Budapest was both the first and last stop on our 10-day tour of Central Europe as we started with an entire day’s layover there before continuing on to Berlin. We heard mixed reviews of Budapest before embarking; many people love it, but so many shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘it was ok.’ It is definitely a little rough around the edges, a shiny renovated building standing next to a dilapidated one that only hints at its former grandeur. But that’s part of what made me fall in love with this city with its wide avenues and homey cuisine.
We only had a few days there and wanted to make it count, but so many things got in our way. Our too good to be true hostel canceled and was going to put us up in an apartment rental, but our train was delayed by several hours and we missed the key pick up. Desperate, we stayed in a fancy hotel (it was nice to see how the other half lives for a night, and Evan had his own personal gym since it was empty), which ate up our budget.
We had yet another missed connection, this time with a distant Hungarian relative. This one left us standing outside with a bouquet of tulips for over an hour. She never came. (Don’t worry, even that story has a happy ending.) Between the budget and trying to meet up with this relative, things became too complicated and too expensive and we had to cancel the thing I had most looked forward to on the whole vacation: a culinary tour and cooking class (more on that in Part II).
And yet I loved Budapest? Yes, despite all of that I loved Budapest. Which I think means it must really be special. And in the end most things worked out.
We spent the second two nights at an incredible hotel. Can I tell you about this hotel? While it was more than the $30 a night we had planned on spending, it was worth every penny. Located on beautiful, central Andrassy across from the Korean Embassy, a block away from City Park, and just down the street from the metro it turned out to be the perfect base. The room was luxurious with a king size bed, large bath tub, flat screen cable tv, free wifi, and serene balcony. And the staff! They went above and beyond for me, helping me translate emails from my relative, giving me directions, and printing out bus schedules. After some nasty experiences with hotel staff on this trip it was such a relief.
I guess I should explain why I went so much trouble to meet up with a distant relative I’d never met who spoke no English. My grandmother was Hungarian. She is my lone Hungarian bloodline, a heritage that I had never really considered beyond my father’s occasional decision to make goulash. The rest of my family is Italian.
I’m sure you’ve noticed my last name by now: Martinelli. It ain’t Irish.
I decided that if I was going to be in Budapest I should get in touch with my Hungarian roots. My aunt put me in touch with Jim, who moved to Perth, Australia after WWII (another interesting story for another time), who gave me lots of tips and eventually put me in touch with his two sisters who still live just outside of Budapest. And speak no English. And so we ended up waiting for my great grandmother’s niece, which I think makes her some sort of cousin. A second or third, maybe removed a few times. I was never good with that stuff.
We had been corresponding via email for what now seemed like months. In reality we began speaking four days prior to my trip. Google Translate did most of the work as I don’t speak Hungarian and Juci (pronounced Yutzi) does not speak English. “We are very pleased that you visit the country of Hungary, and in particular, that the Hungarian relatives also want to meeting,” it translated.
After clearing up our confusion over meeting (she had called the hostel and they told her we never showed up), she invited us to Easter dinner the following day. “If you think you can then we would like to invite tomorrow’s dinner…The Arpad Bridge, which starts with a yellow bus to come here. With 9 hours of going to church half are age 11 at home.” At this point I realized that Google Translate was no longer sufficient. Then I got her next email with further directions to her house: “Under the age of the earth will have to go there change at Deak Square.” Oh dear. This wasn’t going to work at all.
This is where the staff at the hotel came in. They translated for real. And told me how to get to the suburbs of Urom where Juci lives. Juci and her husband, Josef, met us at the bus. We hugged and she took my hand, holding it all the way home as they pointed out goodies at the Easter market. We played a lot of charades that night, neither fully understanding what the other was saying. I showed her old photos my aunt had sent me, and she recognized the people (“good, we’ve come to the right house,” Evan whispered).
She served us a large, multi-course meal, simple and comforting. Chewy spaetzle was served alongside braised chicken legs and doused in a rich, paprika-inflected gravy. Sweet, tender boneless pork chops came next, accompanied by potatoes. A watery, thinly sliced cucumber salad was served on a separate plate. A huge plate of cookies and cakes from the bakery finished the meal. They insisted we have wine with dinner, then admitted, through hand gestures, that they do not drink. Our first real Hungarian meal. Communicating through food. A success all around.
At the end of the evening her neighbors, who speak some English, came over to clear a few things up. We realized how little we knew about each other. She had no idea that we live in Israel, and thought we were related through my mother’s side. I couldn’t tell her for sure how many siblings my grandmother had, but I was pretty sure just one. Katherine. She explained about her foster children, and started crying when she talked about spending last Easter in the hospital.
When it was time to part ways, she walked us alone to the bus stop. She stopped to point out a small church dedicated to the Czar’s daughter. Juci seemed to indicate that she was buried there. We hugged and said goodbye. She looked at us one last time, shaking her head and putting her hands on her temples. “Tel Aviv!” She sighed and ran across the street through minor evening traffic. “Ulom City!” she yelled as she shrugged and walked away. When we got on the bus the same bus driver took our tickets and one of the passengers had been on the bus earlier, giving the impression that there were very few extras available for the low budget movie we just shot.
Stay tuned for the next installment which, I promise, will be almost entirely about food.