I remember someone once telling me to save traveling Europe for when I’m old, to utilize my youthful energy in places a little wilder, a little realer, a little more worthy of open-minds and wide-eyed readiness for the world. And after five months of calling it home, I can understand why.
When traveling Europe, it’s easy to become entranced by the beauty of romance languages and Mediterranean beaches, to experience an entire continent solely through its fashion and cuisine and postcard-perfect scenery, a perpetual tourist eager to see everything and leave with nothing but souvenirs.
But Europe, and travel as a whole, is what you make of it. It can be idealistic and comfortable and surface-level, but it can also be moving, thought-provoking, and even a little uncomfortable at times, and knowing what I know now, I’m glad I had the chance to see it while I was young.
While my peers mostly favored Western Europe, with occasional excursions to Turkey or Morocco in true tests of their parents’ trust, I felt a pull toward Eastern Europe that I couldn’t quite explain, but knew I had to explore. Something about these countries seemed so foreign and yet so familiar, mythical and yet utterly real, rich and romantic and just a little bit sad.
I suppose this is partly to do with the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by history. I spent most of my childhood reading memoirs and fictionalizations of Anne Frank and Anne Boleyn, finding myself more of a kindred spirit with the girls and women in these pages than with the people I encountered in my actual life.
Berlin had always been a place at the back of my mind, in my proverbial back pocket, somewhere both painfully real and mercifully mythical. I’d get there someday, and someday I did, on a 6:30 a.m. (though $30) flight out of rainy London, to the green and gold melancholy of Germany.
We found ourselves on the outskirts of the city, waiting on a platform with Cold War-era signage for the only train of the hour to take us into the city, past crumbling cottages and more graffiti than I’d seen anywhere in my life, scrawled across brick walls and abandoned train cars and tattered billboards. Berlin is not objectively beautiful, but I suppose its appeal is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve always had a soft spot for urban decay, likely a contributing factor in my abnormally high tolerance for Los Angeles, and I think this is why I was always so certain I’d feel at peace in Eastern Europe. And even before we stepped off the train in Berlin, I knew I hadn’t been wrong about this assessment.
Standing where East and West Germany were once divided, following the Berlin Wall for miles, getting lost within a maze of monuments honoring the victims of the Holocaust, it all took my breath away. I won’t lie, Berlin was taxing; physically, mentally, emotionally. Our two-and-a-half hour walking tour of the city turned into an epic five hour excursion through countless neighborhoods and landmarks and I was ready to lay down and wave a white flag of defeat by the end of it. And by the fourth or fifth Holocaust memorial, my blood was boiling and my heart was heavy, and I couldn’t reconcile how so much hatred could still be alive and well in this world after we claimed to learn from these atrocities.
Mostly I felt immeasurably grateful at being able to see such powerful things in person, and reminded of just how much I can sometimes take for granted. When I thought of how I had learned all of this history in a classroom in a high school in a claustrophobic small town I sometimes thought I’d never have the chance to leave, touching the Berlin Wall took my breath away, and there was suddenly this cognitive dissonance; I am so far from where I started, literally and figuratively. I am both immeasurably privileged and inexplicably grateful.
We took a train from Berlin, through the stunning small towns and green fields of southern Germany, to the second stop of our tour, Prague. It’s a stunning, fairy tale town, home to a glittering river and gilded bridges and an actual castle rising high above the cherry blossom city down below. There were horse-drawn carriages and sugary local delicacies and our hostel was housed in a 17th-century building located at the top of a windy cobblestone street.
Prague was home to some fascinating, and sobering, history, particularly in the Jewish Quarter, but it was personally the city to which I felt the least connected. It was gorgeous and quaint, but after little more than a day I was ready to move along. I’d heard incredible things about the city, and perhaps I was there for too short a time to have given it a fair assessment, but I didn’t feel quite myself there, and that’s just fine, sometimes.
Finally, we boarded an overnight bus to Budapest, a place of which for which I had precious few expectations, just openness, only a willingness to learn and experience and be. I remember first hearing of Budapest, this far-off, perhaps not-quite-real place years ago, and despite having not even the slightest inkling of where in the world it existed, I thought it sounded like the most exotic place I could have ever imagined.
For whatever reason, this seemed to be the year of Budapest. I never in a million years would have imagined it would be a place I’d reach during my semester abroad, but it was a surprisingly popular destination among my peers, due at least in some part I’m sure to the natural thermal baths I’d heard likened to giant, rowdy pool parties. The fact that I hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect of Budapest made the prospect of visiting even more thrilling, despite the fact that we had to endure a less-than-glamorous (though dirt cheap) seven hour bus ride to do so, arriving with a pink sky as a new day dawned.
