The biggest theme I notice in my travels, playing out again and again almost everywhere I go, is that of expectations vs. reality. It might not be particularly groundbreaking to say so, but my preconceptions of a place almost inevitably dictate the degree to which I love it in the end.
As an example of this theory, I give you Lisbon and Budapest, the two cities I was most looking forward to visiting before the semester began. There was one difference between the two, however: I went to Lisbon with a pretty clear idea of the things I expected to encounter (the colorful neighborhoods, the pastel de nata, the overall atmosphere), but I journeyed to Budapest with essentially a blank slate. In fact, I’m not even sure why exactly I wanted to visit Budapest in the first place; I only knew that I did.1 When it came to what I would encounter there, I had no clue. Uhhhh…there’s a castle? And probably some churches? Maybe a bit of goulash?
And so, perhaps not surprisingly, I left Lisbon and Budapest with very different impressions. I liked Lisbon an awful lot; the buildings were beautiful and the food was excellent and the neighborhoods were fascinating to explore. But I didn’t love it, and that’s probably because, after hearing so many people rave about the city, I likely would not have been satisfied by being anything short of blown away by its awesomeness.
Now Budapest, on the other hand – Budapest, I loved. Not just loved: adored, was thrilled with, and was mildly obsessed with. I have been raving about the city ever since, a trend I suspect will continue for a long while.
What I loved most about Budapest was that it was absolutely beautiful – the architecture, the colors, the riverfront – but it felt like a grittier, more unassuming beauty than other places. For me, the obvious comparison is Prague, a city I visited a few years ago but didn’t like that much. Everyone I’ve ever met who has been there has raved about how picture-perfect Prague is – and the city is indeed gorgeous – but to me, it felt like a theme park. It was jam-packed with tourists in so many spots, and I found it difficult to connect with the “authentic” Prague.
Budapest, however, felt to me like what I had hoped Praguewould feel like. It was beautiful, but its beauty felt more untapped, more real, more undiscovered (though, let’s be honest, it’s not like Budapest is some obscure, off-the-map city). And the beauty of Budapest wasn’t perfect either; it was mingled with a fair amount of graffiti and crumbling Soviet-era facades in some spots. In a way, though, that contrast made me love the city even more.
What else did I love about Budapest? I loved how big, how expansive, the city felt. There were grand boulevards and huge buildings everywhere, but the scope never felt impersonal or daunting. Rather, Budapest felt “big” to me in the sense that it was lively, bustling, and contained oh so many possibilities for filling your days.
I loved the people. As with everything else about the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the residents of Budapest. When it comes to Hungarians, there are no ready-made stereotypes in my mental arsenal as with other countries (you know: stuffy Brits, animated Italians, snooty Frenchmen) (none of which I believe to be entirely accurate, by the way) (okay, maybe the Italian one is). What were Hungarians like? I had no idea before visiting, but everyone I encountered was warm, friendly, and gracious.
I loved the views. There were so many good vantage points throughout the city, whether walking along the river, traversing the bridges, or perching atop Castle Hill. And it was in the latter location, standing on high and gazing down at the city, that something clicked for me. I stood there, looking out at Budapest, and I just felt happy. It was one of those moments you get sometimes when you travel, one of those times when – cheesy as it sounds – the world feels kind of magical.
And that evening, in the fading light on Castle Hill, I knew it: this was a city I loved. This was a city I would remember fondly for a long, long time. This was a city I would look forward to returning to again. There were so many things I loved about Budapest – and I can’t wait to share more of them over the next few days.
1 Okay, I do sort of have one suspicion about why I wanted to visit, and it’s an old family inside joke. In 5th grade geography, we did a unit on Eastern Europe. My text book explained that Budapest was bisected by the Danube, and that on one side of the river lay Buda, and on the other, Pest. I have no idea why, but this fact amused me greatly, and I excitedly went home and told my parents, “There’s actually two cities. One is Buda! One is Pest!” They acted like I was making this fact up and gave me a hard time about it, and ever since, it has been a family joke to bring up that moment whenever anyone mentions Budapest or Hungary. And so, ever since that fateful day in 5th grade, a little part of me has been intrigued by the mysterious duo of Buda and Pest. And, for the record, I was completely NOT making that fact up.