Three or four weeks earlier, when I’d visited the city with Hunter, Holly, and Rebecca, our train had stopped at the largest of Budapest’s three railway stations, Budapest Keleti pályaudvar. I anticipated arriving at the same station, following familiar landmarks to the City Park, Városliget, and then taking Hunter at his word—“Enjoy yourself for the both of us”—by doing something relaxing at the Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő, the largest medicinal bath in Europe.
When I got off the train, I recognized nothing. Surprise! I was at another station, Budapest nyugati pályaudvar. Whether it’s the lingering effect of the Cold War or a resistance to Western culture, I don’t know, but few people that I encountered in Budapest spoke English. Maybe I tried to communicate with the wrong people. In fact, I know I tried to communicate with the wrong people because of what happened soon after.
Rather than feel sorry for myself, I got some Hungarian forints from an ATM and bought a map. The green swatch of the City Park was more blocks away, at least 20, then I cared to count. Nothing to do but start walking.
Outside, snow was falling. Everything seems quieter when snow is falling. The streets were empty of people. A few cars stirred the snow as they passed. Loneliness. Where was Hunter? What was happening to my friend?
At least I was wearing my North Face down vest and wasn’t cold.
I began to enjoy myself—the ornate facades of the old buildings, the sky of gray and white, the bittersweet melancholy and poignant reflection that often accompany solitude. We miss people more when they’re gone. We notice so much more and thus have more to share when we’re alone. Solitude makes people more precious.
After about an hour, I was climbing the steps to the lobby of the spa.
I found a guy about my own age who appeared to work for the spa.
He must have gotten his hands on an English dictionary because he knew a few words, but not enough to form into sentences. After some wild gesticulations and calling for backup, he finally drove his point home: everything was closed but the baths, pools, sauna, and steam room. No massage this time.
Where could I change? I asked with an absurd pantomime of removing my clothing and swimming motions.
He seemed to understand and motioned for me to follow him. He led me upstairs, let himself in behind a desk, located a key, then showed me to a tiny wooden stall. These were set up in rows like lockers. He opened the door for me, dropped the key in my hand, smiled, and sauntered off.
Okay, now I was going to enjoy myself.
I had no bathing suit. I had no towel. I had only one pair of underwear.
This is where the story gets a little strange. I was determined to make the most of my time in Budapest because I was worried about my friend and I’d never had a massage and wanted one and had missed the cut off twice in a row and I hadn’t ridden three and a half hours to be deterred by something as simple as having no bathing suit.
I marched back up to the desk and got the guy’s attention. In perhaps the finest feat of nonverbal communication of my life, I told Mr. Cabana Boy that I needed something to wear. He squinted his eyes at me and tapped his lips with a finger. I tried again. This time, he jabbed a finger at the ceiling as if to say, “Aha! I’ve got an idea.” He ducked down under the desk, and I could hear him rummaging around.
He reappeared holding some fabric. I wouldn’t call the fabric trunks or even shorts. If I didn’t know there were pools of water somewhere in the building, I would have thought he was holding a washcloth. There just wasn’t enough material there. He stretched it out for me to see a pair of trashy men’s underwear, the kind that guys who shape their eyebrows wear. The kind that guys who go to the tanning bed wear. This was a Speedo glorified with about an inch of leg.
Do you have anything else? I gestured.
He was confused.
Do I have any other options?
He tapped his temple then held up his hands. He didn’t understand.
Why was this day trip to Hungary challenging everything I believe in like sticking by my friends and not renting bathing suits and a comprehensive boycott against Speedos?
He was confused.
I took the change out of my pocket and slapped it on the counter.
He shrugged and took a medium-sized coin.
I attempted to say thank you, but the look on my face probably said otherwise.
I locked myself in my booth, undressed, and put on the thing.
It was very uncomfortable. It was grippy. I wanted it to get its hands off of me. I wanted to charge it with sexual harassment.
It was dark blue with some broad stripes.
I looked over my shoulder into the full length mirror. Yep. My butt crack was hanging out.
I pulled up the back then looked down. Yep. Indecent in the front now.
If you’ve ever seen the Seinfeld episode where Kramer wants to borrow Jerry’s swimsuit, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say that my boys were definitely out of their neighborhood.”
I had just paid money to be 95% naked in eastern Europe in front of complete strangers without a partner in crime.
Fine. Whatever. If was going to gird my loins with a garment belonging to a 9-year-old boy, then you bet your baloney I was going to do it with confidence and price. Behold, Spa Men and Spa Women! Michelangelo’s David in the flesh!
I took a deep breath and followed the signs to what I hoped was the pool.
[To be continued…]