tourist

Budapest, that Hidden Treasure Chest

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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.

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Portland: Now and Then and Later

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When I left Portland ten years, two months, and twenty four days ago, I could have cared less if I ever returned. I mean that rhetorically, because my parents still lived in the city of roses and I had just booked a film which I would be returning to shoot only a couple of weeks later, but regardless, I flew down the I5 like a bat out of grey-clouded hell. I was so ready for my new life as an actress and college student to begin in LA that I literally left the day after I graduated from Lincoln High School. I had had enough rain and green and clean air for one lifetime. Bring on the glittery smog and the land where stars are in the street instead of the sky!

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to escape my childhood – I had been very happy in my single digit and teen years – but rather that there was so much else I wanted to do. I had experienced the Great Outdoors, grown tired of seeing the same buildings while riding Trimet, gotten bored of doing the same bridge runs, drinking the same awesome coffee, smelling all those damn flowers and pine trees. There were 49 other states, 196 odd countries, 7 billion more people beyond the perimeter of my hometown. I had big dreams, Huge Dreams, and they did not include a minute longer in worn-out, thread-bare Portland. The city had reached its expiration date in The Book of Amy, and I was beyond thrilled to begin Chapter 2: Los Angeles.* No looking back, no strings attached.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I started packing last Wednesday for Portland and felt genuine, schoolgirl-esque excitement. It had been five years since my parents had moved down to Rancho Mirage, California, and consequently five years since I had returned to Oregon. I had scarcely even thought about my hometown over the past decade, except when people asked me where I’d grown up (and of course when Portlandia debuted on IFC.) But over the last few months, Portland had been on my mind more and more, mostly as a result of all the reflecting I was doing while writing.

In following Rilke’s advice, I had been probing my childhood, “that jewel beyond all price,” while stuck in Writer’s Block Prison, and spent hours digging up memories from the past, flipping back the pages and mining the text of my life for further meaning. I had stumbled on people from high school, my childhood best friend, my grandfather, moments with my mom and dad, flashes of joy and pain and juvenile angst. I had unearthed an early sexual experience with repercussions I had previously left undefined, and struggled to see those long gone years through a more highly developed lens. The clincher was reading Niall Williams’ exquisite History of the Rain, a meandering novel narrated by the fictional Ruth Swain chronicling her family history in another water-logged part of the world: Ireland. I suddenly felt desperate to return to my rainy roots and see it the way Ruth saw her small town Faha, with humor and insight and poetry. I had to get back to Portland. I got online and booked a flight.

* * * * *

It’s a weird feeling, being a stranger in the city you grew up in. In some ways I was prepared for it – after all, I knew how much I’d changed. I’m a true California girl now, an honorary LA native having achieved my ten year (terrible pun). But what I wasn’t prepared for was how much Portland had changed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, having read and heard about the city’s thriving culture, yet I was. That first evening out on the East Side, driving alone on the way to meet my brother, I felt a rush of emotion: these were the same streets as my youth, but they felt so different. Burnside was peppered with new restaurants and bars, filled with throngs of 20 something hipsters enjoying craft brews and adventurous bites. I’d run up and down this street hundreds of time and never remembered it being this… cool. I felt a sudden fondness for my hometown, but also a disconnect. As I tasted IPAs at a local brewery less than a mile from the house I’d lived in during high school, I felt like a tourist. I was a tourist.

Over the next several days, I experienced a bizarre combination of nostalgia and novelty. From the runs I took to the places I ate to the people I saw, everything reflected this dichotomy of old and new. I’d never been in Gabriel Park before, and that first morning run the ground felt alive and the forest enchanted as I wound my way through literal backyard trails. A couple of days later I ventured down to the Waterfront to cover old cross country ground, and my mind flooded with memories with each pedestrian bridge lane, each piece of street art, OMSI. I made my way up to my high school, and the building – empty for summer – came alive with my old classmates. There was Lydia, running across the quad at the end of freshman year, Lauren and Stephanie with their Boyd’s coffee cups in the crosswalk, the quarterback I unfortunately had a thing for in his letterman jacket. It felt surreal, another lifetime ago, like I may have dreamt it. But no, there was the statue of Lincoln on the second floor, there were the dressing rooms where I transformed for my theatrical debut, there was Matt Groening’s sidewalk carving of Bart Simpson I hadn’t made up. It was real. It had happened.

