Europe | Hungary | Budapest – Soaking in Budapest
I’ve decided that travel is a series of self-inflicted tragedies. This might not make sense at first, but you will see.
Today I had plans to go to the Szechenyi Spa (Ze-chainy Spa)at City Park on the Pest (pronounced Pesht) side of the Danube. When packing for my off-season travel, it had not occurred to me to bring a bathing suit, but I decided that experiencing the spa was a must. My Hungarian friend/hostess, Betty, told me it was possible to rent a kind of suit, which she described as apron-like. I imagined this as naked-like. It’s no wonder I woke up early this morning a bit nervous about the prospect of navigating the public spa alone.
Eating breakfast in the hostel kitchen, I listened to the other hostellers talk about their plans for the day. One girl who seemed self-assured and wise in a way I simultaneously admired and envied asked me about the Szechenyi. I don’t recall exactly how, if I invited or she suggested, but we made plans to go to the bath together. Though I had every intention of going alone, suddenly the idea of having companionship was a great relief.
Klara is half English and half Polish. As she put it, ‘If you live in England, I don’t seem very English, but if you don’t live in England, you probably think I’m very English.’ I understood perfectly and recognized myself in her. An un-American American, I am. We are both of that breed of humans travel writer Pico Iyer calls the ‘Global Soul.’ A Global Soul is someone who feels home pretty much anywhere he or she goes and as a result feels at home nowhere; in other words, the more Global Souls travel the more displaced they feel and begin to both crave and loathe that rootless feeling. Klara, though currently living in London, was traveling through Eastern Europe for research. As a Ph.D. candidate, she is studying the underground communist art of the 1960’s and 70’s in Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic. Just yesterday she met a poet associated with the famed and honored Hungarian poet Petra. I was immediately thrilled at her enthusiasm for the encounter with a poet and her closeness to the arts. Hostelling encourages temporary friendships among people who wouldn’t ordinarily chose each other, but within a very short period of time, I knew that I would have chosen Klara as a friend. She was immediately to my liking. Just as stubbornly independent as I, there was no concern that we might be quarantined to each other for the coming days just because we’d shared a hostel.
At the bath we negotiated which entrance to go in, how to pay, what we needed to rent, etc. Despite both of us being resourceful and experienced soloists, we declared that ‘if alone, I’d have gone home by now!’ It was intimidating to take in this huge bath house full of bathing men and women, usually of the retirement-age department. I never did find out what the rental bathing suit was like. I didn’t want to know! So, instead I went to the spa in a black camisole and The Best Pair of Underwear Ever Made (ExOfficio black bikini briefs which I bought at REI for what seemed at the time an exorbitant $16 but now seems like a mighty small price to pay for such versatile duds). Klara concurred that it looked just like a modest bathing suit. In fact, she seemed rather jealous that my entire mid-riff was covered while she was stuck in a barely-there piece from Italy.
Changed and ready to go, we cracked the locker room door to the large outdoor pools and stepped out into the cold winter air.
Back in the year 1541 the Turks occupied Budapest and one of the things they brought with them was their love of bathing in thermal water. But the Turks couldn’t have created their beloved thermal baths in Hungary is the Romans hadn’t first found a way to channel the countless natural thermal springs buried beneath Budapest. Szechenyi, where Klara and I found ourselves, just happens to be one of the largest medicinal baths in all of Europe. While there are many to choose from in Budapest, the Neo-Baroque architecture of Szechenyi along with its easy location in City Park and near Hero’s Square made it an obvious choice. Klara and I had no idea, though, that an absolutely impressive labyrinth of pools of varying temperatures, colors, shapes, and sizes awaited us. Some pools had jets and jacuzzis while others had whirlpools and others still had medicinal additives. Adjacent to the dozens of pools were saunas, steam rooms, and massage tables. It was a true hedonist’s delight, and as both Klara and I agreed, a fantastic place to spend your retired years.
We began our bathing escapade in the big outdoor blue-bottomed pool, which has a special whirlpool section implanted right into the middle. Despite the rather serene and geriatric scene of the pool, we headed right for the whirlpool and got whisked around and around, feet first. Klara and I could not contain our glee. Most of the other spa patrons sat against the edge of the pools. Some ladies practiced water aerobics. No one was in a hurry to move. While soaking in this pool, I observed the flight path of planes taking off from Ferihegy International. For the first time in my life that massive piece of metal man-made ingenuity in the sky that rushes us through time zones and off kilter appeared like a bird, a bit of nature I’d never appreciated with such admiration, wonder, and detachment. Just then Klara said, “It’s hard to imagine anyone would choose to go anywhere but here.”
