One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to study abroad while I was in college. The summer after my junior year, my program had an opportunity to go to Hungary for an International Business course, and one other course of our choosing. Up until this point, I had only ever been to England and Ireland (Mexico and Canada don’t count) and that was with my high school. Highly structured and definitely no foreign language experience needed. It was a summer of firsts for me. There was 7 of us who went, 6 from the main Central Washington University campus, and me, from the Edmonds campus. The program was a month long, and we’d be studying at the University of Pécs (Paych). I would just be 21 by the time we left, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a summer! And when was the last time you’ve heard of someone going to Hungary? What a random place to study. Right up my alley.
We had one meeting before we left to meet the other kids going, and learn a little bit about what to expect. Basically, as long as we didn’t end up in the hospital or jail, we would pass. After all, the most important part of doing business abroad is being able to live in a different country and culture without issues, right? We were to fly into Budapest and we would be shuttled down to the town of Pécs, about 30k from the Croatian border and the 5th largest city in Hungary. As it was summer, I also decided that since I was already in Europe, I might as well make the most of it and see a few other countries as well. Originally, I was supposed to meet up with my boyfriend at the time, but we broke up right before I left so I would have to go it alone.
The night before I left, I went to the Nickerson Street Saloon with some close friends, knowing I was going to be gone for most of the summer. We watched an amazing lightning storm while having a few farewell drinks. It was beautiful and definitely a night I’ll remember the rest of my life. The next day I was up early to make the 20+ hour trip to Hungary. I flew through Amsterdam where my flight was delayed due to more thunderstorms and severe weather, before finally making my way to Budapest. Once there, I found a couple of the girls in my class and we sat together, waiting for our luggage and everyone else. It was my first (but certainly not last) experience trying to sleep sitting up in the airport. It was also the first time I’d ever had my luggage not arrive with me. In all, 4 of the 7 of us left the airport without it (always bring extra stuff in your carry-on. Showering and having to put on the same dirty clothes is the worst!).
Once we had everyone, we were on our way to Pécs! We were all exhausted and we slept most of the way, stopping only for a quick dinner at a charming restaurant in the middle of nowhere. I had never had Hungarian food before, and having been a picky eater all my life, I was rather wary. But the food ended up being pretty good, if a bit heavy. Finally we made it to Pécs, just as a summer lightning storm was beginning. I was definitely sensing a theme here. Being close to the Mediterranean and the middle of June, it was hot and humid. We checked into our pseudo-hotel and everyone passed out (most of us in our clothes).
|Our first week, getting to know each other!|
Our first day there, we met our hosts and were given a tour of the city. Pécs, and Hungary in general, had been conquered by many different empires. It was settled by Romans thousands of years ago, later the Huns, then it was part of the Ottoman Empire for a few hundred years before becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and eventually the Soviet Union. You can still see much of the remnants from these time periods, with mosques converted to cathedrals, Turkish baths everywhere and old communist buildings scattered throughout. Hungary has a wealth of natural hot springs and the Turks took full advantage, as do the Hungarians of today. It’s also a large producer of wine and we got to do a wine tasting of different local and regional wines (at 21, this was far less classy than it would be for me now) (cuz I’m classy now). We got our bearings, learned which buses to take, and where our school and classes would be. Our second class was Hungarian language. Turns out, it would be very beneficial as no one speaks English.
Classes started on Monday and would go for four weeks. We’d have Fri-Sun off and most weekends we had different cultural activities planned. The first weekend we spent exploring the outer areas of Pécs. We went to an old castle and got to walk around the ramparts and learn what medieval Hungary was like. After that, we went to a traditional Hungarian home and watched a lady weave traditional Hungarian textiles. Aside from porcelain, this is one of their biggest exports. By the end of the day, my shoes were hurting so bad I took them off and walked around barefoot. Once it started raining, I had many Hungarians pointing at my feet and looking at me strange. Crazy American tourist!! We also spent much of that weekend getting to know our new home and seeing the sites of Pécs.