Or maybe it hadn’t. Eating lunch over in NE Portland on Williams there was almost no trace of the past. Gentrification had rendered the once impoverished and dangerous neighborhood trendy and fashionable. The process was so complete that there was even a New Seasons welcoming baby-toting yuppies. Were it not for the 4 bus rambling along the street I may not have believed that this was the same highly suspect route I used to take home from school everyday. But it was, and if the meal we had at Tasty & Sons was any indication of the quality of the new no-longer-ghetto hood, I was 100% on board. Let bygones be bygones. (On the other hand, not a single thing has changed since 1969 at The Stockpot Broiler, my grandmother’s go-to restaurant, not even the clientele.)

Meetings with old friends and family dug up even more of the past, while also illuminating just how different our lives now were. Mikie and I reminisced about Monopoly and Now & Laters and camping at Bench Lake, while I oohed and awed over her two beautiful daughters. Sarah and Ashley and I gossiped about senior year boyfriends, while marveling at how much we had all been through, how little we knew of our current selves. Hanging out with my brother and his friends, I hardly recognized him, and yet I’d spent more of my life in his company than anyone else’s, save my parents.** Not even my grandmother, that stalwart of tradition, failed to surprise me, as we chatted with her 94 year old boyfriend. What a difference a decade makes! From the native to the tourist, the old paths to the new trails, the classic salmon to the Burmese Red Pork Stew, the infants to the nonagenarians- I relished in the blended realities of the past and present.

* * * * *

Driving down Sunset Blvd this morning past the 405 and UCLA, I thought about what I had learned. Had I had a Ruth Swainian, Rilke-like, earth-shattering realization about the meaning of my life after my five days in Portland? Probably not. But what I can say is I no longer feel the same sort of self-imposed distance from it that I did before. If I once needed to separate my identity from Portland to prove to myself that I was a Big City girl with Big Dreams and Big Ideas, I’ve grown out of it. I’m no more defined by Portland that it is defined by me. I’ve shed those old judgments and that adolescent perspective and can finally see the city for what it is: pretty frickin’ awesome. And weird. And green. And a formative part of me. And some place I’ll almost certainly never live again, but am sure to keep visiting (and seeing anew) again and again.***

* Or maybe it’s Chapter 3, since I was born in Everett. Or Chapter 4, because there were those couple years in Thailand. And then there was Seattle, so maybe Los Angeles is Chapter 5? But then again, it’s not like I changed that much there in the beginning, so– Ah, who knows, it could all change in the final edit.
** The good news is I like him a lot more now. The bad news is now I hardly ever see him.
*** I will live in Portland if Chris Pine wants me to. Or if I become a series regular on Grimm. Or if global warming reverses the 9 months of cloud coverage and 50 degree weather.

Museums, Cake, Austria

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As I ran through the empty streets of Salzburg, I imagined myself skipping through time. I was in the 18th century, hearing the sounds of Mozart in front of his birthplace. I passed by the Mirabell Palace, envisioning myself a lady-in-waiting in the 1600s, and then through the gardens, suddenly thrust forward to 1965, where Maria and the Von Trapp kids were singing Do-Re-Me on the steps. I crossed over into the old town and stopped momentarily on the bridge, watching the water flow down the Salzach. It had been the town’s lifeline since the 5th century, when Celts settled the lush green land. I stared up at the Fortress Hohensalzburg, my next destination, through cable car lines, and marveled at the many incarnations the town had been through, the evolving cultures and technologies. At that moment I felt both a part of its rich history and a stranger to it. The stillness of the morning provided a level of intimacy with Salzburg I didn’t feel I deserved, having arrived only the day before, yet I relished in it, the same as I had in Vienna on my 7am runs. I love this about Europe: nothing happens before 10am.

