When I first planned by trip to Europe, I didn’t plan on going to Hungary. I didn’t know anything about the country and didn’t have any friends from there or know many who’d traveled there, so it wasn’t high on my list of places to visit. However, it was included in my Eurail pass, so I figured I should at least squeeze in a few days if I could.
I took a night train from Prague. Originally, I had only booked a seat, but since I hadn’t slept well the night before, I went to the train station early to try to upgrade to a bed. Fortunately, they had one available. I was a little nervous about my trip as I’d heard that this route was very popular for thieves. I’d read many cautionary stories about how careful a traveler would need to be, especially if traveling on their own. Needless to say, I was a little hyper-cautious as I boarded and got settled. Fortunately, I’m very short (I’m only 5 feet tall), so I could easily sleep with my pack on the bed with me. I didn’t find very restful sleep, even with the bed as I was apprehensive about the journey. My concern didn’t abate when the train employees came around and collected everyone’s passport. I may have psyched myself out a bit and was very uptight for the rest of the ride. I kept wondering when they would give my passport back or if this was some ploy to steal it from me. But shortly before we arrived, they came around and returned them. They were very business-like so I didn’t get to ask, but I figured that maybe this was some safety measure to actually reduce theft.
I arrived tired but soon forgot about it as I fell in love with Budapest instantly. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I think sometimes it’s easier to be impressed by places when you have no idea what to expect, but I think regardless, I still would have loved this city. It seemed like a great place to raise a family and there was a lot to do, from historical sites to carnivals and parks.
Since there was a lot to see I had a busy few days. My first day focused on walking around Buda Castle and the Castle District. The Royal Palace was quite a sight to see as were the exquisite walls and statues around the district.
I stopped by Matthius Church, which is also known as the Coronation Church.
And the Citadel, which had more statues and a beautiful view of the city.
Day 2 focused on Pest, where I visited the Great Synagogue, which is the largest synagogue in Europe and the 2nd largest in the world.
Outside, in the garden named for Raul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of about 35,000 Hungarian Jews during the World War II, is a memorial called the Tree of Life. The weeping willow tree symbolizes a reversed menorah and sits on a mass grave for thousands of Jews. The Hebrew inscription at the top of the archway asks “Is there a greater pain than mine?” Each of the 4,000 leaves bear the name of a family that died in the Holocaust.
I also walked through Heroes’ Square.
I had one last stop that I wanted to see on my way back to the hostel. I was so happy that I was fitting everything in on my second day as I was planning on doing a caving excursion on my last day in Budapest. Every time I’d crossed back and forth in this city I saw this amazing monastery that was built in the side of a mountain. It wasn’t in my guide book, so I saved it for last as I had no idea what it was or if I could even go inside.
It turned out that there were quite a few tourists around the monastery. We couldn’t go very far inside, but people walked around where they could. For me it was awesome to see a monastery that was literally built in a cave. Everything was going really well until I left. I was so busy looking at the pictures I’d take on my camera instead of watching where I was going and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. There was one of those really old drains in the ground and I stepped with my foot half in/half out of it and rolled my ankle. I was so embarrassed, especially since there were quite a few people around, so I jumped up quickly and hobbled off. I found an isolated bench and I sat and cried it hurt so bad. I gingerly made my way back to the hostel and put some ice on it. I really didn’t want to cancel my caving adventure for the next day because it sounded like a great time and I’d already gone to the ATM to take out the extra money for it.
The next morning, my ankle was feeling a little better, but was still swollen and I didn’t want to push it so cancelled my caving adventure. I was pretty sure at that point that I didn’t need to go to the doctor and that it would be ok if I rested for a couple days. Since I was disappointed and had extra money that I didn’t want to have to change back to Euros, I decided to pamper myself for the day. I went to a really fancy spa and had a massage. I also had lunch at what was probably the most expensive restaurant I ate at my entire time in Europe.
Whenever I travel to a new country, I make a point to read the basics in my guidebook. I like to know how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and know the cultural taboos. Generally, I’m pretty good at not getting myself into too much trouble, but I have to admit that I made a blunder at the restaurant. After my delicious meal, I got the check and paid. I had large bills after taking money out of the ATM and I hadn’t bothered to break them since I thought it was all going to be spent on my caving trip. So I gave the waiter the equivalent of about $50 for my $25 lunch, and then I sat there, and I sat there, and I sat there. Finally after about 15 minutes, I asked the waiter if he was bringing my change and I could immediately tell from the look on his face that I’d done something wrong. However, he was very polite and brought me the money.
I left a big tip, because while I still didn’t know exactly what I did, I knew it was wrong. When I got back to my hostel I pulled out my guide book and flipped to the money section for Hungary. Turns out it’s incredibly rude to leave the tip on the table. You’re supposed to give the tip to the waiter at the time you pay and if you need change, you’re supposed to ask for it when you give them the money. If you don’t ask for change then it’s understood that any extra is the tip. So not only, did I basically ask my waiter for his tip back, but then I left it on the table, implying that I was horribly dissatisfied with the service I received. No wonder he was shocked, as he’d taken very good care of me during the meal. It was an important reminder for me to always read up on cultural differences to avoid uncomfortable faux pas.
Have you ever committed a major cultural taboo overseas?
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