Change of plans

LISZT FERENC AIRPORT — The next post here was meant to be about a day trip to Bratislava six days ago. Today’s trip to the airport was originally planned to get a LOT flight to Krakow, Poland for the weekend. I’m still at the airport, but I’m not going to Poland and this post is not about Slovakia. To put it simply, this has been the most unbelievable and quickly-escalating week I can remember. I am getting ready to board a plane that will take me to Helsinki, where I will get a plane to London, where I will get a plane to New York, where I will stay overnight before flying to Pittsburgh early Saturday.

It’s shocking. A week ago I could not have believed this outcome was possible. Three or four days ago I knew the rest of the semester would be far from normal, but I didn’t think it was a certainty I’d be coming home this soon. Wednesday I knew I had to plan my return within a week or so. And 2 a.m. CET Thursday morning, when Trump addressed the nation in prime time EDT, I received a total shock along with every other American currently in Europe.

I watched him say, live on television, that “all travel from Europe” would be cut off, effective in about 48 hours. Now, it turns out this does not apply to U.S. citizens, and Trump badly misrepresented his own proclamation on TV that night. But I didn’t know that, and nobody else did, and though it seems crazy to think they would bar U.S. citizens, nothing is off the table with this administration.

I started frantically searching Twitter and news sites for answers to two basic questions. Does ‘midnight Friday’ mean the beginning of Friday or the end of Friday? And, Will U.S. citizens be able to enter after this deadline?

The second, and more important question was answered about an hour after the speech, when the Department of Homeland Security posted an online notice that essentially cleaned up the mess of confusion caused by Trump’s fumbled words. U.S. citizens can enter whenever they please. I am still not sure what ‘midnight Friday’ means, though it’s clear the world is taking it to mean the end of Friday.

Still, this order will deal a crippling blow to the transatlantic airline industry, and there’s no telling how hard it will be to get a seat on a flight after Friday. Thanks to some help from an extended family member I was able to get home today. But the brief hours of panic (I was up from the time of the announcement at 2 until 5 a.m. trying to get a flight) were horrible, and it’s a feeling Trump inflicts on groups of people all the time. I’m relatively privileged so it doesn’t directly hit me very often.

After packing my things quickly and taking a last walk around the city and the Buda hills — Thursday was, cruelly, the first beautiful day since we arrived here — I charged my Kindle (I think I will be needing this a lot during the upcoming precautionary self-isolation period) and left for home, more than two months earlier than I expected.

Is it horribly disappointing that my semester abroad has been cut so short? Yes. But I am definitely looking at this from a different viewpoint, thankful I’m able to return home smoothly and to a house where there’s space for me to try to avoid becoming sick or making others sick. I’m sure once this all starts to get better everyone’s perspective will change, but right now I’m just hoping for the best for everyone.

Wien

VIENNA — For such a historic city, Budapest doesn’t appear all that old. That’s because it was repeatedly destroyed by foreign occupations over the course of its 1000-year history, especially when the Turks invaded in the 16th and 17th centuries. And the the Soviets’ obsession with standardized buildings in the 20th century didn’t help.

Vienna is a different story. It seems there’s history everywhere. The city is huge, and it’s made up of mostly classic-looking buildings just like you’d see in movies. There’s a more modern-looking area that’s removed from the center, but most of the city really does look like that. It certainly has a more Western feel than Budapest. Whether it’s that German sounds more familiar than Hungarian, that the food is less mediterranean-influenced, or that everything is just a bit more built up, the city seems less of a departure from an American existence (other than architecture). It’s still significantly different, though. Just not like Budapest.

The scale also seems bigger. The Museumsquartier, a complex of several museums located in the heart of the city, is massive. We went into just one of the seemingly endless buildings and spent two hours browsing art from ancient Egypt through the 11th century. We could’ve spent much more time there if we were so inclined. Schönbrunn Palace is a giant building with grounds vast enough to allow visitors to stand far enough away to appreciate the scale.

