After three wonderful weeks in our loving home in Cluj, Romania, we embarked on our “cultural trip.” Every day for five days, we would leave our lodgings at 8am, drive to a new country, explore one of its cities for the afternoon and evening, and get ready to leave again at 8am the next day. It was a rough trip, full of sleep deprivation and wearied travelers, but we ended with countless fond memories.
Our trip began in Budapest. We crossed the border in the afternoon and visited a gas station to stock up on snacks. I was immediately taken aback by its automatic doors and strong air-conditioning—two things that I wasn’t used to experiencing after our time in Romania.
Before finding our hotel, we stopped at the Royal Palace, also known as Buda Castle. Like all of the other grand buildings we visited on this program, it was stunning. We took pictures overlooking the city at multiple levels, and, although we were barred from a portion of the grounds because of a beer festival, we were able to explore much of the castle and learn about its history.
After this visit, we found our hotel and enjoyed a wonderful schnitzel dinner there. The mashed potatoes we had were honestly the best mashed potatoes of the whole trip, and that’s saying something because Romanian mashed potatoes are hard to beat.
Then Professor Ardevan took Ashley and me on a walking tour of the city, pointing out significant buildings and structures. We ended up on the main bridge overlooking the Danube River at night, watching the fireworks being set off at the now faraway beer festival. It was a beautiful moment to be in—the calamity of the cars and pedestrians all around us contrasting against the peacefulness of the large boats just casually floating along the river, people in both ends of the spectrum looking up to see the colored lights.
I remembered reading a book set in Vienna when I was younger, especially the revered manner in which the characters always described the Danube. It fascinated me and made me hope to see it one day. I never expected that day to be so soon, when I was only a nineteen-year-old college student.
We spent a long time standing over the river, and then moved to sit on some benches to the side of it. Ardevan told us stories of how the city was founded, and we listened quietly in the nighttime breeze.
After stopping for late night nourishment (ice cream and fries from McDonald’s…) we returned to the hotel for the night.
We promptly left Budapest the next morning and made our way to Austria, a country special to me because it factors strongly into my heritage.
We stopped first at Schonbrunn Palace, a mammoth building reminiscent of Romania’s Parliament Palace. We went on a very interesting audio tour, pausing in each room to hold the handheld devices up to our ears so we could listen to an explanation in English. We learned a lot about the royal family which was filled with colorful characters, including Empress Elisabeth who shocked people by smoking and rejecting the love of her husband, but considered her slim figure her most valuable asset and weighed herself every day.
After stopping by our hostel, we embarked on the frustrating quest of finding a place to eat dinner. Apparently many restaurants in that area don’t open until 6pm, and us weary travelers struggled to wait over an hour for some food. But, if we hadn’t had to wait for food, we wouldn’t have found the amazing vegan ice cream shop down the street, so it worked out in the end. We also found a very cool record store that put us in a better mood.
We ended up having Italian food for dinner which felt strange in Austria, but we devoured the carbs without a second thought. Our “beer with apple juice” from the restaurant’s bar complemented the food nicely.
After dinner, Ardevan took four of us on yet another lovely multi-hour walking tour of the city. We saw more beautiful buildings and gardens, and even a street fair blasting One Direction. The highlight of the tour was finding a bronze elephant statue that we immediately flocked to for a photo op. Even though our group had been feeling tense from the constant movement, we found ourselves laughing as I hoisted Ashley on its back, Zach lay in its tusks, and Adrian and I posed around it.
We returned to the hostel and had a short wifi break before Ashley and I headed out again. We went to a large outdoor club that was recommended to us, but were taken aback when we were told we couldn’t enter because there was minimum age of 21. We were pretty sure that wasn’t true and that the bouncer had used it as an excuse to refuse us entry. The garden the club was in had two neighboring bar, and even as we entered one of those, our interactions with others continued to feel hostile. We were very confused as to why this was happening. Some people suggested it was because of our distinct American accents, but we still have no clue.
We ended up leaving the gardens and making friends with a German who spoke very good English but pronounced some words in a way that Ashley and I couldn’t understand them. After clearing up the misunderstandings and having him try to teach us some German, we met an Austrian. The German spoke to him in English with a British accent and convinced the Austrian that he was from England. Then after that lie fell through, he spoke German with an Austrian accent and pretended to be Austrian. The result of this night was a crazy mix of languages and accents with both sides teaching each other new words—some real, and some made up, forcing us to try to Google foreign words to fact check each other. Apparently they actually did teach us how to say “sorry” in German (entschuldigung) but we were convinced they were trying to get us to say a swear word. It didn’t matter anyway because we couldn’t pronounce it correctly and just kept saying “aunt chili dog,” which isn’t even close.
