Sunday, August 01, 2004

Budapest, At Last

It's hard to believe how small they're making airline seats these days. On my trans-Atlantic flight from Atlanta to Paris, I was squished into my coach (of course) seat shoulder-to-shoulder with a complete stranger on my left. My only consolation was that at least I had an aisle seat, and was in a somewhat more comfortable position than the poor soul to my left.

That consolation evaporated, however, when the person in front of me leaned his seat all the way back, so that his head was practically in my lap. I could have done dental work on him. To compensate, I reclined my seat all the way back. At that angle, I at least didn't have the head of the forward passenger in my personal space, but I felt the karmic consequence of intruding on the territory of the person behind me. However, I figured that if he did the same as I and fully reclined his seat, and so on and so forth all the way to the back of the plane, at least we'd all be positioned in accordance with one another. Except that it felt like we were stacked up like a row of fallen dominoes, each with the lower half of our bodies beneath the persons in front of us and the upper half of our bodies above the persons behind us, and still pressed shoulder-to-shoulder for better or for worse with the persons around us. An image of the floor plan of those 17th Century slave ships passed through my mind.

It's not that I haven't flown across the Atlantic before. It's just that either the seats have gotten smaller or I've gotten larger, or some combination of the two.

But that's the way it is. I managed to read for a little while and even to get in a few short episodes of sleep, and after eight or so hours, we arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. I had a three-hour layover which gave me enough time to get from Terminal C to Terminal B, change my money from American dollars to Hungarian forints (and a few Euros for the airport), use the bathroom, get a bite of lunch (it was now noon Sunday after my 9:00 p.m. departure from Atlanta on Saturday), and find the gate. At the gate, I stretched out and read for about an hour or so before they started the boarding process for the flight from Paris to Budapest.

The Budapest flight was relatively uneventful, although I have to admit that the plane was far more commodious than the trans-Atlantic number. I arrived at Budapest Ferihegy Airport at 5:30 p.m. I carried all my luggage with me, so it was quite easy to get from the gate to the Hotel Minibus Service kiosk, where I was able to get a ride to the Gellert Hotel and Baths Complex for 2,400 forints (about five bucks).

My first reaction to Budapest on the Minibus ride was one of sheer horror. Now, I know that the nicest part of almost any city is nowhere near the Airport, but the route the driver took us from Ferihegy went by row after row of Soviet-style block housing, slummy tenements, industrial blight, and tacky commercial districts, all of which displayed absolutely no architectural style or aesthetic appeal. Since L. and I had been incommunicado ever since I boarded the plane Saturday night, when she was still in Milan and asking me to bring her cranberry juice, I did not know how she had reacted to the depressing landscape I was seeing, but I felt certain that there was probably a train trip to Vienna some time in my very, very near future.

However, as we got deeper and deeper into the city, the view started to improve, if ever so slightly, until suddenly and without precedent, I found us approaching the Danube (Duna in Hungarian) surrounded by beautiful architecture. And there across the river, rising magnificently in full ornamental splendor, was the Gellert. The hotel was built between 1912 and 1918 in the modernist Secession style, with an imposing facade facing the river. Destroyed in 1945, it was rebuilt and modernized after World War II.

We pulled up to the entrance, and as the driver was unloading my bags, L. appeared out of nowhere and threw her arms around me. "Well, we wanted different - we got different" she said with a huge smile, and I knew at that moment that I was in Budapest at last, and for the whole week.

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