Now that the Western holiday season is approaching, I reflect back on a unique couple days I spent this time of year in Central Eastern Europe.
On Christmas Eve in 2007, I took an early morning flight from Istanbul, Turkey, to Budapest, Hungary. I think we were the only ones in the wee hours of the morning to be at that gate at the Istanbul airport, but as I was less than half awake, my memory is rather blurry. All I can completely remember was the horrible Turkish pop music videos blasting way too loud for a pre-morning hour, while sitting on uncomfortable chairs, waiting to dock my two-hour journey.
I can hardly remember the two-hour flight, but I recall landing at the Budapest airport, taking a taxi into town amidst the snow and ice-encrusted brown architecture and bare tree branches of the city’s outskirts. Upon arriving into the proper metropolis, we discovered that our hostel was yet to be of accessible hours without a key.
So it was a long trek of walking in circles, storing luggage in some dingy old locker lair of the nearby train station hall, and wandering around, trying to stay awake throughout the city, stopping in fast food places that played obnoxiously overdone techno under the fluorecsent lighting in the AM hours.
After taking half-naps in a Subway and a McDonald’s, our hostel finally opened. What we were being kept from entering turned out to be a somewhat large apartment that seemed rather unofficial, but nonetheless a safe haven from the winter and techno.
We had to get our luggage back after that, but somehow had lost our tickets, so had to have a 10-minute fight with the luggage staff in English and Hungarian. Though no one understood each other and it is below freezing in this rustic establishment, we eventually managed to argue with them to return us our luggage. In order to do that, they had to take out every single garment and other item out of its storage, examine it and mark it down on a notepad. I got to watch an old man take out every single shirt, sock and piece of writing material I had in my suitcase being looked at and jotted down, until they were finally approved to be shoved back in the bag and returned to their owner.
After all of the confusion of shelter and clothing and storage fixed, it was then time to explore the city. I did not know this before, but Christmas Eve in Budapest is a very grave time when almost everything is closed. You can walk down streets and streets and streets to find no lights on, just the pale reflection of the white sky on the empty-looking shop and cafe windows.
Sometimes you must cross the street by going underground through a subway tunnel, and underneath the cityscape exists some live action of straggling sock vendors or musical instrument performers scattered on the ground on blankets. After entering this dimension of temporary shelter, you must ascend back into the streets of longing absence.
We eventually walked across one of the bridges that divides Pest and Buda (once two separate cities on either side of the Danube), up through the hills of Buda.
This part of town has a fine park with built-in walking paths amongst the bare nature, though they are packed in deeply with snow and ice, so one must be careful not to slip.
The view from the top of these hills of the surrounding park and city is quite a chilly and white experience this time of year, and the sculptures have an interesting appearance against the blanket of clouds.
We took what we could handle and climbed back down and retreated to Pest, back to the stripped cluster of civilization.
Somehow in the depleted action, we were able to discover a Christmas market. Some vendors were up in action selling their baked goods, itchy wool socks and hot, cinnamon-flavored beverages for the final hours of holiday shopping season.
Shortly after we arrived, we watched the outdoor shop keepers start packing up their equipment to head home for the evening. They were joining the secret of what this city keeps during this holiday, whatever traditional matters and domestic life they are used to as an annual happening, kept away from the awareness or access of its visitors.