When in Budapest

I apologise, Budapest. I’ve now visited you nearly more times than anywhere else outside of my homeland, but I’ve yet to write anything about you. Before you get the wrong idea, It’s not you, it’s me.

Come now, don’t be like that. I know people are rarely genuine when they say such things. This time, it’s true. You see, I’m much better at procrastinating when I’m not required to write something for a contract. There is a nagging voice in my head that tells me to finish things, but he’s quiet and I’m easily distracted.

That said, Hungary has occupied some sizable moments in my life. My first experience was a whirlwind tour in which I was not only introduced to an entire family, but to a number of close friends and favourite spots.

Since then we’ve returned a number of times. We’ve walked Budapest’s cobbled streets – from it’s deepest districts to most touristy attractions – dragged ourselves across melting squares in summer heat, risked frostbite atop the Citadella, watched the craft beer scene explode, and been surrounded with family traditions and the warmest of welcomes across several Xmas’s.

We’ve partied in ruins, slipped blindly through a labyrinth, spotted Bela Lugosi, pondered with Columbo and rediscovered pinball, to name a few.

I’ve not even begun to unpack our experiences outside of Budapest, which have taken us from medieval castles to lazy afternoons on Lake Balaton and countryside weddings.

That’s all to say that I thoroughly enjoy Hungary. I’ve had a lot of fun getting to know it and exploring off the beaten path. Rather than jump into the usual routine of writing a detailed travelogue, I thought I’d try something a little different.

That’s what follows.

Skipping Time

Or the unexpected turn one’s life can take when finding adventure thanks to inocuous things

A person expects a certain amount of sensory overload in stressful situations. Flashing lights, a cacophony of sound, the inevitable ‘whoosh’ as mass shifts, matter becomes immaterial, and natural laws are entirely reinterpreted. However, not a single account prepared me for the bone-numbing cold of my ordeal. 

Granted, most of those accounts were dubious at best, laughably fantastical, at worst. Moreover they were, admittedly, entirely fictional. When it comes to time travel, accounts grounded in reality are painfully difficult to find. 

By that admission, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to question how I came to the conclusion that I’d experienced time travel at all. I admit, the first time it happened to me it took a great deal of time for me to come to terms with the event. One moment I had been standing in a small filing room in the bowels of the building in which I’d been employed… 

There I go, already getting ahead of myself. To fully appreciate events allow me a brief moment of exposition.

As an entry-level clerk at a prestigious research firm, it was my duty to undertake such crucial tasks as ensuring that coffee pots remained filled, ash-trays were promptly emptied, and files long-hidden in ancient cabinets were sussed from hiding, so as to allow the more skilled the opportunity to work to the utmost of their abilities. Were I to perform my own duties to their utmost, with only a focus on the greater good, one day my fellows would see fit to elevate me to a position of more import.

One day.

Maybe.

For now, a stack of notes from a long-shelved paper were needed and it was my time to shine. To the dust and moth-ridden basement I set forth! 

Even as a young upstart, I tried to alleviate monotony with a sense of hidden adventure. I understood that a certain tedium was to be expected at the outset of any endeavour, be they studies, a new employ, or personal pursuit. To an outside observer, I was merely another underling, with lowest level clearance, scampering to the basement to undertake a task that they were thankful to have left behind… 

In the theatre of my mind, as I descended beyond the reach of prying eyes, I slowly transformed into a travel-tested adventurer. Leaping from the pages of my contraband pulp papers, I slipped out of my role as a cog in the system and became an intellectual explorer with a zeal for discovery. 

That moldering filing cabinet? No, my eyes were mistaken! Don’t you see, how could you have missed the telltale signs?! That’s an ancient Aztec Antic cabinet. It’s quite clear when one knows what to look for. The patina, the folds of cheap steel, the set of its hinges. Clearly this wasn’t some modern contraption.

Approaching slowly, I dropped to a crouch. Slipping through shadows, as dust motes played in my periphery, my feet kicking up clouds of dirt, I drew closer to the climax of my adventure. My focus was absolute. My attention: keen. My fingers danced in the air as I anticipated the discovery to come. The moment of catharsis – when aged metal scrapes along oxidised tracks, squealing with a generation of slumber – is palpable. Soon, ages-old secrets would be revealed.

Lost in my reverie, I barely registered an audible – *click – as some unseen switch was caught. I would later discover that a small device had, at some point in the building’s history, been stowed in the back of the cabinet-cum-Aztec storage unit. Its project moth-balled, the device’s purpose overlooked, and simply stashed away without accompanying paperwork, blueprints, or theorems. 

