I first came to Budapest two years ago to spend the summer working on my novel, No Cure for the Broken Hearted. I'd spent the winter working as a snowboarding instructor at Mammoth Mountain in California, and I'd managed to save up a little bit of money. It was a regular theme for me; work for a while to save money, and then take as much time off as I could afford to write. I'd already done the same thing in Estonia, Ukraine, and Australia. The key was to find someplace interesting, with good places to write, and low overhead. The cheaper the place, the longer I could afford to stay. In Budapest I found all three prerequisites. Rents here were roughly a third what they were in Southern California, with food costs about 30 percent less. Great cafe's abound, and who could not find a place like this interesting?
That first summer, 2009, I connected with a group of locals and expats through Couchsurfing.com, and settled in, learning my way around the city and growing comfortable here. Now I am back for round two. I've reconnected with my old friends and am getting back into the groove of living and writing in this place. It seems peculiar that I actually feel at home here, but I do. What strikes me most upon arrival, though, is how beat up this city really is. My reaction was the same the first time around. The streets are dirty. The walls are scrawled with graffiti. The facades are crumbling and covered in soot. A good ten percent of the buildings on the Pest side of the river seem to be abandoned and literally falling apart. Streets are torn up, seemingly under perpetual construction. Spending time here is like being in some time warp straight out of the Twilight Zone. Buses date from the 1950's. Some of the cars do, too, though the 70's and 80's are well-represented as well. There just doesn't seem to be the money, or the planning, or the inclination to bring this place back from the brink of oblivion. Yet, at the same time, there is a great atmosphere to the place. The people are relaxed and easy-going. They are social, gathering during the summer months in big outdoor "gardens" (where demolished buildings have been cleared away) to drink beer and enjoy the warm summer evenings. Abandoned buildings are turned into "ruin bars," that become works of art all their own. It is indeed a city like no other.
In contrast to all of this, there are pockets of splendor here as well. The city library is in an old palace, with the top floor carefully preserved. There you can plunk yourself down in a comfy chair in front of an ornate fireplace and dream that you are Hungarian royalty.