My first impression of Budapest is that the city has a soul, I’ll explain soon.
Since the pandemic started in 2020, I’ve been traveling extensively for reasons I’ll get to shortly.
I’m lucky my parents raised my sister and me with the spirit for adventure. We’ve both traveled extensively since leaving the family sailboat behind us.
When the pandemic came to town, I hunkered down for a bit but made a clear decision that I would try and make the best use of the time, and I felt like I’d accomplished this.
I decided to sell our subscription box business that had turned tumultuous after COVID hit our supply chain. Made worse when a key employee, who developed a drug addiction, overbought several million dollars of inventory putting us in a tight spot. He would later overdose and be dead within a year of letting him go. This is the stuff they don’t teach in case studies at Harvard Business school.
But I decided I would make the most of the situation that the pandemic has caused.
I got my kids from zero to advanced SCUBA certification while they visited me in Puerto Rico in the summer of 2020. Sold a novel with John Mann that turned into the Finn X series, and re-committed to getting our community back and energized at SOFREP, a business I love because we can see the difference we make in delivering news that is biassed only towards getting at the truth, a sometimes hard and jagged pill to swallow.
America is a tough place to be these days. When we’re not tearing each other apart, we’re trying to cancel each other.
So, tired of the b******, I sold my house in Puerto Rico fully furnished, moved what was left into a storage unit in Hoboken, and hit the road. Colombia was first. I’ve got a friend of a friend in Bogota and decided to spend a few weeks working remotely. Then Mexico City, which I fell in love with. I’ve been to Mexico many times, but Mexico City is very different. It’s got New York energy, and the food and people are amazing. I’ve written about both for SOFREP previously.
I liked it so much that I rented a place as a base of operations for a year. Went to Capri, Italy the summer of 2021. Kyiv to see my friends at the Fedoriv agency, Lisbon after that, Zurich, and then Barcelona before heading back to Mexico City.
To Budapest, Day One
Back to Budapest, Hungary.
The city’s soul hangs thick in the air like damp London fog and is the kind of collective energy that exudes from a population that has been through tremendous hardship and come out the other side a survivor. It’s something you can’t get without going through the struggle.
It’s clear to me that Hungarians are a resilient bunch and have made quite an impact on the rest of the world, and most will tell you all about it in a charming way.
Jerry Seinfeld, Billionaire George Soros, and the legendary Paul Newman were all of Hungarian descent.
I took a direct flight from Zurich with my girlfriend, and in just over an hour, we touched down at Budapest International airport.
The one great thing about visiting in the winter is you get to see the city like a local. Even though there were tourists here and there, it was largely locals that flocked to cafes and the streets of Budapest.
My girlfriend’s dad picked us up at the airport and took us to one of the trendy rooftops for dinner and drinks (beware the pear spirits!) with an incredible view of the Pest side of the city.
Note: Buda and Pest are two distinct parts of the city. Almost two cities in one.
It was hard for me to wrap my head around at first, but I decided to just go with it as I sipped a fresh cold and frothy Dreher beer, looking out at the beautiful city of Budapest (on the Buda side).
After some great dinner conversation, I learned a bit more about the Hungarian struggle, especially during the second world war. The politics and a revolution that left long-healed scars on Budapest.
The sun was now long gone, and snow started to fall in big leafy flakes over the Danube, which divides the city into two parts.
“You have a few Hungarian fans.” my girlfriend told me. “Really?” I replied, a bit shocked. “I had no idea.”
The thought that my writing can touch people outside of America is humbling.
I have a confession to make. Sometimes I contemplate social media suicide. Just delete every f’ng thing, and get some privacy back. But then I get a message on Instagram from a young Hungarian fan who sees I’m in town and tells me what a difference my books have made in their life. I realize this is what makes social media special. So I put back the digital hangman’s nose for another day.
I’ve never understood people who choose a profession in the public eye and end up despising it.
