When a friend is working in a foreign country and invites you to stay at his or her place, the answer should always be yes. And not just because of the free lodging, although the savings incurred from this are indeed sizable and massively appreciated. No, the reason you should say “Absolutely, I’m booking my flight as we speak over FaceTime,”* is the opportunity to experience the exotic land as a local. Case in point, my trip to Budapest.
Until a few months ago, I knew very little about Hungary, except that it was somewhere in Europe (where precisely I couldn’t have told you – my geography aptitude is regrettably American.) If you had asked me where I wanted to travel this summer, Hungary wouldn’t have made the Top 10. Probably not even the Top 40. But thanks to one of my best friends Ally, it catapulted to number one like a catchy single by an obscure artist that becomes the summer’s anthem (yes, I’m clearly talking about George Ezra’s “Budapest”.)
For Ally, the move to Budapest happened quite suddenly. One March morning we were hiking in Griffith Park, discussing Tinder dates and script ideas, the next she was subletting her apartment, packing her bags, and informing said dates that things were over before they began. This is how it goes down in the entertainment industry, like Spinks against Tyson.
“You should come visit me while-”
“I’m there,” I finished her sentence. I’d been looking for an excuse to head to Europe, especially since I’d be just a hop and a skip away in New York, and so I began planning my getaway. When I found a flight for under a grand, I booked it before I could blink.**
After securing my ticket to Budapest, I did the next reasonable thing any world traveler does- I consulted Google. Where is this city? What are it’s top sites? What kind of foods do they eat? What language do they speak? (Answers: near Austria, lots of beautiful buildings, primarily goulash and meat, and Hungarian, a language so difficult for me to comprehend that I couldn’t even pronounce “thank you.”)
I invested in a few guidebooks (ebooks from the library) and devoted a couple of hours to Wikipedia, but in the end, all I really needed to get the most out of the city was curiosity, the word “yes,” and of course, Ally.
She picked me up from the airport at 9am, and we hugged deliriously. Neither of us had slept – she thanks to night shoots, me due to the sardine tin quarters of the previous 10 hours – so the first order of business was a nap. I passed out immediately, the last time I would fall asleep with such ease for the remainder of my trip. Damn jet lag.
That first night I was on my own. Ally had another night shoot, so I figured I would just stroll around a bit, grab dinner at the nearby Greek restaurant she recommended, and call it an early evening. What a quaint notion.
After ascending the citadel and taking in sweeping views of the city, I sat down at Taverna just as the pink sun began to set. So far so quaint. But that’s where my original plan ended. Because within 20 minutes of eating alone, soaking up the waves of the Danube, the steaming hot cheese of my mousakas, and the variety of accents of the English speakers next to me, I couldn’t help but intervene.
“Should we order another bottle of one wine?” The handsome Brit asked his mates. There was a pause.
“The answer is always yes,” I replied. They laughed, ordered another bottle of wine, and we proceeded to chat and drink.
And chat and drink, and chat and drink some more. They were ex-pats living in Amsterdam, and had all been to Budapest before. In fact, the female of the fearsome foursome hailed from the city – and so I got to experience the nightlife like, well, a local. From hanging out at the bustling park, to taking a quick tequila shot at Godzu Square, to a ruins pub and then a bar covered in hanging paper serving great buckets of shelled peanuts, I received a healthy welcome.
It didn’t stop there. While I didn’t see the ex-pats again, I was quickly ingratiated into another wonderful Budapest-savvy group: Ally’s work family. I met many of them over margaritas at Iguana, a favorite Mexican gathering spot, before getting really up close and personal at Sziget, a week-long summer music festival.
Grinning, sweating, fist-pumping, selfie-taking– there is nothing like the crowd at an EDM show to remind you that at the heart of it, we humans are all the same. I’d been to another festival, Mad Decent Block Party on Coney Island, the weekend before, and while the languages swirling around me may have been different, the insanely positive energy was not. Long live music, that universal connector.
Over the next few days, Ally took me around the city, showing me hip restaurants, peaceful parks, and her go-to spa ($20 for an hour-long massage!) I hung out with stunt guys, writers, producers, and effects people from Canada, Hungary, Australia, Serbia, and LA. Yes, I hit all of the major sightseeing areas- the National Gallery, the Opera house, Hero’s Square, St. Stephens Basilica, Fisherman’s Bastion – but mostly I just enjoyed being out and about with Ally and her friends. Through them, I got to experience Budapest in a way no tour guide ever could have shown me. And those ended up being the most memorable moments: running through the pouring rain from one social gathering to the next, belting “I Want It That Way” at an underground karaoke bar, laughing and crying over the atrocious service, nursing our festival hangovers at a big group brunch in a beautiful vaulted Jewish restaurant. I loved it all.
“So, you’re coming with us to Malaysia next, right?” One of the Australian stunt guys asked on my last night out in the city. The Southeast Asian country was the production’s final three month destination.
“Well, the answer to that is…” I laughed, trailing off. “Probably not.”
But only because I’d already said yes to another invitation- a wedding in Australia. See ya in December, mates!!
*One of the best features of iPhones- free iMessages and FaceTime calls over wifi, anywhere in the world. Don’t tell your grandparents, it’ll legitimately blow their minds.
**Not blinking is an important skill for nabbing the best airline fares. The number of times I’ve hesitated before clicking “buy tickets” only to be greeted with “no longer available” is staggering.