You Weren't the Best, Budapest

Thursday, July 26, 2018

view from a bridge, Budapest
I tried so, so hard to love Budapest.  I'm adamant about the fact that there is good in every corner of the world and I found a lot of good in Budapest.  Gorgeous buildings, so much history, cheap food even near the main square, flavorful free-trade coffee for under $3, a hostel with a good vibe (make sure you stay at The Loft!). All the makings of a great city, but for some reason, Budapest and I just couldn't get along.

Let me take you back to my first time in Budapest.  I came to Budapest last year, 2017, at the very beginning of July. I had just spent 3 days in the beautiful High Tatras, Slovakia, and was nowhere near ready to leave that relaxing home in the mountains for a big city.  But I had to leave because I was meeting a friend in Budapest for 2 days and I desperately wanted to be around someone familiar.  On the train from Poprad to Kosice, I finally connect to the spotty wifi a few minutes after the train pulls away from the station when I get a message from my friend:

"EasyJet delayed and then canceled my flight. They can put me on another one but then that would only give me a few hours in Budapest before my flight to France. I'm sorry I won't be able to make it."

I wanted to hop off that train and run back to the Tatras, but I had a route that I was determined to stick to, friend or no friend.  I arrived in Budapest sad and alone.  I was used to traveling alone at that point, but I expected to spend time with a friend so the solitude felt way more evident.  Plus, booking a hostel at the last minute in Budapest means only shitty hostels no one wants to stay at are the only ones left. 

I went on a walking tour and didn't care. Tried to chat with people in the hostel but they had their own friends. Felt unsafe in the city at night so I stayed in. I left for Zagreb, Croatia after my two-night sentence was up. 

watching the England vs. Croatia game in a park

Flash forward a year and I'm reluctantly back in Budapest. I started this year's trip in Slovakia in order to give myself time to rest post-graduation. I also wanted to take things more slowly this time around. Travelling too quickly led to burnout last year, which is how I ended up in the mountains of Slovakia in the first place. 

I was determined to visit Romania and Bulgaria this year, since they were the two countries I "cut off" my travel list in order to make room for a month in Slovakia. However, in order to get from the High Tatras to Cluj, my first stop in Romania, I needed to have a layover somewhere in Hungary and Budapest was the easiest. I still felt hesitant about returning to Budapest after last year's debacle, so I looked into going to Debrecen or somewhere else in east Hungary.  With the way trains worked out, it would have been next to impossible, or at least way more tiring and difficult, to go from northern Slovakia to somewhere with a hostel in Hungary. So Budapest it was!

My second time in Budapest was much more eventful than the first. On my first day, I met up with people I met in Slovakia to watch the England vs. Croatia game in a park and went to a bar after. The next day, the same friend and I went to the thermal baths and got dinner. 

Even though this time involved more friends, activities, laughter, and drinking, I still felt unsettled. Budapest probably isn't the best place to go to after volunteering at the Monkey. It's like a shock to the system. A 1,000 person village versus a big city. Close friends that feel like family with lots of inside jokes versus strangers and a few acquaintances. Lowkey drinking beer on the front porch versus strobe lights and shots at a ruin bar. I was bound to have an adjustment period leaving a place I love no matter where I was headed, but Budapest, with its stag parties and groups of 18-year-old British lads, is probably one of the worst places to be when your heart is aching. 

I'll try you out again someday, Budapest. Just not anytime soon.  

In Possession of a Female Body

Monday, July 23, 2018

me and my female body somewhere in the mountains in central Romania

By most measures, I am classified as a "strong and independent" woman.  I started traveling solo at 21 and have since been to 22 countries by myself.  I fund my own travels. I'm comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger because I know that (most) everyone wants to be your friend as badly as you want to be theirs but they're also nervous about proffering the first word. I'm way more confident now than when I was 16 (thank god for that). Hell, I'm more confident now as I'm typing this than I was last month. That's how growth and experience work.

However, a few times a year, I am forced to remember that I am vulnerable due to the world I live in and the body that I possess.  At the end of the day, I am female. I inhabit a female body and because of this, I am at risk.

Last night* I was reminded that at any moment, everything I own can be easily taken from me. Please don't be concerned, nothing bad actually happened. But I was reminded of every bad thing that could've happened.  A few disrespectful words from an older, drunk man doused cold water over my head and took me out of my mind and personality and thumped me back into my body.  He forced me to become all too aware of the corporal. He reminded me that no matter how hard I try to be just a human on this planet who is doing their best, the shape of my body, sound of my voice, and structure of my chromosomes will always come first. I can't rise above this body.

my female body having fun in the bathroom during a wine tour in Moldova

I walked into the living room of the hostel I volunteered at where other people were finishing up a movie. A cute German guy had just won poker night so he bought beer for the room.  I carried a bottle opener with me, trying to be helpful. An American from D.C. began popping the bottle caps in some creative way that only guys and experienced drinkers know how to do. He let the caps fall on the wooden floor of the living room.