Despite the lure of not going anywhere else, we mustered the energy to pull ourselves from the warm water in order to explore the rest of the complex. We were in the open air center of the palatial building, but we’d watched people come and go from the various doors of the edifice. Curiosity could not keep us idle. Klara said she felt like Alice in Wonderland as we proceeded to open each door, having no idea what lay beyond. The mysteriousness of Szechenyi was amplified because neither Klara nor I knew even a bit of Magyar. All signs were in Magyar. All of the people around us were Hungarian. With each door we opened we wondered if we’d find a men’s only room on the other side or something equally surprising. But we kept moving forward on the principal of “We don’t know any better and we’ll never see these people again. The worst that will happen is we get thrown out.” We granted ourselves the freedom of ignorance we hadn’t known since childhood; we were unable to consider consequences, unable to read the warnings.
Inside the building, we tried out everything we could find: hot pools, tea bag pools, ice cold pools we jumped in and out of to revive the life of sensation in our skins. We braved both the sauna and steam rooms and even stood under a bucket with a long string, just like in the cartoons, only this time you pull the string on yourself and get a bucket of ice cold water dumped on you! We braved the looks of all our older companions, surely wondering about the two of us, perhaps remembering what it was like to have a body fifty years younger.
After a few hours of wandering from pool to pool (our fingers turned prune-like long ago), we returned to the large outdoor pool. We arrived just in time for the water massage which came from these massive jets on the bottom of the pool. Most of the other patrons knew to position themselves just so and wait for the jet stream. What I saw was hard not to contain without a giggle: heads and torsos bobbing out of the water, each with a look of statuesque serenity on their faces as if sprung from some ecstatic heaven inside the earth, suddenly pushed up for air.
Attempting to balance on the bottom of the pool while the powerful massage stream tried to push me away, an old man next to me seemed to delight in the apparent joy of Klara and myself. He tried to talk to me, in German. When I said “English,” he giggled, smiled, and indicated he did not know how to speak to me. He surprised me a few minutes later when instead of continuing to use verbal language, he used body language and pulled me back towards him and then let go. I turned around, startled, mad, and indignant, but when I saw the old man there with so much happiness on his face that all my anger slipped away. Granted, I didn’t want to stay any longer, but an indiscretion in the pool was not about to ruin my day!
Klara had not been aware of what happened. The bubbles were creating chaos in the water and it was hard to hear. She yelled over the jacuzzi jets that we should leave. I was ready too, before another indiscretion did, in fact, ruin my lovely day at the spa. But just as I was about to leave the pool, I reached for the strap of my camisole to double check that my locker key was still attached. The entire time we’d been there, I’d been keeping a close watch on the key, but the bubbles of the jet stream were too forceful and the key was no longer attached. I couldn’t see the bottom of the pool thanks to all the movement, but I suspected that my locker key was somewhere beneath my feet. My patience was tested as I waited, still next to this old man I wanted to be away from, for the bubbles to cease. When they did, I enlisted the help of the old man, two British girls, Klara, and an English-Speaking Hungarian man who thought it high time to make macho remarks to the foreign girls.
Between the four of us girls, the key was found and Klara and I quickly left the pool and the unwanted attention of old men and slick English-speakers behind. We gathered our things and showered before earning nearly half of our admission fee back. Three positively wonderful hours at the Szechenyi Spa cost me only three Euros because if you return to the ticket booth within a certain time frame, they refund you the difference.
Klara and I left the spa behind for a cafe overlooking the City Park ice rink. We drank hot spiced wine and let our fingertips de-prune. In a short while, we parted as friends, kisses on the cheeks, exchanges of emails, and dreams of visiting in London, Warsaw, or San Francisco. Klara turned towards the National Library for her research and I made my way to the train station to begin my overnight journey to Venice, Italy.
And so, the self-inflicted tragedy of travel as so many of my recent days have ended this way, with partings. Sometimes there’s an exchange of email, others a kiss goodbye. I can sense the friendships that will last, even if only in spirit. Klara will last, and yet the tragedy, the beautiful and melancholic tragedy I live with full knowledge before I even begin is that the joy of our ease together will most likely never be felt again in person. But one day, when I’m recounting things about to slip away forever, I’ll remember the bath, Klara’s confidence, and our willingness to dive into icy pools simply because we had each other. Travel is, indeed, a series of these small losses, matched of course and innumerably with so much more gain.
Check out some pictures of Szechenyi Spa