Budapest is sparkling clean, almost a little too clean for my taste, and surprisingly new, at least in terms of architecture, thanks to a rather powerful flooding of the Danube in the 20th century. The first city I thought to liken it to was, oddly enough, Washington, D.C., though perhaps not so strange as I am quite fond of the Capitol. But Budapest is home to many museums, monuments, grassy areas, decent public transportation, plentiful street food, and an oddly muggy, stormy mix of spring weather that reminded me of summers in the south.
Having suffered tremendous losses and setbacks during World War II, the Holocaust, Communism, the Cold War, and more, Budapest is a city heavy with history. There are monuments and museums around every corner, and I would highly recommend taking advantage of free walking tours in order to get acclimated to the city. Our homey hostel was also a tremendous resource, with friendly staff who thoroughly annotated our maps and gave us local insight into the best restaurants, bars and attractions.
In terms of historical must-sees, I never could have anticipated that a favorite stop of mine in any city would be a place called the House of Terror, but Eastern Europe is not for the faint of heart, and this museum is not to be missed by anyone with an interest in history or, frankly, the human race. I can think of few experiences that affected me as deeply as this one, tracing the footsteps of Nazi leaders and Soviet dictators, I found myself amazed at how the 20th century had absolutely devastated Budapest, from World War II to Communism, and yet it has flourished in the decades since. It was truly an immersive experience, the closest I’ve ever seen a museum get to a theme park exhibit, and yet it treated its subjects with utter respect and seriousness, and despite the special effects and ominous music, the crowded, darkened elevator that deposits visitors down in a dungeon where unthinkable things occurred, the constant reminder that all of this really and truly happened, that human beings committed these acts, that all of these people once lived and breathed the same as me, made this more chilling than any house of horrors I’d ever visited.
Frequent stops for rose-shaped gelato and Hungarian trinkets were necessary to counteract the heaviness of the city’s history, but so is the case with many places. I’d highly, highly recommend Budapest’s outdoor markets over the indoor ones (havens for scammers and pick-pocketers, speaking from my own personal experience and those of others.) Not to mention that, on a beautiful day, the outdoor markets are absolutely blissful, emanating pure Old World-Europe, with vendors selling hand made soaps, traditional marionettes, local paprika, and other Hungarian wares. The food is much cleaner, fresher and tastier at these markets, too. Other absolute must-visits are St. Stephen’s Cathedral (the 400-step trek to the top is definitely worth the city view,) the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Citadel, and the Budapest’s many ruins pubs, which are fairly self-explanatory and yet really must be seen to be believed. Trust me, they’re a truly Hungarian experience.
After seven days of soaking up history like sponges, of scrounging for vegetarian food, of exploring three richly fabled cities on foot until we could barely walk anymore, it was time to head back to our little makeshift home in the UK. We bought our tickets and boarded a public bus out of Budapest, with a blood orange sunset following us west, past the Danube and the dilapidated city outskirts that seemed to sigh, streaking through the dusty windows and seeping into my soul just a little.
We were one of the handful of flights out of Budapest that night, we practically had the airport to ourselves. I sampled a local favorite cuisine, Burger King, for dinner, and we queued up out on the tarmac to wait for our plane in the dark, arriving back in London to April rain and an immigration line that made us miss our train. We arrived home in the early hours of the morning, exhausted, feet aching, wanting to crawl into bed and keep the world at bay for a few days. But every line, every penny spent, every minute spent waiting, every mishap and headache and disagreement, it was all worth it, I knew that much within an instant of being back.
I didn’t feel quite myself anywhere in Eastern Europe, but I did feel at peace. And I felt in many ways as though I was more than myself. This was not my culture, this was not my history, not my burden to bear or my stories to tell. And so I was there to listen, to be an open book and a blank slate, ready to become a student of events I didn’t witness, of a world I never thought I’d get to see.
I’ve always been comfortable with sadness, perhaps a bit too much so, and in turn, people who are uncomfortable with it make me just a little uncomfortable. It’s important to learn about history so as not to repeat it, and to be reminded of what we have so as not to take it for granted. I could have gorged on history my entire time in Eastern Europe, but I don’t think my psyche could have withstood it. I’d recommend this trip in a heartbeat, and yet I don’t think I could bring myself to do it again. I could write about my experiences in this strange, utterly unforgettable region forever, and yet I think I’ll end things here, with an encouragement to go to Eastern Europe but also somewhere, anywhere, that scares you a little, makes you uncomfortable a little, that makes you feel so much smaller than history and so much more than yourself.