurants . . . everywhere. As we’ve moved west, indoor smoking is less prevalent, but most folks are eating outside this time of year, and cigarettes are hanging from most of their mouths. The stigma we’ve attached to smoking in the U.S. is nowhere to be found. Here, it’s still cool.
- Speaking of cool . . . traveling in Europe with your adult child – a seasoned traveler, herself – can be a harsh reminder that you are decidedly NOT cool. Our first evening in Vienna, we were preparing for dinner when it suddenly got very loud outside our hotel. I looked out the window and saw hundreds of people on bicycles – mostly men, most of them stark naked – riding down the street beneath our hotel. There were horns honking and music blaring and rainbow flags flying. I may not be cool, but I know a Pride parade when I see one.
“Oh my gosh, y’all!” I exclaimed. “There are naked people on bikes down there! Like, totally naked! As in, not wearing any clothes! I can literally see penises!” I was, as they say, fit to be tied. If women still got the vapors, I’d have done so.
Jeff and Amelia were amused by my (over?) reaction, and by the fact that it’s now 24 hours later and I’m still referencing the Pride parade.
“Mom, clearly you’re really bothered by this,” says Amelia. “It’s not a big deal. Gay people are normal.”
“I know gay people are normal,” say I. “But naked men on bikes? That’s not normal. Bike seats are sticky enough in pants! And it’s June!”
- It’s been challenging to keep up with current events in America. Or maybe I just haven’t been trying hard enough. A cursory glance at the internet every morning reminds me that we still have mass shootings and January 6 hearings and national park floodings and inflation. Good times. Sadly, I’m fairly certain none of it will change much while I’m gone, so I’m not too worried about missing a detail here and there.
After Vienna, we’ll head to the Czech Republic to see Amelia’s host family in Ostrava, then visit Prague, her favorite city on earth. We’ll finish our odyssey with a weekend in New York, where Jeff is looking forward to a Yankees game and I can’t wait to see ‘Wicked’ again.
Despite the endless bad news on the internet, it’ll be nice to get back to the U.S. The world is a great place to visit, but there truly is no place like home.
I miss my ironing board.