"No man knows 'til he has suffered the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be. When the sun grew so high this morning that it struck the top of the great gateway opposite my window, the high spot which it touched seemed to me as if the dove from the ark had lighted there. My fear fell from me as if it had bee a vaporous garment which dissolved in the warmth." — Bram Stoker, Dracula
After a string of nightmares all centered on my unplanned arrival in Moscow, I woke, as planned, in Bucharest. I hardly remember switching trains to Brasov, but I suppose I did, for my eyes opened again three hours later as the rails brought us barrelling into Transylvania.
I really can't say enough about the aesthetic of Romania. "All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind," Bram Stoker illustrates, "Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject to great floods ... before us lay a green sloping land of forests and woods crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses ... beyond the green swelling hills rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves ... deep blue and purple in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, 'til these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly."
Yet outer Brasov had none of this beauty. The long walk from the train station to the old town was uninspiring and loud and dirty, and after a terrible night of sleep, I was grumpy and whiny and couldn't believe I'd gone through such hurdles to reach a place like this. It got better, thankfully: Inner Brasov had all the beauty of Romania, all I'd come to expect and then some, ancient edifices of beige and brown with thick stone shingles, old Gothic cathedrals and a gorgeous city center, grey skies sitting atop the whole town like a spooky spell, and off in the distance the great grassy peaks of Transylvania's modest mountains, a kitschy-but-cute Brasov sign perched up along the edge in homage to Hollywood for unknown-but-unimportant reasons. There wasn't really much to do in town, just countless cafes lining the pedestrian pathways, but I was too tired to read and too tired to even sit, really—must keep moving, must keep moving.
I had planned on hiking Mount Tampa, but feared I might collapse from exhaustion in pursuit of its peak. Instead, I crammed into a tight funicular with a dozen others and rode its cable to the top, emerging just minutes later at the top of Transylvania, the buildings of Brasov but specks beneath me and tiny dots of people smaller still. The views were exceptional, and the air crisp, and I wandered about the Tampa peak on a short hike that brought me to old ruins, to assorted lookouts, to right behind the big white letters of the proud Brasov sign itself. I tried reading Dracula up there, and I found it an immersing experience, but my drowsiness was unforgiving: eyes, mind, and body unwilling to cooperate until they got some sleep. Soon, I promised. I descended the mountain, I shopped for a new t-shirt, I walked wide laps around the center, I bought groceries, I did anything and everything to stay awake. Then, finally, I gave in and left the lovely center for the ugly outskirts, back to the station I'd come from that morning.
I took another overnight train out of Romania. Sleep came easily, upright, neck bent just a little to the side.
Back to Budapest, midday arrival. I was dirty and sore. Budapest is famed for its baths, so I exited the station and headed straight for the closest one. It sat in a sprawling park, the bath itself a palace of water surrounded by a moat of baroque building, and I hurried inside and paid twelve euros for a full-day pass.
It felt great to shower, terrific to step out into the bright sun in a swimsuit and feel its rays on my taxed torso, wonderful to wade into the warm water. Geothermal, rich with minerals, it soaked into my skin and cleansed my pores, and I felt positively rejuvenated. I swam, I ate, I read and I napped, and when the sun climbed too high I retreated inside to the sauna, to the steamroom; I dipped my toe into the dozen or so hot tubs—naturally-heated, community-sized affairs. Some were too hot, some were too cold, some were just right, and I sizzled like a happy Goldilocks for the better part of the afternoon trying them all.
They didn't strike me as anything special, those baths, just a really nice community pool with larger digs and larger crowds, but it was just what I needed for the day. I took it easy the rest of the evening, retreating to a hostel to write, heading out onto the terrace for dinner and a drink, then retiring early in a great cuddle with my first mattress in days.
The word Budapest is it's own map. Separate it and drive a stake through the middle, maybe, and you have Buda | Pest, and if you imagine that bisecting line to be the Danube, well then there it is. To the west of the river is Buda, with its tourist attractions and lovely old Capitol Hill, its stone citadel and rocky terrain; and to the east is Pest, the heartbeat of the city, bustling and beautiful. Together, they form a sole city and a sole word. And what soul the city has.
I'd explored Buda during my last visit to the Hungarian capital, so this time around I traveled through Pest. The baths had been in Pest, I woke in Pest, and so I greeted the morning with a long hike through Pest's old streets. I eventually arrived at its old Jewish quarter, centered on a small block with a large temple, and I ventured inside for a look at its Great Synagogue.