Light stretched.

There was a tremendous sucking ‘whoosh’. My mind reeled. My breath caught in my throat, and an intense cold permeated every fibre of my being. 

With a ‘whoomp’, more felt than heard, the world returned to a semblance of order.

Light reassembled itself into something recognisable, the cold vanished, and I found myself stood in an eerie silence, only broken by the sound of falling dust. 

I’d love to tell you, dear reader, of a profound realisation. I’d be thrilled if some memorable words occurred to me. Were I to have exclaimed, “gadzooks!”, even, it would’ve more fittingly marked this historic moment. 

Instead, I uttered a simple “huh?”, before reflexively pushing the drawer closed, re-engaging the as-yet-unknown device – *clack – and experiencing the same discomfort in reverse. 

I won’t waste paper by describing my confusion immediately following the experience. Nor will I detail the events of the proceeding weeks as I came to terms with what had happened. Let’s just say that I eventually sussed out what I had stumbled upon. Against the logic of a reasonable mind, and at risk of forgoing my own sanity, I concluded that I must have experienced a mere few moments of time travel. In those moments, I had spotted a calendar on the near wall. As clear as day, emblazoned across its upper edge, was the date…

October 1996

followed by the image of a cat

While it’s all clear to me in my recollection, at the time I was lost in a heady fog of barely-grasped comprehension. At some point I’d retrieved the device. Marvelling at its simplicity, I set about understanding its function and operation. All of this I did in secret, of course. Not only was it illegal to remove company property from the building, it would certainly have been an offense for a private citizen to have possessed an item of such significance … at least without first notifying the state. 

I was never a treasonous fellow. I did own a few samples of contraband fiction. Most citizens did. I’d managed to acquire a foreign band radio, from which I’d taught myself the Queen’s English and fallen in love with British radio dramas. Mr. Archer may have led a life in direct opposition to everything I’d been taught to value, but damn if he wasn’t a dedicated family man. More importantly, the banal lives and complications of his family provided hours of entertainment. 

I wasn’t prone to treason, but neither was I a party man. I respected authority, but I also held no particular love for their system. It was fine enough, but I suspected I’d do just as well elsewhere on the continent were I born under different circumstances.

Perhaps that’s why I tampered with the device. Perhaps that’s why I flipped the switch again. Perhaps that’s why I anticipated the slap of cold and sensory overload with a feeling of excitement, rather than dread.

*Click

And with a flurry of motion, and a gut-churning pull, I ‘thwumped’ again from the quiet basement of my workplace … 

… and tumbled face first to a dusty floor several decades in the future. 

Of course, I was as yet unaware of my actual location in time. My head was filled with fog and a persistent ringing sensation. It felt as though my body was stationary – rooted to the wooden floorboards through the grit under my hands – but my consciousness had been left scrambling to catch up. Like a weight on an elasticated cord, my senses of self and awareness pulled with stomach churning force at the end of an existential rope, before crashing back into my body with such force that I expected I’d be sent sprawling. 

Instead I awoke with a gasp and bout of flatulence. Not the most dignified salutation to a new era, however appropriate it was given my body’s recent ordeal.

My once bustling workplace had been reduced to a dusty, empty, shell. Gone were the dedicated workers, to be replaced with dust motes, security patrols, stray cats and time travellers. 

I can’t recall how long I remained on my hands and knees. At some point I managed to stagger out of my confines and into the outside world, in the process entirely failing to notice the bare space on the wall once occupied by a faded calendar… 

The remainder of the day passed in a haze. 

I marvelled at a city both familiar and foreign. Its streets and boulevards managed to comfort whilst eliciting the utmost of confusion. What had occurred in my beloved Budapest? The air felt different, the atmosphere was alien. Something had fundamentally shifted and brought about a palpable sea of change. People walked differently. Carried themselves differently. Regarded me indifferently.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that I was overwhelmed.

My breath began to shorten. My pace quickened. I was excited and transfixed with the world before me. However, right here, right now, it was too much. Before I knew it, I’d begun to run, my feet pointed on a direct course back to the device and my own time. Thank the heavens I had the wherewithal to abscond with a local periodical as my shoes pounded on pavement. 

*Clack

I sat in a crumpled mess in the corner of the basement room for some time as I came to terms with what I’d experience. In spite of the fantastical nature of it all, I’d undeniably travelled in time again. The device sat innocuous atop the table across the room as I stared fixedly at the paper in my hands. 

2017, June 8

Some periodical whose name now escapes me

I’d travelled over 40 years into the future! 