Continuing on my run, signs of life began to emerge: a weary man setting up cafe tables, a biker zipping down the sidewalk, an Englishwoman asking me for directions, a guy with headphones and a throwback Michael Jordan jersey. I passed a street entertainer dressed in traditional Austrian garb, his face painted, and he smiled warmly at me. I thought of Vienna and all of the men in their wigs and fancy costumes hawking Mozart concert tickets. It was such a strange blend of past and present, at once preserving and mutilating a part of the culture. Tourism can do this. The essence is there, but it becomes commercialized, commodified. It can entertain and disgust, educate or morph the meaning. This was sometimes how I felt abroad, waffling between an annoying tourist invading private space and an inspired traveller adding energy and new layers of understanding through different eyes. I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

In Vienna even more than Salzburg, I experienced this dichotomy between the familiar and the foreign, the sense of belonging and of exclusion. For one thing, Alicia and I booked a room through airbnb. Since we started using the travel website three years ago, I’ve become a big fan and advocate. While the spaces we’ve inhabited may not always be of the highest quality, they never fail to make me feel more like a local. Hotels provide a certain comfort and sense of luxury, but apartments, with their wear and tear and tangible homeyness, bring me closer to the place.

On top of our accommodations, we were surprisingly well-connected within the city, considering neither of us had ever been and Vienna is hardly a top destination for Americans. We had recommendations from two knowledgable sources: a Viennese friend of mine from back home who had written me a veritable novel on insider to-dos, and a guy from the Mix of France who had spent a couple of years living in the city. Furthermore, another Mixy girl, Anna-Nora, happened to be on our flight from Cannes, visiting her mother who lived less than a quarter mile from our apartment, and our friend Marie-Claude’s brother Denis happened to be flying in the day after our arrival. We not only had a list of places to see and restaurants to eat at, but other people to join us!

While our guides directed us wisely- the Albertina, Palmenhaus, Cafe Sacher, the Natural History Museum, Nachtmarket, the Belvedere- we couldn’t escape the inevitable feeling of being outsiders. Most notably, the language served as a constant reminder of our foreign status. I know “kein Deutsch” (no German, obvs), Alicia a few words more, but we were pretty much lost in the sea of harsh syllables and words with seemingly endless letters. We amused ourselves with some of the new vocabulary we picked up (shmetterling, meaning butterfly, was our all time fave), but mostly I felt ignorant in my lack of multi-lingual skills. It didn’t help that Anna-Nora was fluent in both German and French, but any jealousy on my part quickly dissipated when she negotiated with taxi drivers and waiters.

Like Salzburg, my morning runs brought me closer to Vienna than pretty much anything else (maybe not the art of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, but they deserve their own essay.) What is it about pounding the pavement that makes me feel so at one with my surroundings? The endorphins? The meditative state I often achieve around mile three? Whatever it is, it exists, and I am thankful for it. With such a basic action as one foot in front of the other, I can drop into my body and the space around me, my senses heightened and ready to absorb the spectacularly new stimuli. The morning we left Vienna, I saw one last time the beautiful cake-like buildings, St. Stephens, Hofburg Palace, the Danube river, at once timeless and immediate, all of history crammed into the now, my heart beating and soul uplifted…

The church bells rang out over Salzburg- 8 o’clock. It was time to head back and wake up Alicia. We wanted to explore the city a little more before our departure, as the day before had been taken up mostly by a Sound of Music tour (this is every bit as kitschy and wonderful and emblematic of what I’m trying to communicate as it sounds.) I maneuvered my way through the cobble stone streets confidently, having learned the lay of the land, pleased with the bond I had been able to form with the city in such a short time. I turned left onto our street and gasped. Even though I’d been up and down it at least a half dozen times, something about it at that very moment gripped me- the light, the charm, the serenity. It was a sight that had no doubt been enjoyed by countless others before me, both Austrians and foreigners, recently and long ago, but right now none of that mattered. I was a tourist but I was also a witness. The church coalesced alongside chain shops and 300 year-old restaurants. I felt a certain transcendence, acceptance for how things are, how they’d come to be, and I smiled. Vienna, Salzburg, telephone wires, Mozart, the Chicago Bulls, me- we were all connected.