I'd seen many massive palaces of prayer in my travels, cathedrals and churches and basilicas and mosques, but never synagogues—those were always simple affairs, every bit as modest and subtle as the religion demands. The Great Synagogue, however, was altogether different: the size of a cathedral, with wide vaulted ceilings and mezzanines to seat thousands and opulent altars, with golden latticework and proud columns and marvelous chandeliers. It wasn't just grand, but beautiful too. While its Christian cousins aim so often to frighten, to impose, to stand tall and formidable and put the fear of God in you, the Synagogue, like is Muslim counterparts, exuded calm, serenity, peace. It was all pinks, warm wooden pews, salmons and maudes and pastels, soft edges. It was divine.
Admission to the quarter came with a tour, which was really more of a fantastic question-and-answer history lecture facilitated by a Hungarian Jew born and raised in Brooklyn. He sat us in the pews and steered us through the centuries, a sad tale of persecution and slaughter, then more persecution. Hungary hadn't been kind to its Jews during the Holocaust, he said. They still weren't, he said.
I asked him how the synagogue still stood—why hadn't the Nazis burned it to the ground in their reign of destruction and terror? Surely such a grand Jewish structure couldn't have hidden in Pest unnoticed. Oh, he answered, they noticed it. Sturdy and large and tall as it was, they needed it as a command center, so they stuck a great antenna on its roof, and from the perch of that Jewish palace they sent great radio waves of hate across Hungary, directions on how and where and when to continue their extermination of the Jewish people.
The Americans tried to destroy it, as it turns out. Recognizing it as a strategic target for the Nazis, they dropped big bombs from the sky, dozens. Yet the synagogue withstood their blows. A collapsed dome, sure, and a badly beaten facade, and for decades after the war, the temple remained an exposed ruin, restored to its former glory only at the turn of the century.
It's terrible, the things we do to others sometimes.
My morning in the quarter had left me hungry. I ducked into an open-air cafe and ordered myself a large muffin and what turned out to be an entire soup bowl's worth of coffee, and sat to write. Knuckles cracked, wrists loosened, I aimed to let my fingers fly as in Vienna.
As in Vienna, I didn't get far as a lone traveler in a social cafe. A woman at the next table asked me a question in Hungarian, and I apologized with a meek "English?", and she forgot about her question and asked a new question, where I was from, and within minutes we were at full rapport, a winding dialogue about American foreign policy and Hungarian politics and EU sentiments and Ukraine, lots about Ukraine, and Russia and Putin and Chechnya as well, and a little talk of bureaucracy, and travels, and several hours later, my stomach rumbled ... I was hungary.
The cafe had slim pickings, so I asked if she knew of any vegan-friendly eats in the area. "Yes!" she said, "there's this place right across the river, all vegan, it's called ..." she paused and scratched her head.
"Eden?" I offered.
In my exploration of Pest, I had completely forgotten about the wonderful vegan meal I had enjoyed in Buda a few weeks prior, that beautiful vegan restaurant with the beautiful vegan owner. I thanked my new friend, wished her luck on her grant writing—she had come to write grants, I had come to write memories, and neither of us had done either—and took off to find my Eve.
I entered Eden fifteen minutes later, and was surprised to find that she seemed just as happy to see me as I was to see her. Her eyes lit up, wide inky pupils, and her smile widened—she was already smiling, she never stopped smiling—and she welcomed me back with warmth and sincerity and grace. Our interaction was as brief as the first time (she was maybe ten years my senior, also residing in Budapest, so it never would have worked), just a little sampling of her home-cooked dishes and me thanking her profusely and her thanking me profusely and me taking my meal out to the patio for some sunshine, a few more smiles as she ventured out to clear tables, and then a hearty farewell as I returned my tray to her before I left, me wondering as I walked if I shouldn't just up and move to Budapest.
The food was also delicious.
From gorgeous synagogue to beautiful Eden to shitty train station, I rounded out my day in Budapest. The night train I was leaving on departed from a terminal on the Buda side, a secondary station in the city's southwestern quarter. After a short tram and a long walk, I arrived at the crumbling edifice and marveled that it was still in operation; had it not been for the people around, I would have thought it a ruin. The timetable panels on the main flipboard were all worn through, letters all rubbed off, so blank tiles flipped and flapped and stopped and started, announcing something like _e__ti - _______, 7:_5, #_2. I didn't understand a word of it.
Absurdly, others did. Locals came and went, craning their neck up to check the times and platforms and continuing on with a nod of satisfaction. How? I wondered. Had they just taken these trains every day for so long, back from when the flipboard was still shiny and new, that it was no great leap when Keleti became Kel_ti and later _e__ti, until they'd come to know their entire train route as just a glyph in the form of a smudge on tile six? I confirmed with a few other backpackers that the train to Austria was on platform four—or rather, we confirmed each others doubts and resolved to go at it together, mutually assured destruction—and by a stroke of luck and little more, we boarded an Austria-bound train a little while later.