The change to the world had been indescribable. I wanted to see more. Nay, I needed to see more. My soul cried out for another leap into the unknown. It was clear that my fiddling had altered the device, adding a decade to my travel. That fact was fascinating in itself. Then again, I felt it prudent to understand one future before flinging myself about like a minnow in the stream of time.

As much as I knew that I would again use the device, I also knew that I would need to be much more prepared. I’d been hasty this time. For one, I hadn’t considered the changing nature of cityscapes. I’d hastily activated the device in a basement. What would have happened had the building been razed in the intervening years? Subsequently, what would’ve happened if I’d flipped the switch in a tower block that had since become a city park? Or what if I’d dropped on to a busy city street? Could others follow me? Did the device exist in place at both times? Would it be possible to become trapped? No, much more planning and preparation would be needed for my next journey. 

I would find a safe, private place to activate the device from, removing several risks from the outset. In addition, I would acquire a small camera, as well as a rucksack, to collect evidence. My hope was such that I could blend in as a confused tourist from the countryside. 

Thus my career as a time tourist had begun.

*Click

I discovered that the future was a much more crowded place than my home. It appeared that cars had become plentiful. Did restrictions still exist depending on party status or connections? It seemed unlikely. In fact, the state of Budapest seemed to suggest a period of prosperity and social change. *Clack

*Click

Gone was much of the dereliction and grime that had existed in my own time. The sludge of industrialisation had disappeared from much of the architecture, restoring many buildings to the splendor of their bygone imperialist past. The city’s bridges shone with fresh paint, lacking the scars of past wars and unrest that had persisted even 40 years earlier. *Clack

*Click

The Castle sat like a beacon upon the hill, while new finery sprung from previously unassuming strips of land. An entire Bastion thrummed with tourists from whom spilled every language under the sun.

I snapped photos and gathered brochures at every opportunity. *Clack  

*Click

I learned that the small tablets that seemed to grace every hand in the future were complex communication devices. What’s more, they were capable of accessing great swathes of information as well as being incredible navigational tools. No wonder so many citizens seemed so intent on their diminutive screens. 

One such device, clutched in the hands of a lanky Swede, assisted in directing me towards a fantastical venue known as a Szimpla Kert, of which several similar venues existed in the city. These skeletons of blocks of flats – many of which were rundown tenements in my time – I would describe as dens of esoterica. The walls, festooned with brick-a-brac of innumerable sources and the decorative efforts of forgotten tenants, loomed above revellers enjoying ales and spirits from around the globe.

*Click

I wandered the Castle District for several days. Gazing through windows of shops at trinkets and baubles that seemed as silly as they were bewildering. The world had changed, but people still required tchotchkes to tell others where they’d been. 

I followed the smells of coffee as I sat in front of statues, wound my way along hillside paths, marvelled at the restored funicular, and even lost myself in the very tunnels where Vlad Tepes drew his final breaths.

*Click

Longing for a taste of the past, I discovered that many of the statuary of my time had survived the Soviet withdrawal. While the people fought to restore their own history and venerate Hungarian heroes, they also didn’t want to lose touch with their not-to-distant past. 

A short bus ride later and I was deposited outside a red brick facade in a field on the outskirts of Budapest. There I found the remnants of my time. Goliaths who once loomed above the populace, behemoths who both boasted the greatness of the people, while glowering menacingly upon their daily lives. Heavy handed reminders, each and every one of them, of the glory and grace by which all should strive to live. 

I spent many hours there, staring wistfully at a world that – I hadn’t yet realised –  my heart was slowly leaving behind. 

*Click

I’d managed to acquire one of the personal tablet phones for myself. The technology was daunting, but I’ve since managed to master its tactile functions and have learned much about the intervening years. 

*Click

Sweet merciful Jesus, these personal phones contain miniature cameras! What’s more, the refinement of its lens nearly outweighs the acuity of the human eye. 

*Click

I couldn’t be certain, but I’d begun to suspect that I was being watched.

*Click

I decided to take matters cautiously and keep most of my acquisitions in the future. It would be foolish to allow something to affect the events of history, especially considering the prophecies found in my contraband science fiction stories. A locker at Nyugati would do nicely.

*Click

Using my mobile phone (as I’d learned such things are known to British tourists) I began to rediscover the sights of my city.

*Click

The lady of justice atop the Citadella had been lovingly restored. Gone was the heavy-handed symbol of communist ideals. In its place a feather symbolising peace and freedom for my people. 

