November 13, 2017
Oscar and I landed in Budapest on Gypsy Christmas. Officially called lomtalanítás, it’s the one day each year where residents are free to toss their junk, en masse, onto the sidewalk for collection. We hadn’t exactly studied up on the city beforehand. Like much of our homework that semester, it went undone. And thus we were not aware of this annual “event.” In fact, we found ourselves in the Hungarian capital only because, in late July 2011, it seemed more off the beaten path than any of our other classmates were willing to venture. So after having dragged our suitcases along the sweltering city streets, dodging mysterious, man-high piles of garbage while searching for our hostel, our instincts felt vindicated.
Casa de la Musica was a technicolor funhouse of a hostel in the Palace District of Pest. In its courtyard, chest-deep in an inflatable pool on the afternoon of our arrival, we met Albert, a German physical therapist who learned The King’s while studying in Sydney. The only thing more delightful than Albert’s accent was his grasp of American slang. “I hear the ruin pubs here are shit,” he told us, leaving out the crucial definite article. So it wasn’t long before the three of us—“the wolf pack”—were huddled around a table at just such a pub, arguing with a few Swedish girls about whether it was stupid for a modern country to have a monarch—a tradition they adamantly defended. I found Albert in a stairwell making out with one of them maybe thirty-minutes later. “International relations done right,” I thought.
Too early the next morning, we had breakfast in the courtyard. We shared our bacon with Rachel of Melbourne and Erin of Cork, then both residents of London. Coffee and bummed smokes turned into a walking tour that afternoon, which turned into Rachel discovering a dime bag on the metro platform, which turned into an all-too-heavy dinner, which turned into us flirting with the rising sun as we spewed into the alleyway above a dingy basement discotheque. Over the course of 24 hours, the girls taught Oscar and I the value of chain smoking in cheap-cigarette countries and how easily accents can wear off.
Back in the courtyard, somewhere south of 9:00 AM, Roland, Casa’s owner, bearded and tattooed, mentioned that he was about to leave for a canoe trip up the Danube. “Wouldn’t mind having some company,” he told us. “I make this trip only once every few years,” he added. We were too delirious to resist. We stuffed cans of Soproni into his styrofoam ice chest, donned swim trunks, forgot our lighters, hopped a steamboat to a canoe rental outfit on the west bank of the river.
Fighting the current was hard work, but every paddle stroke propelled us farther into a summer afternoon I wish I had written. On an overgrown sandbar, I remember Roland turning stick-friction into fire; we lit Marlboro Lights, reclined, then let the water lick the soles of our feet. I remember the girls going on strike after we poked too much fun at their Britishisms. I remember thick mud between my toes as Oscar and I pushed our boat through Roland’s “shortcut.” I remember the sweet smell of oar splashes and nervous fingers slathering sunscreen across alabaster shoulderblades. I remember laughter.
We pulled our canoes ashore at Lupa-sziget, an island that sits in a branch of the river about eight miles north of the city. On the stone footpath that bisects the island, the sun crashed through the canopy of plane trees lining both sides. There were no automobiles; no tourists; no faces buried in smartphone screens or arguments about which menus looked best. Only us: the pleasure of small talk and inside jokes, flipflops clapping on pavers, and the sound of Hungarian children enjoying their weekend away.
It was on this island, around the table of an alfresco restaurant situated at its center, over french fries and ice cream and several mugs of beer, that six strangers from five different countries cracked up until we couldn’t breathe at just how many American foods are filled with cheese and then deep fried.
There are interesting places in almost every corner of my memory. But not as many of those places are also filled with such sublime moments. Like a midsummer gypsy rooting through last year’s trash, trying to come up with treasure, it has a lot to do with location and timing and the characteristics of objects of that were once randomly dispersed. That afternoon on Lupa-sziget, we all instantly became rich.