The coach was a series of little rooms, six seats each, and I walked down the adjoining corridor looking for an empty one. Finding them all full, I entered the emptiest one I found, just one other passenger reclining against the window. I sat on the other side of the car and greeted him with a simple (unreturned) smile. I settled in. My phone was almost dead, and I knew these trains to often have outlets near the window, so I pulled out my adapter and asked, slowly and politely while holding it up by the prongs,"Excuse me, outlet?"
He didn't answer; he didn't even look up. Nay, he didn't even move, as though I hadn't spoken at all. I knew I was speaking English, and that it was likely he didn't, but that was what the charade was for, if he would just look at me. I tried once more: "excuse me, is there a plug over there?"
And then, in What May Very Well Be The Rudest Thing Anyone Has Ever Done To Anyone Else Ever (hyperbole here, but only slight), the sour-faced man stood up, shouldered his pack, and left the car, as though my question was simply too much indignation to possibly stand. I certainly wasn't trying to get the room to myself, but I hardly complained. With a puzzled smile, I stole the man's old seat, kicked back, and slept until Salzburg.
I have this recurring dream where I wake up in Salzburg and roam it like a zombie in the early morning—recurring, because it has now happened twice.
Once more, I dreamt I was in Salzburg. Mind foggy, body foggy, I hung suspended in the middle of Salzburg station, cold, damp. I floated where the slightest breeze blew me. Others passed around me, through me, so solid, so fast. I was slower, too slow; each step took work; left up, left down, right up, right down.
I gave up. I went to the waiting room. Warm, but just as loud as last time, just as bright as last time, just as little space as last time.
I gave up. I went to the luggage room. Cold, but quieter, dimmer, roomier. I dropped to the floor, pack for pillow. I tied my scarf around my head, darkness. Sleep.
I woke up. I was still dreaming I was in Salzburg, but I woke from my dream within a dream, anyway. I felt a presence nearby. I pushed the scarf from my head. At my knees crouched a girl, all dressed up for a night of partying now expired, her palms floating above me as though she was a cold camper and I a campfire. I didn't believe I could be producing that much warmth; I was cold myself. Yet there she was. She smiled sheepishly. I smiled back. She lay down next to me, and we held each other innocently, two cold bodies on the unforgiving floor of that damned town, two cold bodies just trying to stay warm.
5AM. My phone purred. She was gone, her warmth too. I climbed to my feet, walking my hands up the wall for support. I had a train to catch.
I floated to the platform, was sucked up by the gentle vacuum of opening doors, up and into a warm seat by the window. I rained down onto it.
Daylight broke, and the dream ended. My inner eyelids glowed amber, and I opened them to an entirely different sort of dreamscape.
I'd crossed Austria before, from northwest to northeast, and it had been every bit as lovely as I'd expected. But this, northwest to southwest: this was the Austria they raved about; these were the hills alive with the sound of music. I've been fortunate to traverse some terrific terrain in my lifetime—indeed, I'd seen some of the best this pretty planet has to offer during my trek around North America the summer before—and gorgeous as Europe's nature had been, I'd always been able to liken it to an earlier reference point. Spain looks like Nebraska, Slovenia like Oregon, Croatia recalls Montana, and Romania—well, everywhere, USA.
Not so with Austria. "Those were all the Austrians' mountains and we had nothing like them," Hemingway writes. It's not that they're the tallest around—they're not—nor even the prettiest (though they are very, very pretty). They're just so beautifully unique: walls of green, grasses and trees sprouting from the steep sides at impossible angles, uninterrupted lawns and forests running up to a plateau high above, a mile-high meadow with maybe a farmhouse or two for a castle, and maybe a few more down below, impossibly stuck along with the trees and the grasses at those impossible angles, seeming as though they might tumble down the soft, grassy cliffs at the slightest Austrian breeze. They run for hours—they'd run for weeks by bike or months on foot, how lovely that would be!—and they creep and crawl and climb and crescendo like the rise and falls of a great symphony. I wanted to sleep. I needed so badly to sleep. But it was too gorgeous and novel a sight to miss, so I peered out the window with red, sleepy, awestruck eyes.
I watched The Sound of Music for the very first time; it seemed fitting. The film began with a montage of the mountains outside my window, and I'd swear with every ounce of my confidence that they were the very same mountains, the very same peaks and valleys in that very same order just a moment before. The montage narrowed to Salzburg, setting for most of the film, and I thought: haven't I been there before? Yes, it was all familiar, and a delightful musical all the way through. It ended and the curtains rose—or rather, I rose the curtains, for the sun had grown to a glare against the wide window—and we were just minutes away from my next stop: Velden.
Velden am Worthersee, Austria ... for nearly a month, I had kept an eye on the calendar.
Velden am Worthersee ... I'd rushed through eastern Europe just to get there on time.
Velden am Worthersee ... and, right on schedule, there I was.