Schönbrunn Palace from a hilltop

I like Austrian food a lot, and though I’m not even close to being an expert, I’d describe it as similar to German cuisine with the addition of schnitzel as the local specialty. Order dumplings and you get a dish that’s a cross between scrambled eggs and potatoes. I find schnitzel delicious; it’s basically a piece of meat (usually pork), sliced very thin, fried.

I had actually been to Austria before (but way back in 2011), and was pleasantly surprised to find a couple drinks that I’ve never seen anywhere but in this country. Almdudler is a “sweet carbonated beverage made of herbal extracts” according to Wikipedia, and is considered the country’s national drink. That’s a vague description and also more specific than anything I could come up with. Elderberry juice/soda is exactly what it sounds like, though I’m not even sure what an elderberry is and I haven’t seen this beverage offered elsewhere.

Like Copenhagen, one of Vienna’s big attractions is an amusement park tucked into the middle of town. Unlike Copenhagen, Vienna’s is free to enter. Prater is more like a regular amusement park than Tivoli (much less greenery) but its best feature is a massive Ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas. Like the London Eye but smaller. It’s still huge and gives a great 360-degree view of the city. We grabbed lunch at a park concession stand (really good sausages encased in bread, somehow with ketchup and mustard already inside the continuous bread) and went up.

View from atop the Ferris wheel in Prater amusement park

Our major mistake of the weekend was trying to go to Nachtmarkt, a long stretch of open-air food stands and restaurants, on a Sunday, when it is completely closed. Walking through, it looked like it would be awesome when open, so that was a bummer.

One of the best things about this trip was the easy transport. The train from Budapest took well under three hours. It was comfortable, and there are several per day so you can pick what time you like. One confusing thing was that we bought both segments through the Hungarian railway MAV-START, but when we set on our journey home, we discovered our train home was an Austrian OBB train. This was fine (and actually more comfortable), but we had no way of knowing this and my friends who didn’t pre-print return tickets were forced to pay for a new ticket on the train, which is absurd.

There’s a divide somewhere down the middle of Europe’s rail map in terms of efficiency, advanced web presence and ease of use, and Hungary is on one side of that line, and Austria is on the other. The Hungarian train was perfectly good, but booking the ticket required a lot of patience and experimenting with their clunky web interface, and I imagine that many non-Hungarians struggle with it every single day.

On the whole it was a great weekend and I’d say Vienna is among my favorite cities I’ve visited in the world.

A rainy weekend in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — We landed at CPH on a deceivingly pristine morning in the town of Kastrup, just outside the city. Deceiving because the weather soon turned and reminded us we were foolish to make a trip to Scandinavia in February. In any case, we took the train into Copenhagen’s central station (it’s actually a regional train that stops at the airport fresh off the bridge from Sweden, meaning it’s much more comfortable than the subways that service American airports).

Our first stop was Nyhavn, the postcard-perfect waterfront canal lined with colorful Nordic buildings. It was striking against the cloudless sky, and the sun made the 45-degree weather feel fine. To reach Nyhavn, one walks through a maze of pedestrian streets that have an old-town feel but play host to an endless array of upscale shops and overpriced restaurants and bars.

Nyhavn

When coming up with singular words to describe Copenhagen, there are many kind ones, but overpriced and over-glossed are in there. The prices are simply staggering — compared to the United States but especially compared to Budapest. It’s impossible to find a sit-down meal for under $22. Some bars sell mixed drinks for $17 and up. Covers at night clubs regularly topped $15-20. I knew it was expensive going in, but after a day in the city, I was constantly reminding myself that my wallet only had to withstand two more days there.

A square in Copenhagen’s large pedestrian area

That cloudless, lovely waterfront morning ended and the clouds came in to stay. I don’t think we saw the sun again until Monday morning back in Budapest. Saturday brought strong winds and rain, a miserable combination. We determined to make the best of it, though, and strapped on rain jackets and walked around the city as if nothing was wrong. In picking sites for bad-weather tourism, we started with the Amelienborg Palace, the extravagant Danish royal seat. It was a little comical walking through the vast, ornate gardens on our way in, seeing all the greenery dead for the winter and the typically tranquil setting torn by driving wind and sleet.

