I was working in the publications office at a NYS college in 1994 when I was first introduced to the idea of going to Budapest for New Year’s Eve. The woman who cleaned our offices was from Poland, and when I mentioned I was of Hungarian descent, she told me, “You must go to Budapest for New Year’s Eve. It is the best.”
The idea stayed in my head as a remote possibility of what I might do “someday.” Fast forward to 2003, sixteen years ago. This was the week that changed my life. I had met a Hungarian guy about a year and a half before that, who worked near my job at Columbia University in New York City. When he went back to live in his country in December 2003,I was invited to visit him and his family during my Christmas/New Year’s break. Serendipity? Or the power of intention?
I left New York City the evening of December 29th and flew directly to Budapest, arriving early on December 30th. My friend (and brother from another mother), who I call Cookie, greeted me at what was then called Ferihegy Airport (now Ferenc Liszt International Airport), and drove us to meet up with his former college roommate, Janos—who eventually became another brother to me in Hungary.
That first day I was groggy while Cookie and Janos toured me around Budapest. From Hero’s Square and the City Park (Varosliget)where we saw the ice skating rink by Vajdahunyad Castle , we headed down to Vorosmarty Ter, a walking area of shops and restaurants. They were happy to show me the “MACK-dunnald”(heavy emphasis on MACK to make the name unrecognizable) and the image of Ronald McDonald saying, “Celebrate your birthday with me,” in Hungarian. We had dinner a bit further down the road at the Szaz Eves Etterem –the 100 Year Restaurant. My luck, the “100 year” part of the name turned out to describe the length of time one will wait for the food to be served, or at least it seemed that way to my jet-lagged brain.
It was the custom to go to the horse races on New Year’s Eve, so we headed the next evening to the Hippodrome across from Keleti train station on Kerepesi ut. It was the last night that races would be held there before the Hippodrome would shut down and eventually be replaced by the Arena shopping mall. In a small room above the yellow chipped-paint covered stands we bought mulled wine (forralt bor) in plastic cups and stood by the chain-link fence surrounding the track to watch the horses while a marching band of older men in gray uniforms played what sounded like old songs from Communist days.
New Year’s Eve in Budapest is akin to a Mardi Gras celebration. Costumed people, live music, fireworks, drinking on the street, long cardboard horns that people use to make noise, but more likely to hit other revelers on the head with.
Cookie wore a black curly wig, a satiny blue NY Yankees jacket (which thrilled Russian passersby immensely), and large gaudy fake diamond jewelry with glasses in the shape of 2004. I had my horn and donned a pink tinsel wig. We spent the night walking around the city—past people wearing Viking helmets and court jester hats. They hit us on the head with their horns, and we did it right back. We joined people who were dancing to a live band playing songs from the ‘60s—from Beatles tunes to Hungarian rock and roll. We only stopped moving long enough buy more boiled wine from women with crock pots on folding tables along the street. We knew it was midnight when, as we walked past the Opera,the Hungarian national anthem began playing on a nearby car radio. It was 2004 in Hungary, six hours before the ball would drop in Times Square. Within an hour, the city was all but empty, with a mess of broken bottles strewn throughout the open plazas (which were cleaned up the next morning). Cookie and I walked around looking for a bar to stop in to have a proper drink, but the city was ready to sleep. At last, in the cold empty streets of Pest, the lights of an Irish bar beckoned. We went in, ordered a bit of liquid warmth and chatted with a group of English-speaking people from the U.S., the UK and Ireland. Staying just long enough for one cocktail, we headed out to find our car.
That trip ushered in more than just a new year; it opened the door to what became a second home to me—the country my great-grandparents left to start a new life in upstate New York. I returned to Budapest that summer to stay six weeks with Cookie and his family, and have returned for an annual visit to spend time with both my brothers ever since, which has led to many adventures, including a wine importing business and a year of teaching in Kecskemet. More on all that in due time.