While the formidable walls of the fortress behind bore evidence of violent change and social upheaval, such things seem to have been kept on display in solemn remembrance. With my back to the walls I was able to gaze across my home city. 

Rooftops gleamed and the Danube shone with the promises of the future. I smiled. What was once disturbingly unfamiliar was beginning to feel more like home with every subsequent visit. 

*Click

I explored Budapest’s streets and museums, mosques and bathhouses. I began to enjoy attractions both big and small.

I dined in drained bathing pools.

I whiled away untold hours beguiled by the lights and claxons of a pinball museum. 

I visited coffee shops peddling beans in more varieties than I’d thought possible. In more styles that I thought reasonable. 

I discovered that beer had grown to be more than a beverage for the working man and was fast becoming akin to fine wine: something to be savoured and adored, to be experimented on with magnificent abandon. 

Someone has secreted a bust of Bela Lugosi atop a corner of a folly castle in the city. I’m tickled by the fact that human beings are capable of whimsy, no matter the era.

I spend an afternoon searching for more esoterica and wind up discovering the statue of a great detective and his canine companion. 

*Click

I’m almost certain someone followed me home. There were eyes where none could be seen.

*Click

Eventually I made a friend. He is introduced as Lőrinc: a Belgian with a sailor’s tongue. Such swears have seldom been heard in Hungarian, and Lőrinc’s ability to meld explicatives from his native French to The Queen’s English was without equal. Thankfully my grasp of English has increased 10-fold since I’ve become a traveller. Lőrinc introduces me to French, as well. At least what he considers to be the choice phrases. I introduce him to palinka. We become fast friends. 

*Click

I learn that Lőrinc’s name is actually Laurent. It’s a shame I made the mistake of asking him how he managed to acquire a Hungarian name, before sense came to me. I will likely not live this down.

*Click

Laurent and I spend a booze-fuelled week along the shores of Lake Balaton. His friend’s family owns a small chalet nearby, which we ingratiate ourselves upon. 

Laurent regales us all with tales of his travels, while somehow regaling the local eligible bachelorettes with his guitar, as well as slightly embellished versions of the tales he has related to me. 

The water feels divine and the nearby towns feel like a welcome respite from my recent hectic months of discovery. Months that have nearly amounted to years, in fact. I don’t miss my time of solo travel. However, I’ve learned and experienced so much more with Laurent as my friend and guide.

We return to Budapest aboard a boxcar, simply because we can. 

*Click

One night, when Laurent hasn’t managed to find his way into a tourist’s bed, he asks why I seem to attract the eyes of so many strangers while we’re out. I admit that I’d been wondering that myself, but hadn’t noticed the degree to which those attentions had increased.

I am unnerved.

*Click

Leaving Laurent to play casanova in the city, I ventured into the countryside. This will amount to the largest amount of time I’ll have spent away from my own time on a single trip.

The days stretch to weeks as I explore Esztergom and the ruins of Visegrád. 

I realise only now that, in my old time, I’d not once ventured beyond the confines of Budapest. I was too afraid of the cost. Too afraid of the implications. Too afraid of the eyes on me and what they may interpret of my travel without cause. I was a young man with questionable principles and who knew what trouble I could be up to. My family hadn’t set me up with the best of reputations (hence why I’d started from the ground up, as an errand boy, rather than skipping several rungs on the ladder via a more thorough education).

That all seemed a lifetime ago as I travelled the length of the Danube. Venturing into Austria and drinking my way through Vienna, before returning to Budapest.

Following several weeks of travel, it was long past time for me to collect Laurent and save the city’s female population from his swooning guitar. 

*Click

Laurent disappears. 

While I’d seen him mere hours prior, he seems to have since vanished into thin air.

I seek out his usual haunts, but to no avail. I’m told time and again that this isn’t a rare occurrence and everyone expects he’ll return anon, tousled and smelling of foreign perfume.  

Assurances aside, I couldn’t shake a feeling of dread.

*Click

Then they found me.

And that’s where I’ll leave this

More of this story exists, and with a few extra bits, but I don’t want to drag out this post too long. I’ve enjoyed trying something a little different, and hope at least a few of you folks reading it enjoyed it through to the end.

Like I said, I’ve been to Budapest a fair number of times. I could’ve done a separate post for each visit; however, at some point this blog would start coming across as the Budapest travel guide. While I’d be flattered if people are able to get some good info out of my posts, there are other folks who have covered Budapest in far more detail than I ever could. So yeah, opted for something different. It was also an excuse to actually post a short story, which seemed like a fun idea.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read my words. More posts to follow. -Adam