Four thousand, one hundred and sixty seven miles separate my home city of Boston, Massachusetts, and Budapest, Hungary. If you were to lay Budapest’s famous “Chimney Cakes” on their side, you would need over 33 million of them to stretch this distance. In American measurements, this is about the equivalent of 60 million McDonald’s French fries linked together end to end.
Even more so than distance, I am separated from my home by cultural differences, a language barrier and about nine hours of jetlag. For a first-time traveler in Europe, this has meant adjusting, adapting and pausing to take it all in every step of the way. Those who have traveled to Europe before tell me that there are a lot of similarities between buildings, cities and even entire countries; but as someone who has never crossed the Atlantic, this is all new territory for me.
Boston is known for its history. We have the Puritans, the Boston Tea Party, the first battles of the American Revolution, and the list goes on. Our buildings are deemed “old,” dating back to the 17th century, and we have a sense of pride in the so-called antiquity of our city. I felt this sense of pride too, that is, until I came to Europe.
If Boston had the Puritans, Hungary had the Magyars. If we claim the Tea Party and Revolution, Hungarians one-up us with a series of revolutions as well as the fall of Communism. If our 17th century buildings are considered old, their 13th century castles must be ancient. One cannot fully understand history without venturing out of America and into the historical capital of the world, Europe.
All of this to say, walking in the streets of Hungary has been overwhelming. Everything I knew about history, architecture, city-life and culture has been completely turned around and I feel as if I have entered into an entirely different world. Every detail, from the license plates to the store signs, from the emergency vehicles to the crosswalk etiquette, from the building shapes to the manner in which couples display affection is entirely different than anything I have ever known.
Above ground, I am a stranger in a foreign land, taking in sights for the first time.
Below the surface, however, I am back home.
The first time our group went underground to ride the Metro, I was prepared to see yet another foreign setting and learn to adapt to whatever I experienced. We descended the long concrete steps into the depths of the sidewalk, disappearing to the outer world like magicians behind a curtain. We flashed our transportation card to a tall, bald man in a blue uniform and then, just like that, I was transported from Kalvin Tér back to Government Station in the heart of Boston.
The sound of the metro rushing by is like a stampede of metal horses, galloping by and rattling with every step. The vibrations under my feet and the gusts of wind with each passing train transcend any language barrier; they simply speak the language of thousands of travelers with a destination. Rowdy Red Sox fans and dedicated fútbol aficionados mesh together in my mind with the same smells of beer, sweat and a desire to win. For just a moment, I forget where I am and I sink into the comfort of home.
As I step onto the metro car, careful not to get caught between the closing doors, I immerse myself in a crowd of travelers. In this car, Boston feels just one stop away. There are no cultural distinctions when it comes to crowds of people, shaky floors and dirty handrails. Around me I see Nike sneakers, Starbucks coffee cups and exhausted faces. If the world were muted for just one minute, I would not know the difference between the Blue Line back to our apartments abroad, and the Green Line into Fenway Park.
I am awakened from my hometown memories as the cart screeches to a sudden stop and the crowd all jostles forward. I push my way past the people around me and exit the tram back into the bustling station; even now, I am still home. It is only after I ascend back up those concrete stairs that I fully recognize where I am. The steps give way and we break the surface of the sidewalk. Rather than seeing hotdogs, ticket vendors and foam fingers, I see gelato, tourists and jean shorts; Budapest welcomes me back and Boston fades back into the deep corners of my mind.
In Budapest there are three main modes of public transportation: the tram, the buses and the metro. Like a spider’s web, weaved together with intricacy unlike anything else, all of these forms of transportation meet and diverge and form one coherent network, leading you anywhere you want to go. The same is true of the world, despite the fact that we don’t always recognize it. Cultures meet and diverge across planes, trains, boats and cars and even though so much separates us from one another, there is always a common thread leading back home. Underground, metro-to-metro, this thread exists stronger than ever.