Since Hungary doesn’t speak much English (as a former Soviet country, if they speak anything besides Hungarian, it’s Russian) we had a local girl who was our age show us around. Her father was an English teacher at the University so she was able to help translate. After our second week of school, we’d spent much time with her and she invited us to her family home in Balatongyörök, on Lake Balaton, one of Europe’s largest lake. It was a 3 hour train ride from Pécs, and so worth it. The weather was hot and the lake looked like anything you’d see in a tropical paradise, with turquoise blue waters and white sandy beaches. Our first order of business was of course, a swim. As I ran to the water, I stepped on a bee and got stung on the bottom of my foot. Man that hurt! But the water was lovely and soothing. There was also a water slide I just had to go on. While running up the stairs, I managed to fall and twist my ankle, the same one with the bee sting. Needless to say, my foot was quite swollen that night. Fortunately for me, the next day we went to a natural hot spring Lake Hévíz (the worlds second largest thermal lake) where we lay in the sun, got massages, and generally just floated around, relaxing.
Part of the deal for Judy (our interpreter) getting to take us to the lake for the weekend was that she had to show us some historical sites. So the next day we went a couple towns over to Keszthely to see the Helikon Palace located there. It was truly impressive and of course, my favorite part was the library. Stories and stories of books! It was awesome! Later we stopped at a pizza place for dinner and I ordered a pepperoni pizza. What I would eventually learn (though it took several tries) is pepperoni in Hungarian is peppers. If you want pepperoni, you have to ask for salami. Up until this trip, I didn’t like peppers, but Hungary is known for theirs, and there is definitely a reason why. To this day I still love peppers and am always on the lookout for ones similar to what I ate in Hungary.
|Riding the ferry across Lake Balaton with our Hungarian hosts!|
The last thing we saw on this trip were some ancient Roman ruins. We took a ferry across the lake which was a lot of fun. There wasn’t much to see, but this was the first time I’d seen any Roman ruins, so I was impressed. Then we had to head back to Pécs for school the next day. By this time, and being the picky eater that I was at the time, I was over Hungarian food. So I asked my parents to send me food from home. It didn’t take long to arrive, so with my new found love of peppers, I decided to make everyone in my class fajitas! We walked to a nearby Spanish restaurant and asked them for tortillas, and I went to the market to buy the rest of the food needed. But what I always forget is that while I love spicy food, not everyone does. I ended up buying the spicy peppers and causing one of my classmates extreme discomfort, to the point where he missed part of school the next day (years later I would run into him at work and exclaim “oh my gosh, I almost killed you!” which upon reflection is maybe not the best thing to say to someone).
For our third weekend in Hungary, we went to Budapest. This is the heart and soul of Hungary and probably one of my most favorite cities in Europe. During Soviet rule, Hungarians would siphon cable from nearby Austria which led to a great Western influence on its culture. In 1957, there was a minor revolt against their communist rulers, who decided that it wasn’t worth fighting back. Since then Hungary enjoyed a freedom most other communist bloc countries didn’t achieve until the 90’s. This is especially apparent in laid back Budapest. We visited a fairytale castle, the House of Terror (the police station where the revolt occurred), Fisherman’s Bastion and the Parliament building. The city is easy to navigate and is home to one of the oldest subway systems in Europe, which makes getting around a breeze. It’s also very inexpensive and if you’re ever looking for a city to make your home base while traveling around Europe, Budapest fits the bill wonderfully. Just don’t drink the water! This was my first experience with traveler’s sickness. Fortunately, once I stopped brushing my teeth with the water from the sink, it went quickly away. But it was touch and go for awhile there.
The last weekend in Pécs was by far the hottest, and we’d had some hot days during our stay. Temperatures were well over 100F (38C) degrees and we had to walk to Pécs Lake over an open field. I couldn’t remember ever being that hot. But at least the lake was cool and refreshing. We were also supposed to have a farewell dinner at a winery outside of Pécs, but there was a concert in Zurich, Switzerland I really wanted to see that night, so I left early, my first time traveling alone. It was such an amazing trip that really encouraged my passion for traveling which still lives on to this day.