Budapest is the Paris of the East. Or maybe Paris is the Budapest of the West. Wait, who cares? How much I love each of the two cities is lost in those silly semantics. Sure they have their similarities, but each cities individual character vastly outshines what they have in common.
Aside from Paris, the two weeks I spent in Budapest were the longest I spent in a foreign metropolis while traveling. And I’m glad I did. Budapest is a stunning city, and I get the feeling that I’ll look back on my time there as a very formative time in my life.
Budapest, and now my two weeks in Germany, was part of a month-long art history and curating fellowship that I received from my University. A parting gift in a sense, one ideally designed to transform that tools I’d picked up during my education and apply them to the real world. One purpose was to explore the world of curating, and how the role of the curator changes with different spaces, institutions, artistic partners and financial and political difficulties. Another goal was to experience firsthand the various sectors of the art-world; for-profit galleries, museums, non-profit associations, and creative spaces in an attempt to find where I might be most interested in working.
My program worked perfectly for both of those goals. One of my professors is Hungarian and has a good friend who curates for the Ludwig Museum, a state museum in Budapest for Contemporary Art. She set up a program for my two weeks, arranging meetings and visits across the city and countryside to everywhere important in Hungarian Contemporary Art. By the end of two weeks, I saw nearly every museum, gallery and non-profit space in the city – all the while meeting their directors and curators.
You see a space differently when you meet the people behind the scenes. The difficulties they must deal with. The hard work they put in despite these difficulties. Their undying support for the up and coming artists of Hungary. The persistence and motivation the contemporary art world in Hungary has is impressive, and is nearly a defiant act to the government’s general disinterest in progressive, groundbreaking contemporary art.
Going around from gallery to gallery and museum to museum was a pretty stellar way to see the rest of the city. By the end of the two weeks, I felt like I had my bearings down pretty well, could get around decently without a map, and even knew where i liked to go for certain things, be it a coffee, beer or to watch the Tour de France.
There is definitely a social vibrancy to Budapest. People are always out and about, milling around, sitting in parks or cafes and the like. And there’s a lot of nice places to sit. Squares offer views of passing people and majestic buildings. Along the river and on Magrit island there are vistas of the most “famous” architectural monuments. And they look pretty cool all lit up at night too. There are a few really nice parks. Gellert Hill was a favorite of mine. A lot of people swarm the side overlooking the river, there is a few monuments and a waterfall on the way up, but it has tons of snaky little paths and a huge grass area and garden up top that was pretty much deserted. Good place to plop down with a book.
This was my first time using couchsurfing.org not as a place to stay but as a forum to meet people. Two weeks is a long time without friends – and while the people in the art community and I were connecting and even shared a few beers, it wasn’t on the same level. What is great about couchsurfing is that it is a network that connects travelers and people with the open-spirit. I found a lot of people who wanted to explore new things, go out at night, have meals together, or be American and watch us get creamed in the World Cup. Solidarity at least.
Most of the people I met were pretty great. I’d noted over and over again that not too many Americans go to Budapest. I guess in our grand Europe tours we don’t like to stray that far off the beaten path, maybe the vestiges of the Socialist regime give us a deep down disregard to the country. Whatever it is, it is too far east for most on the whirlwind trip where France, Italy and England are prime destinations. Whatever, we all know what I think of that bullshit.
Anyway, my point is that the quality of travelers I met in Budapest was quite high because everyone had a higher sense of openness and adventure. They were willing to branch out to somewhere with a different history than what we knew, with a difficult language and totally new cuisine. I met one guy Julien who was hitching from Amsterdam to Istanbul, after volunteering in Kenya for three months. He was thrilled to find someone who could tell him about art in the city, and I was thrilled to hear about his adventures. That’s a type of trip I’d love to do at some point, though it will have to be without my bike. But to live without uncertainty for so long, uncertainty of who you’ll meet and where you’ll sleep – that’s a wonderful feeling.
There’s more to say about Budapest, but that’s what I’ve got for now. Here’s some pictures…more to come…