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Some final thoughts on Europe

We took an overnight train ride! I was very excited about this!

It was amazing and so much fun. Getting on the train and seeing how it’s laid out just like in the movies, with the narrow corridor along the one side and the sleeping berths on the other side was awesome.

I was giddy with excitement to see the two bunks stacked one above the other in our tiny cabin (?) is that what you call it on the train? Or the berth?

Anyway, when the train started pulling out of the station, I just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing at the thrill of it all. As I stood at the door of the berth looking out across the way through the opposite window, watching the station move past slowly and then with increasing speed, I said, “This is SO cool!” And then I saw this young guy from the room right next to us was standing by his door and he responded, “It sure is. This is our first time also!” He was traveling with his father and we all shared the excitement for a few moments.

I highly recommend doing this type of overnight journey. It is just so romantic. So old school. So like an almost forgotten chapter of traveling. It was 10:30 at night, so it was dark. It was also cold and very foggy so everything out the window was in shadows and partially obscured. Jay and I sat on the bottom bunk huddled together under a blanket, with the window open, just watching in amazement as the world passed by and listening to the sound of the wheels on the track and the wind rushing by.

After about 45 minutes or so, the train came to a stop. We were totally aghast to see that our window was directly facing the sign of the town we were in: Oswiecim, or Auschwitz. In the dark, on a train, in the fog, it was more than eerie. It really spooked us as readers of our previous blog on the Holocaust Notes will understand. After a few minutes, someone blew a whistle and the train slowly started rolling on. We sat there in silence, taking it all in.

Finally, when we were ready to go to sleep, Jay climbed up to the top bunk and we just lay there listening to the sound of the train moving along the track and watching the shadows of the passing trees. Every once in a while, some lights would be shining and would illuminate a tiny town, or an industrial area, or a train station.

We dozed off to the sound of the train. It wasn’t a deep sleep, and we both woke up several times during the night, but each time we awoke, we experienced that same thrilling sensation. I said to myself, “I love this I love this I love this!”

The conductor knocked on our door at 7:30 AM announcing that the train would be arriving in Budapest in a half hour. As we gathered our stuff and prepared for the next leg of our journey, I was filled with such gratitude that we had had this amazing experience.

Budapest: An important note: We saw the bad side of Budapest first, which somewhat tainted our impressions of the city, and it took the rest of our time there to understand how much there was to appreciate and how much beauty there was in this city.

When we arrived at the train station we immediately noticed how different it was from the Krakow station. Krakow’s train station was ultra-modern and clean and spacious. It was attached to a giant shopping mall so there was a great deal of foot traffic and hustle and bustle. Budapest’s station was old and run-down. It was dirty and ragged. It looked nice from the outside, but believe me inside was not so nice.

At 8:30 in the morning, there were very few people there. The ceiling tiles were falling down or missing or hanging in weird angles. Dust and strange wires were protruding from everywhere. The floor was filthy. And under the “No Smoking” sign were employees of the train station smoking. And then they spit on the floor. The walls were yellow and grimy from years and years of cigarette smoke and pollution. It was kind of gross and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

So we started walking to our apartment and it was very shady. As in kind of scary. There were people sitting and laying in the street under bundles of blankets. There were people begging. As we continued to walk, we noticed big concrete block buildings looking very worn. Clearly from the Communist era and not fixed up at all.

Finally, we reached a more lively main street and saw a Courtyard Marriot. We ran for it and rested in the lobby for a while before we headed out again.

There was an unexpected change in our AirBnb apartment, as the owner gave us an “upgrade” and put us in an awesome apartment in a very great location. We didn’t even realize this was going to happen until the very last second. We thought he was telling us to put our luggage in this other apartment for a couple hours that we thought his girlfriend lived in before we could check into our apartment, but once we got there he said this was where we were going to be staying. And no, his girlfriend did not live there. No one lived there.

We were thrilled because we had passed by the apartment where we were supposed to be staying but it was close to, but not in, the very nice neighborhood we now found ourselves (in the Jewish Quarter, of course. I’m definitely starting to notice a trend about these Jewish Quarters in European cities)

So that first day we wandered around our neighborhood of the Jewish Quarter and saw how amazing it was.

The next day it rained the entire day and was freezing, so apart from going out for meals, we pretty much stayed in the apartment all day.

That left only one day to really explore the city, starting with a free tour.

That’s when we began to really see how great Budapest is.

But it was too late.

We couldn’t take advantage of the many things to do there as we had to leave the next day. So, in the very short time we were there, here are a couple things we saw and learned:

1. When we were done with the Courtyard Marriot (see above), we ended up finding a coffee shop to have some breakfast. But it turned out that on Sundays the coffee shop turns into the snack bar for this church. We were able to buy pastry and coffee and sit in the shop while we listened to the church service through the open doors of an attached auditorium. This English speaking couple sat down next to us and we started talking. They were American missionaries who come to Budapest every year for a month because they love it so much. They had lived there for 5 years during the ‘90’s and fell in love with the city. They gave us a great overview of the city, including the fun fact that the next day was the most important day in Hungary, which was the commemoration of the Revolution of 1956 against the Soviet dictatorship (more on that below). They also told us some interesting things to do including what a “ruin bar” was (more on that below). I decided we had to check it out.