Prague, Czech Republic
Early the next morning, we left for Prague. We first visited the beautiful Prague Castle and its gardens and watched a short changing of the guards ceremony. We spent a while taking pictures on the hill and just trying to absorb the grand overlook of the red roofs of the city.
Later that evening, we had a traditional dinner of goulash and local Czech beer, followed by another walking tour of the city. We strolled across the Charles Bridge and saw some more spectacular churches, including one that featured puppets of the twelve apostles who make an appearance at the turn of the hour.
After some souvenir shopping and fireworks, we returned to our hotel, our rooms snug with all five girls sharing one bedroom and our entire group of seven sharing one bathroom. Ashley and I had every intention of going out to a famous five-story club with some other group members, but we instantly fell asleep the second we sat down.
We didn’t leave Prague until 9am, so we spent a less rushed morning enjoying our breakfast and strolling through the streets.
After a few hours, we arrived in Bratislava. I was incredibly excited to see this country as it is one my ancestors came from, and I actually stayed awake throughout our ride in, taking pictures of the intriguing pedestrian bridges from my window.
We got dropped off near a small park and immediately noticed that this city felt way less populated than the others we visited. It didn’t feel much like a tourist spot. We ran into a restaurant to use its bathroom, and on the way out I tripped and fell into Ashley on the terrace—a great way to start the tour.
Professor Ardevan led us through the old streets and we saw some very cool things including a fair for young children, inspiring monuments and graffiti, and a compass that points out the directions to some major world cities. We walked past a restaurant that was showing professional darts on sports television (I didn’t know that was a thing).
We split up for lunch, and I immediately headed for the hole-in-the-wall eatery that I noted on the way in, one with a huge sign boasting traditional Czechoslovakian ice cream. I got a twist cone and an amazing slice of pizza with cheese, broccoli, and prosciutto. Ashley joined me, and when she went inside to get a cone, she struck up a conversation with the worker who happened to have gone to college in New Jersey. After I went back inside for a second cone, he followed me outside for his break, and we spent the rest of our time talking in between bouts of rain about differences between the countries and what it’s like to live abroad.
We found the rest of the group sitting at tables in the center of a square of food and souvenir stands. We enjoyed some freshly made lemonade and searched through the small market.
After our lovely lunch, we went back to the bus and found out that our almost three-hour stop had been too long—we were only supposed to have spent an hour there!
Budapest, Hungary: Round 2
We immediately drove from Bratislava back to Budapest that evening and made it in time for dinner. We lounged in the wifi-equipped lobby for a while so we could all check in for our flights, and then decided to go to a street of bars that Devon’s cousin recommended to us.
We found a very crowded, really fun club that played a lot of alternative rock instead of the usual hip hop, and Ashley and I ended up dancing with a group of Brazilians who were very friendly and welcoming. We formed a big circle and were all copying each other’s dance moves, and at one point we all linked arms and snaked throughout the bottom floor as one long line. I read an article after the trip that said Brazilians are known for their partying and ability to have fun, and after that night I can definitely bear witness.
We stopped for some Hungarian shoarma on the way home and returned to our hotel with enough time to pack and prepare for our early departure, even after spending some last minute group bonding time dancing around the lobby. Ashley and I spent the rest of the night trying to stuff all of our clothes, shoes, and souvenirs into our bags and staying as far away as possible from the nearly fifty bugs we found on our ceiling and on our bed.
We returned to the lobby just before 5am to meet our taxi, and after a sleepy ride to the airport, we walked in and couldn’t find a British Airways line anywhere. Then we realized that we were so early that our line wouldn’t open for another hour. Devon and Becky met us at the airport not too long after, and we got in line at about 6:20am.
For some reason, the line moved incredibly slowly, and by the time we checked our bags and ran to the hefty security line, we were sure that we would miss our 8am flight. Somehow, we made it through in good time, and when we got to our gate, boarding had been delayed and was just beginning.
The flight to London was short and hard to come to terms with. It felt like we were all taking an excursion somewhere as part of the program and would regroup in Cluj in a few days. The four of us all managed to lose each other in the circus that is international transfers at Heathrow, leaving me to have a lonely breakfast and, a few hours later, my last legal purchase of beer for a couple of years.
The long flight home was spent in an only half-awake daze, and I couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything, whether it was my journal, my new book about Romania, or the airplane movies.
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Customs was a new experience for me since all we had to do in Romania was show our passport. I was nervous filling out the arrival form because I wasn’t sure how specific the responses were supposed to be, and I didn’t want to get tackled by security. One portion asked if I brought any food home so I wrote down “yes, potato chips” and that got several officers laughing.
Finally, I made it past all the checkpoints and was reunited with my family, not quite ready to return to regular life but ready for a good (multiple) night’s sleep.