A Midnight Bus Ride through Budapest: A Note on Being Street-Wise.
“I get a massive kick out of starting at zero and slowly building my life in a strange city.”
“No wonder you’re so boho!” My friend exclaimed when I told her how my parents had met in Israel and travelled the world together for twelve years before my brother came along. Up to that point it had never occurred to me that I could refer to myself as ‘boho’, apart from applying a fancy term to my unwashed and un-brushed hair. I guess what my friend meant is that, just like my parents, I love travelling. I have lived in several countries since I have been old enough to dictate my own environment, and plan to keep on doing so until I have children of my own. What appeals to me about moving to different countries is the excitement of not knowing what lies ahead. The unknown is terrifying as well as exciting, hence why I was in tears the evening of my high school graduation and hours before I was heading for France to work on a campsite for the summer. Nowadays I don’t cry anymore, but the feeling as though you’re about to jump into the dark deep end of the pool remains. The reason behind my constant moving is the knowledge that such uprooting provides me with an endless amount of experiences. Admittedly these can be both positive and negative, but life is about experience isn’t it? I have friends and acquaintances scattered across the globe, who, though I might not speak to on a daily basis, I can count upon if I ever find myself in their country. I also get a massive kick out of starting at zero and slowly building my life in a strange city. A small thing like finding a place to live or a job makes me feel independent and assures me that I am capable of getting my act together.
For these reasons I jumped at the opportunity of studying a semester abroad when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Amsterdam. I wanted to go somewhere I had never been, somewhere cheap, but most of all just somewhere new. So when the University of Amsterdam presented me with a list of places I could go to and I read their description of Hungary (“cheap beer and goulash”), I was sold. I moved to Budapest in January 2013.
One of the more difficult aspects of moving to a different city is the inevitable feeling of loneliness. Because I hadn’t made any friends yet, I spent my first few days strolling around the snowy streets of Budapest, feeling slightly lost. One look at the beauty outside, the glistening Danube and I’d be reminded of the reasons I moved, feeling reassured. However there was no Danube to hold on onto in my grey, rundown, sixties Soviet built student halls, which resulted in me desperately wanting to leave my tiny room and make some pals. Now, as a girl, I am often warned of the perils of travelling alone, often told to “be careful”. In reality, getting in trouble is often the case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Saying this, being street-wise is not an unnecessary quality, especially when travelling alone, and regardless of whether you are male or female.
On my second or third night in Budapest I was tired of watching films by myself in my small bedroom and decided I would meet up with some boys I had spoken to on couchsurfing. Sadly, the bar was average and the boys were very bland. But all I was looking for that evening was a change from my voluntary solitary confinement, so I still managed to stretch my evening well into the night, leaving the bar at 3am and stepping out into a dark and quiet Budapest. This was not the first time in my life that I found myself all alone in the middle of the night in a strange city, so as I had done before I went on the hunt for a bus stop. Looking back, I would like to tell past-Heather just to get in a bloody taxi, and not go strolling about Budapest at three in the morning. I would also like to hand past-Heather a sheet with the actual bus times and locations of bus stops, because not only did I have no idea where I was, but my blasé attitude had prevented me for looking up any sort of information before I left the house.
Remember what I said about being street-wise? Yeah, great idea.
“My inner monologue was cursing at my sheer stupidity, whilst simultaneously trying to think of a way I could escape.”
After positioning myself against what I thought was a bus stop I got pretty cold and bored waiting. About thirty minutes went by. Eventually, delighted, I spotted headlights in the distance. Having made the mistake before of letting buses slip through my fingers, I made sure I flagged the approaching vehicle down with enthusiastic arm movements, and sure enough the vehicle did stop. It was also a bus. However, it was not the kind of bus I was hoping for. Instead, it was one of those gigantic tour buses that you always see filled with either pensioners or tourists. The door opened up and a middle-aged man with a crooked smile said something to me in Hungarian that I didn’t understand. I still don’t know why I did not run for the hills at this particular moment but I think just really wanted to go home and so I shyly replied with the name of my street: “Ajtósi Dürer.” He beckoned for me to get in and in a moment of total brainless activity I got in the bus and sat down on the small drop down seat next to him. He shut the door and reality hit me: I was in massive empty tour bus with a middle aged Hungarian man who I couldn’t communicate with. We were alone. It was about three o’clock at night. I had just moved to the city three days earlier, so I had no sense of orientation whatsoever. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t speak the language. Nobody knew where I was. This man could literally have driven me anywhere and I would have had no idea where we were going. The next ten minutes were spent in total silence, shattered only by internal screams of panic. The driver said nothing to me. My inner monologue was cursing at my sheer stupidity, whilst simultaneously trying to think of a way I could escape. The only plan I could come up with is that if he stopped the bus, I would have to resort to physical violence and press all the buttons within my reach in the hope the door would open. However, for this plan to work I would have to wait until the driver decided to stop, and who knows how long that was going to be.
After what seemed an eternity I had almost accepted that I would turn into one of those poor girls you read about in the news and cause people to say “ach, well, girls shouldn’t be travelling alone anyway!” And then I saw it! A park! Not just a park, but a park I had seen earlier that day. I started recognising the street my student halls was on and it slowly dawned on me that this Hungarian man wasn’t going to drive somewhere remote and kill me. Instead, he was giving me a lift home, just like I had asked. He was probably on his way back after a long day of having driven pensioners or tourists around, but had made a detour in order to make sure the lost foreign girl he picked up off the street got home safe. I relaxed and tried my hardest to make conversation in a language I didn’t speak in order to make up for my mistrust and silence. He just flashed his crooked smile at me again and stopped right in front of my student halls. I thanked my new-found hero about a million times and when I jumped out of the bus, onto the pavement I blew him a kiss and waved him off. I was feeling angry at myself for being so reckless, but relieved at the goodness of random people that you come across in life.
Before stepping through the door I looked up at the grey, run-down block of flats that was, for now, my home, and was filled with a co-mingling of excitement and trepidation as to what else my semester in Budapest might bring me.