Three weeks ago, with a good friend of mine, I took a much-needed holiday to a city I’ve been meaning to visit since I moved to Prague: Budapest. Living in the Czech Republic means that you can do a great deal of travel very easily by train; there’s Germany, Poland, Austria, and Slovakia only a few hours away and about 30 Euros away, and you don’t even need to hop on a plane. However, it’s also very easy to say, “It’s so close, I’ll definitely visit sometime before I leave Prague” and never get around to it. But a combination of being very busy, slightly lazy, and usually totally broke prevented me from making the journey for two years. So when I finally got around to booking the tickets, I was more than a little excited.
The train ride took seven hours; a mostly enjoyable trip except for slightly dull scenery: the barren, flat part of Slovakia. I packed some salty snacks and several small bottles of wine which kept my friend Z-Kat and me in good spirits until we arrived in Budapest at 6.30 in the evening. Z-Kat’s buddy, a young DJ called Blend, met us at the train station. Blend was my first Hungarian, and he made a damn good impression. Warm, chatty, genuine and kind, he waited patiently while Z and I checked into our hostel, walked several blocks with us in search of a nice pub with reasonable food and beer, talked pleasantly about his music and university studies during dinner, and paid for our meals after we finished, saying, “well, you came all the way here, and you’ve had a long journey” then pointed us in the direction of the club Z-Kat (also a DJ) was scheduled to play in at midnight. Blend’s unassuming kindness as well as our waitress’s friendliness surprised and delighted me, and I remarked happily to Z on our walk back, “Are all Hungarians this nice? There’s none of the Czech coldness here, these people are lovely.”
“Yeah,” replied Z thoughtfully, “I’ve found that the further East you go the nicer people generally are. Czechs are kind of unique in their rudeness.”
Z, as he so often did, hit the nail right on the head. Although I am rather fond of Czech people, they are a determinedly grumpy lot. When I first moved to Prague two years ago to teach English, I remember reading in my introductory guide to Prague packet, which was given to each new teacher by our language school this advice about Czechs; “They are like walnuts. Tough and hard on the outside, but once cracked they are enjoyable and pleasant.” Well, I’d say that’s only partly true. Czech people are tough and outwardly quite reserved, and while they are certainly not unpleasant when you get to know them better, they are not exactly what I would call enjoyable.
Czech people are not arrogant, which I like, and while I enjoy their dark sense of humor and frankness, they are usually quite rude and unhelpful in shops, restaurants, on the streets, in the bars, at the post office, or just about anywhere else where common courtesy comes into play, which gets damn annoying. Friendliness and good service is not a part of them; inherently distrustful, they look out for themselves and not for others. And as an American, after two years of putting up with Czech rudeness, Hungarian hospitality was a welcome change.
Everyone I met in Budapest was lovely. All our waiters and bartenders were very nice, when we asked for directions on the street people were genuinely helpful, the owners of our hostel, a youngish couple, trusted us to stay in the hostel by ourselves when they went out shopping one morning, “Just remember to lock the door behind you if you leave, help yourself to anything in the kitchen,”- that kind of thing.
While the people impressed me, I was not instantly charmed by the city. Much of the architecture of Budapest is similar to Prague, and parts of it are undeniably gorgeous (the famous Parliament building is ravishing), but it’s far more spread out, bigger and intimidating, dirtier, and greyer.
One of the beauties of living in Prague is the convenience of everything. The center is tiny and the overall size so manageable, which makes it very easy to get around by foot, tram, bus or metro. They have the same means of transport in Budapest, but they’re not as efficient or quick. If you miss a tram in Prague, it takes you five minutes to walk to the next stop. If you miss one in Budapest, it takes twenty minutes. I was looking forward to trying the food, and although it was much better flavored thanks to Hungarians’ generous use of paprika in most of their dishes, it was the same combination of meat drenched in heavy sauces with a starchy side. The beer was not as good, but the wine was excellent.
It was raining heavily as we boarded the train to go back to Prague on Sunday morning after checking out of our hostel, and I shuddered to think that I had to go back to work the next day. It had been a nice trip for both of us; Z got to play a great set at the club on the Thursday we arrived, we saw the castle district, walked along the Parliament building and over the Bridge, and spent a luxurious afternoon in the spas (glorious). But deep down I was happy to be on the train to Prague, and that I lived there rather than in Budapest. Hungarians were friendlier but Prague itself is such a livable city. It’s easy and cheap to find a place to eat, to stop for a beer, to meet a friend for a coffee. Of course, you may encounter a rude clerk at the post office, but that’s why there’s always a pub just around the corner.