To borrow from the legend Anthony Bourdain who basically said, “If my job is to shake people’s hands, my fans, and accept their gratitude, I’ll take that over being a line cook at a struggling restaurant in New York, City.”
My version of the struggling restaurant was the grinder of a neverending war on terror that still chugs on after the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan and has left a trail of dead souls, some still living.
So yeah, if I’m not getting shot at and can make a living running SOFREP and creating stories for people, life is good. Getting out short of retirement and spending more time with my family was a great decision.
Budapest, Day Two
My second day in Budapest started with brunch at a trendy cafe and farmer’s market across the street from one of the city’s trendy gyms, Oxygen, where local celebrities, escorts, powerful businessmen, and politicians all sweat together.
I had the Hungarian scramble with sourdough toast, a double espresso, and an orange juice that tasted like Christ himself hand squeezed it. It’s always amazing to me how much better the food tastes in Europe while we poison our own population with pesticides and fake organic back home.
After that, it was off to see parliament and Buda Castle. Both were incredible works of architecture. Buda Castle, high on the hill above the Danube river, is being renovated. This is part of a larger initiative I’m told is being driven by Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
I’ve watched and listened to a few of Viktor’s interviews and speeches. The guy is clearly smart, cares deeply about Hungary, and is center-right.
American and EU media make him out to be a modern-era conservative extremist when his ideas and policies actually make sense to me as an outsider. So, as an outsider, Viktor is alright in my books.
Day Three And Beyond
My third day involved a lot of walking, mostly in the old Jewish ghetto that now houses some of the trendier night spots in Budapest.
You can still see the bullet holes in some of the older buildings, which makes me think of the stick-built houses we built back home to maximize value per square foot but will never stand up to the harsh elements of time the way the old builders made things.
The old stone buildings around Pest are beautiful.
The next day we had lunch at a local Italian place near the center and then off to the city’s largest thermal spa, the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths, one of the largest thermal baths in Europe. The old-timers play chess in the baths, which I’m obsessed with thanks to my college-aged son who got me into chess when he did his first semester at University remote, living with me in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Baths themselves only date back to the early 1900s but they exist all over Europe because of the Romans who seemed to construct lavish bathouses everywhere they went.
The baths were extremely crowded, even for a Sunday. It was mostly tourists but still a great experience, something about natural thermal baths that are really fracking cool. I hope to make it back for a chess game midweek with some of the old-timers.
Budapest has produced some of the best chess players in the world, including the famous Polgar sisters, who have dominated since their parents raised them as chess phenoms.
Video: Judit Polgar beats former World Champion Garry Kasparov
Getting around the city is fairly simple. Public transportation is amazing. Entry is easy at most places, and masks are mostly up to individual choice and risk tolerance. I was only asked for my vaccine card twice, once at a crowded bar in an old ruined building and at the city baths. Life mostly goes on in Budapest post pandemia, and people are left to decide for themselves, strangely like an America of the past.
After the baths, it was back to our apartment and Chinese take-out, surprisingly good.
My plan was to work from home while my girlfriend does some admin errands and catches up with her great-grandmother the rest of the week. There are plenty of cafes and bistros that allow digital nomads in Budapest. Most are on the Pest side of town in the trendier hipster neighborhoods near the old Jewish ghetto.
The last thing on my list while I’m here is to visit the Museum of Terror (I’ll have a separate post on this). The museum, I’m told, documents the Hungarian geopolitical struggle through major conflict, including the Revolution of 1956.
Even though the Hungarians were on the German side of WWII, when you study history, they really weren’t given a chance by the Nazis. The latter kidnapped people and basically forced Hungary’s hand to be on the German side. So like Poland, Hungary was caught in the middle with no good choices as the Soviet Union was keen to put the yoke on Hungary as well.
One thing is clear to me, Hungary, the country, and the people are a special breed, and I’m fortunate to have visited for the week.