The inside was not the kind of cultural experience I would typically go for (basically spending $12 to see a bunch of gold-plated junk the royals procured). But it was a bit amusing nonetheless.

We walked around some more, and on the internet’s suggestion, decided to climb up the spiral ramp of the Rundetaarn, or Round Tower. It offers a 360-degree panorama of the city with an open observation deck.

That didn’t pan out too well. The wind and rain were even more harsh up there, and visibility was low. I’m all for braving the elements, but this particular activity was rendered pointless.

We went at night to Tivoli amusement park, the second oldest operating amusement park in the world (the oldest is elsewhere in Denmark). It was of interest to me, aside from the fact it’s one of Copenhagen’s most iconic sites, because it’s said to be the inspiration for Kennywood, the old and charming park in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Much like Kennywood, the park is based on greenery, elaborate light displays, and old-timey concessions, with some modern rides mixed in. Unlike Kennywood, and luckily for us, it’s open in the winter.

There wasn’t much to do because the rides actually cost extra on top of admission, and riding a rollercoaster in the winter isn’t very appealing, but it was very cool just to walk around. There’s even a central lagoon that was almost eerily similar to Kennywood. Who would have thought that Pittsburgh’s beloved park is an imported slice of Denmark?

First three weeks living in Budapest

BUDAPEST, Hungary — I arrived in here for a semester just over three weeks ago on the morning of Feb. 3. Writing comes naturally to me, and I fully intended on updating this space frequently throughout my time here. That’s still what I plan to do. But I was not drawn to put pen to paper (keyboard) until this moment, at the end of a long day on Feb. 26.

Adjusting to a new city (for anything more than a vacation or brief experience) does not come with an instruction manual, and my mind was fully in processing mode for a while. I’m a relatively seasoned traveller, but I’ve never lived long-term outside the United States and the adjustment was disorienting. I quickly made new friends, found places to eat, learned my way around school and the Metro system, but living here just requires a different rhythm, and that took adjustment no matter how comfortable or fortunate my situation was starting out.

Again, I’ve travelled a good deal before. Thanks to a program called CISV, which sends children from countries around the world to get to know each other, I’ve been fortunate to get to know the outside world more than most American youths get to. But struggling to communicate with locals while on a brief trip is one thing. Living that way every day for a semester is another.

That’s not to say I feel burdened by not speaking the local language. I chose to come here, and in doing so I elected to be disadvantaged when it comes to language. (Trust me, there is absolutely no learning Hungarian in a short period of time.) It’s simply mentally taxing to communicate, day in and day out, without the fluent English we share for the most part in the States. Luckily, most Hungarians do have at least a basic knowledge of English.

Here’s how not to communicate with a non-fluent English speaker: Speaking rapid-fire English, thinking that they’ll understand and respond with their slower version.

Here’s an approach I’ve found makes more sense: Meet somebody half way. Be thoughtful in the words and phrasing you choose. Most people genuinely feel bad and uneasy when you’re trying to communicate with them and they don’t understand, and since I’m the visitor here, I don’t want to make people feel that way. I try to speak concisely and clearly, and whenever possible, try to throw in a few Hungarian words as a courtesy. It may feel silly, but just making that small effort can open somebody up.

The last three weeks have been a blur. It took a trip out of Budapest for a weekend to really solidify my connection to the city. After three weeks I got on a Ryanair plane to Copenhagen with some new friends for my first visit to Denmark, and I quickly found myself “missing” Budapest. Gone were the distinctive Hungarian accents and cadences, replaced by the polished Nordic words. Budapest has a gritty quality, in a good way, that is certainly not present in Copenhagen (or any other Scandinavian place I’ve been). Plus, things are like three times as expensive there.

After a fun weekend, we landed at Liszt Ferenc airport with lighter wallets, and I was glad to see the generic and somewhat dilapidated kebab shops and apartment buildings whiz by as the bus took us home. It felt a little familiar. And when you’ve crossed an ocean, that familiarity feels good.