I visited Budapest, in October 1999. My friend, Ricki, whom I had met at the wedding of my friends Andre and Vicky Danielson, happened to be studying there at the time, and she graciously put me up in her dorm room at Central European University.
Well, I got to enjoy the city for 3 days and I fell in love with it almost immediately. I got to meet many intellectuals at the university, whose names I have forgotten. But I remember 2 in particular. One was a young Russian, I'll call him Yuri. He was what one imagines when one conjures an image of Stalin's ideal Soviet citizen: broad shouldered, narrow waisted, athletic, smart, handsome, and courteous. He had the unassuming optimism that I have always associated with the ideal of the Soviet republic.
The other student I remember in particular was a Romanian man whom I will call Andres. He typified what I imagine to be the furious Eastern European intellectual: dark, brooding, chain-smoking, disheveled, brilliant. At one point, Ricky and I engaged him in conversation that went something like this:
Andres said, "You Americans are struggling with your national image. You don't seem comfortable with your identity."
"Perhaps," Ricky replied. "But are you comfortable with yours?"
Andres, took a long pull off his cigarette, then exhaled a plume of smoke in a long sigh. He looked up from under his bushy, dark eyebrows and smiled. "I'm comfortable," he said, "with my current identity crisis."
Years later, I still smile when I think about that conversation.
The people in Budapest were fantastic. Unassuming, beautiful, quietly friendly, comfortable with themselves. To be sure, there were some rough parts of the city, where the drinking establishments seemed to be run by some kind of Russian underworld.
But the beauty of the city is undeniable. It was definitely one of my two or three favorite cities visited on the Grand European Tour. If you ever get the chance to go there, by all means, take it.
Happy Labor Day!