I’ve had requests to write about my travel, so I’ve decided my Advent calendar posts would be the perfect time for that. I was originally going to do this in two parts, one day Europe and another day the Middle East, but I drafted a massive post for my Europe travel and realized I’d traveled so much and had so much to share that I needed to split it further. Today and next Tuesday we’ll do Northern Europe and then on December 16th and December 23 we’ll do the Mediterranean (both Europe and the Middle East).
I have been incredibly fortunate to travel extensively, thanks in large part to my parents’ generosity. They enjoy taking very nice vacations and they like to take all their children with them, even though we’re all grown, whether they’re renting a shore house for a week or taking a two-week European vacation. I’m very blessed to travel as much as I have, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford most of these trips on my own.
I first traveled to Europe when I was in middle school. My Hungarian grandparents and my parents decided to take us three kids on a two-week trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary. We’d taken Caribbean cruises before and flown cross-country to visit my uncles on the west coast, but we’d never left North America. It was my dad’s first time, too. (My mother had been to Hungary once before, when she was in middle school herself.) My grandfather was the only member of his family to leave Hungary (he and my grandmother fled after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 with my mom’s oldest brother), and we still have a lot of family there on his side.
We flew into Munich and drove through Bavaria (or the Black Forest?) and saw castles. (Apologies for the vagueness – I was only 12, so “castles” is about as specific as I can get.) Then we went to Switzerland. We had cassette tapes that we played in the car, and to this day whenever I hear Sarah Brightman’s “Time to Say Goodbye” album I think of the mountains of Switzerland.
After traveling through Switzerland, we went to Austria. In Salzburg we took the Sound of Music tour! If you’re American, you may not be aware that Austrians don’t know the Sound of Music. It’s not popular there. Most people there haven’t heard of it. However, Sound of Music tours are a big industry. They take you to different places where the movie was filmed! It’s fun. Salzburg is a lovely city, as is Vienna. My strongest memories of our trip to Austria are the Sound of Music tour and the Catholic church in Mondsee, where we went to mass (in German). The church has the relics of a bishop, but normally relics are a finger bone in a box somewhere, and this is a skeleton in a glass case (in full bishop regalia) over the altar. That’s intense.
In Hungary we spent a week visiting family. Most of my grandpa’s family lives in the Budapest area. We stayed with his younger brother, Jeno bacsi, and his wife Zsuzsa neni. My grandfather had two older brothers, one of whom was in the Hungarian military during WWII and died in a Russian POW camp. The oldest brother, Karoly bacsi, used to visit us in America when I was little, but he had died by the time we went to Hungary. We visited his wife Maria neni and we visited a bunch of cousins and went sight seeing in Budapest. It’s a beautiful city, but at the time you could still see the remnants of Soviet occupation. They were cleaning some of the buildings to remove Soviet-era industrial pollution and we visited the Hapsburg palace in Godollo, where there are bullet holes in the chapel. I also remember our tour guide warning us that “gypsies” steal children. (I wish I could say that Hungarian attitudes toward the Roma have changed, but I rather doubt that’s the case.) I think she was trying to scare us into good behavior. It didn’t work.
So, that was my first trip to Europe. And look how much space it took me to tell you about it!
I went to Europe several times the year I studied abroad. (I know, so fancy.) I would transfer through European airports on my way to and from Cairo, and when I was returning to Egypt after spending Christmas at home it was just as cheap for me to have a 4-day layover as a 4-hour layover. One of my friends was studying abroad at LSE so I took my layover and stayed with her in London. We explored a bit: we went to the Tate Museum, walked around the city, went to see “Match Point” (which we both hated, but we were stuck in the middle of a row in a crowded theater so we couldn’t leave). It was really fun!
We had some breaks during our study abroad year and over one break we went to Cyprus. It was beautiful and the food was delicious. We even went into Turkish Cyprus. We saw a Crusader castle, I remember. It seemed strange to pass through that no-man’s-land between the two sides. It used to be the diplomatic sector, so it’s full of grand empty mansions. I couldn’t picture it being a war zone. Before we went I really knew nothing about Cyprus and I’d had no idea it was split until we planned our trip.
The summer after my study abroad I wanted to go teach English in Hungary, to improve my Hungarian. My parents said no, in part because it would have conflicted with our planned vacation. Instead, they sent me to stay with Maria neni for a month. At the time she was living with her son, my mom’s cousin Geza, and his wife Hajnalka, who speaks English. I got to visit with my cousins and Geza’s kids took me exploring in Budapest and elsewhere. At the end of the month, two days before I was flying home, my grandpa passed away. I was so upset that I never got a chance to say goodbye, but I was with his family and I think he would have liked that. Jeno bacsi gave me a wooden owl that my grandpa had carved when he was young, which I took back to my grandmother. Although Jeno bacsi and my grandpa lived on different continents for fifty years, they were still really close. They were alike in a lot of ways. I’m so glad I had that trip. At the time my Hungarian improved to nearly conversational, but once I returned to the States and went back to my Arabic studies that went away again. The nice thing about being in Hungary for a month was seeing things that you wouldn’t do if you only had a short period to visit. I saw the Roman ruins in Budapest, with an amphitheater and aqueducts and even baths. The Romans found hot springs in the area that’s now Budapest and took full advantage of them; the Turks, equally a fan of baths, did the same. Hungary is a landlocked country with only the Danube and one large lake, the Balaton, but they love bathing and swimming, which appears to be their heritage from that. (Also, they make some lovely wines; the Romans brought that to Hungary as well, long before the Magyar ever entered the land the Romans called Pannonia.) I also got to see a Turkish rose garden and tomb (Gul Baba and Rozsakert) in the hills of Buda. (Buda is the older part of Budapest and Pest is the newer part; they used to be separate cities.) We went to an outdoor Hungarian folk museum. My favorite was the trip to Margit-sziget, Margaret Island, in the Danube. The island is a park and it was really pretty and peaceful.
I love being in Budapest. Maybe it’s because we have family there. Maybe it’s because even though my Hungarian is poor, the language (and the food) have been familiar to me since my childhood. It is the only place that feels like “home” other than where I live. (I like being close to my family.) Every time I go it’s more beautiful and I appreciate it more. I wish it were an easier (and cheaper) trip so I could go visit more often. As technology improves, we can stay in touch with our cousins via Skype and Facebook, but it’s not the same as being there.
About two weeks after I returned from Hungary we went back to Europe for a bus tour to Italy with our cousins. (For several years we went on vacation with my Aunt D and Uncle S, and my cousins C, J, and M. Us kids are all about the same age and we all had a lot of fun.) That year the parents decided we should take a vacation to Italy! We took a Trafalgar bus tour and it was a blast. We saw Rome, Florence, Capri, Venice, Pompei, Pisa, Ravenna, Assisi, Naples, Siena, and probably others that I’ve forgotten. It was an awesome trip. We did everything. I LOVED seeing the churches (of course) and the medieval cities and villages (my other favorite places to visit), and of course the countryside and the coastline were gorgeous and we ate amazing food.
You had no idea what you were getting in for when you asked to hear about my travels, did you? I think this is enough for one post, so tune in next week to hear about my second trip to England, our Mediterranean cruises, and our second trip to Hungary, Austria, and Switzerland. Hopefully I’ll have pictures in that post, since I should actually have pictures from those trips on my laptop. Also, stop back tomorrow for my first guest post, by my friend anamuan.