"You're going to pick those up, right?" I said with a laugh. Lighthearted, chill, jokingly, never confrontative or overbearing.

"That's your job, isn't it?" said D.C. guy, in all seriousness. He had made a few sexist "jokes" earlier in the night and I was tired of it.

"No, it's not actually. It's not my job to clean up after grown men."

"Why are you such a bitch?" Tyler*, who had spent most of the night silent, said.  Tyler is the worst type of American I've encountered during my travels. In his late 30's, no attachments, no respect for women, with a dash of a drinking problem. I hadn't been around when he arrived but when I first noticed him around noon he had already started drinking. During dinner, I overheard him bragging to other guys about all the prostitutes he's slept with. That type of guy.

I didn't reply. I didn't know what to say, I wasn't even talking to him, didn't even notice he was still in the room. I was too focused on the cute German to realize that Tyler had been watching me interact with others for a few hours, slowly letting his anger towards me build.

I stood there in the doorway. When I didn't move or say anything, he continued.  "Seriously, why are you such a bitch? What's your role here? Do you even work here? I'm going to complain to the manager tomorrow and get you fired. You don't have a role. You're just a bitch. You bitched about the movie and you bitched about the game now you're bitching at us. Get out of here. Just leave."

No one else in the room seemed to hear. Either that or they chose to ignore. And so I left. Of course I wasn't going to argue with a big, drunk, ex-Marine.

I know my place. I know how easy it is for a man like him to hurt me if he wanted to. And I could tell he wanted to by the disdain in his voice. If we were alone or I dared to talk back he wouldn't have hesitated. So I left.

my female body in a place that feels like home

I shut the door on to the living room and stood in the dark hallway. Most of the hostel and the rest of the staff had already gone to bed. I stood there, warm with anger, too angry to move my legs and move on. Even though the door was shut and I had left just like he asked, I could still hear him talking about me on the other side. He was drunk, repeating himself. Talking about how he was going to get me fired tomorrow and other big talk, as if he had any power other than the fact that he was a large male and I was an average sized, young female.

I texted the manager, John, my friend. "You don't have to do anything now, but I want Tyler gone tomorrow. He called me a bitch and other things and I don't want him around."

I went into the kitchen where a few people were still hanging out. John came down, even though I told him it could wait, and went into the living room. I heard raised voices but no specifics. The next morning, Tyler and the guy from D.C. were gone before I woke up. "No one talks to my friends that way," John said when I asked why he came downstairs immediately instead of waiting until the next morning. I already felt close to John, but seeing how much he cared meant a lot, especially when my legs still felt weak and my backbone hadn’t fully recovered.

As you can see, nothing bad happened to me, physically.  I was lucky to be surrounded by people who trusted me and friends who would protect me. Even though Tyler succeeded in making me quiet and small and scared, I knew in the back of my mind I'd be okay since I had John in my corner.

But I also hate the fact that I needed John. That I couldn't stand up for myself or protect myself. Even though Tyler was a guest and I had superiority as a staff member, I still needed a man to protect me.

I'm extremely aware of the fact that most people don't want to hurt me, don't want to hurt anyone. Most people are good. My travels to 23 countries and counting can attest to that. No man has ever physically hurt me but the potential is always on the back of my mind. Walking down a deserted street, trying to make my way to another hostel, I think "What if tonight's the night?  It's just a matter of time, isn't it?"

my (blurry) female body using its strength to row around a salt lake at the bottom of a salt mine near Cluj, Romania

I like being female most of the time, in the instances when I'm aware of my sex and gender. I like many of the traits that my culture allows a female to possess.  I like painted nails and picking flowers and romcoms and expressing my emotions with ease. I like pink and yellow and journaling and babysitting. I hate most makeup but I like lipstick and mascara and easily getting sympathy by squeezing out a few tears.

But sometimes, I hate having a female body. I hate walking home alone at night. I hate second guessing the intentions of every man that is nice to me.  I hate wearing dresses or looking too nice because then male eyes linger for too long. I hate curtailing my drinking because I know what happens to girls who just want to have fun. I hate how I feel more comfortable, more at ease, more safe whenever I'm with a male friend. I hate how guys like Tyler can so easily remind me that I'm not safe even when I'm in my favorite place. I hate how I need quality men like John to protect me from the Tyler's of the world. I hate I hate I hate I hate.

As long as I occupy this female body I will always hate the culture that made me believe that the female body is a thing to be hated.

*names have been changed, obviously, and this did not happen 'last night'. I wrote the beginning of this post the day after it happened but it took me a full month to write about it.

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