2. We saw the Dohanyi Synagogue, but chose not to go in.​

Same thing with the underground Holocaust museum in memory of Hannah Senesh (see here for who that was

I had had my fill of Holocaust stuff. Plus, I had just re-read this amazing book called “Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer, a Cleveland native about what happened in Hungary, particularly in Budapest during the war. As we were wandering around the Jewish Quarter, I looked at all the street signs and imagined the characters of the story walking around these very streets. Just a short 70 years ago. If you are interested in what happened in Paris pre-war, and Hungary during the war, read this book. It is VERY good. (I even read it twice).

The replacement of the Jewish and Holocaust theme of our travels had become the Communist theme without even planning.

Our free tour guide was a young man who was passionate about Hungarian history. The Revolution of 1956 was a really big deal. I guess I had learned about it in school at some point, but didn’t really pay much attention to it. But, all along the streets were Hungarian flags with holes cut out of the center. I learned that this was a symbol of the Revolution. The resistance fighters had cut out the Soviet star from the center of the Hungarian flag to show they were fighting from Soviet control.

(I didn't take this picture but got it from the internet because I forgot to take a photo)

These symbolic flags were hanging around the city to commemorate the revolution. I was happy we were there at this time.

We also learned that the Hungarians felt like the US abandoned them in their fight against the Soviets. Just like the woman in Poland had expressed (read previous blog from Krakow), the Hungarians felt like the Americans had encouraged them to resist the Soviets, and when they finally did, the Americans did nothing to help them out. Despite early gains in driving the Soviets out of Budapest, a week later they came back in force and CRUSHED the rebellion. Tanks rolled into the streets and crushed both the freedom fighters and innocent onlookers and civilians. And the US didn’t do anything. People remember that. Including that the Americans had fought a war in Korea just before then.

We went to a place called Hospital in the Rock, which was a system of caves on the Buda side of the river that had been transformed into a WWII hospital, then a Cold War hospital, equipped with anti-contamination equipment in case of nuclear war, then to a nuclear shelter, and now a museum showing the horrors of nuclear weapons, illustrated by an exhibit from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

It was a fascinating museum and brought to life the danger the Eastern Europeans felt during the Cold War, and showed that their leaders were absolutely prepared to protect themselves from nuclear war with the US. This whole place was hidden and classified until about 2007, when it was converted into a museum.

The Ruin Bar: this is for all you partiers out there. Since the end of the Cold War, and the end of communism in Hungary, there has been a lot of effort from the new private sector to build a new Budapest. Many buildings in the city are still standing that sustained damage from WWII, showing bullet and mortar damage in the walls. The Soviets and the Hungarian communist government didn’t have the money to invest in making the city better in many places.

Now, investors are coming in and there is a LOT of renovation going on all over.

One unique idea that has come out of this is the Escape Room. Did you know Escape Rooms originated in Hungary? And there are over 50 Escape Rooms in Budapest? They are using these buildings for this purpose.

And the Ruin Bar: they take an old building that is ruined and rough, and turn it into a bar. We went into one because I was so curious what it would look like. And here is a little snapshot.

It was a huge building, two floors, partially outside as the roof was missing, and in lots of nooks and crannies there were different rooms with different themes. It was wild.

If we had had more time, I definitely would have spent some time there. It was a very cool vibe. Of course, most of the people there were our children’s ages, but I definitely would have hung out there.

If you go to Budapest, I encourage you to check out this very unique place.

Summary of European Travel

This is for my friends who may be reluctant to travel to Europe. Now that our European part of our trip is over (almost two months long!), I encourage you to try a trip to Europe.

Here are my top 5 reasons why it’s not that hard:

1. Cost: You can get a flight to Europe often less expensively than flights to different places in the US. It’s very possible to travel on a tight budget. There are very reasonable places to stay, and whether using Airbnb, workaway, or hostels (not just for youth anymore), you can find a place that fits your budget. Budget food: supermarkets. Breakfasts that come with the hotel. “Fast food” of Asian, Kebab, salads are easy. Southern and Eastern Europe is really inexpensive for Americans.

2. English is an international language so pretty much everyone speaks English. If you run into someone who doesn’t, that person will call over someone who does. We were NEVER in a situation where we couldn’t communicate effectively within a few minutes of when we started.

3. The internet is amazing. I don’t know or understand how people traveled before the internet. I don’t remember how I did it back in the ‘80’s. Most transportation and travel logistics websites have English translations. There are so many apps that make travel logistics simple. If Jay and I can figure this out, so can you.

4. Transportation has turned out to be great. There have been a few challenges, but in the end, we have worked them out and we’ve gotten where we need to be when we need to be there. Whether by bus, or train, or tram, or metro or plane, or ferry, when you travel from city to city or within the city, you can rely on these forms of transportation.

5. People have been super friendly and helpful. So if you don’t know where you are or what to order, or what to buy because you don’t understand what it says on the package, people will help you.

And so, this is why you should give it a try:

1. It’s amazing to see different countries and different sights. For me, who loves history, you can just pick your favorite time period and see first-hand what it was like. From Medieval, to Renaissance, from World War I or II to Communism and the Cold War. It’s all here. For people like Jay who like to shop, to browse among the street markets and the flea markets, and the malls and the boutiques, wow is there a lot to see. You can kind of pick a theme, like food, culture, basic tourist sights, etc. and just go crazy. You can try it out.

2. It’s an adventure. Or it’s a luxury experience. However you want to do it. We prefer the adventure of independent travel. But you can do it however you like and however your budget allows.

Next stop: Israel!

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