Baths, Beers and Broken Luggage

My family puts sour cream on everything. Tacos, roast beef, soup – you name it and I can guarantee we have smothered it with white bliss at our dinner table at some point. This was my first clue I would fit in well at a Hungarian university. The second clue came at a Laurier International information session I attended for prospective exchange students in November 2009.

I had not been overtly aware of Laurier International in my two years at the Brantford campus. I had heard whispers of the organization when Laurier’s offices in China opened, as well as numerous other transcontinental endeavours that the university was diving into. Still, my first personal encounter came when I opened my email account to find a highlighted message about an information session for the upcoming round of exchange programs. I still cannot articulate what motivated me to go to that information session, however I do know what motivated me to stay: a chance to see Europe in more than a two-week vacation.

In January 2010 I opened up a new WebCT portal from Laurier International and began my application process. Monotonous paperwork, including professional and academic references and many transcript request forms, littered my apartment floor for three straight weeks. My parents were thrilled and already discussing the possibility of changing the house locks. My boyfriend, Thomas, languished at the thought with a fake smile plastered to his face.

In March I left the dinner table, which was surprisingly not covered with sour cream, to check my student email for any word on the exchange spot. I think my family and friends got the hint when I danced up the stairs of my parents’ house jumping with sincere ecstasy, cradling my laptop in my arms. Rounds of hugs and congratulations followed, as well as a serious sit-down with Thomas to discuss our options as a couple. To my pleasure I found flights are easier to book with a travel agent and a headstrong father, luggage does go on sale after peak season, and boyfriends can be supportive.

Five months later I found myself on a 13-hour flight to my homeland – Budapest – with a layover that made me fear for my luggage. My cousins, Akos and Lazi, were waiting for me at the airport with open arms and as much English as they could muster. They and the rest of my family remaining in Hungary live three hours outside Budapest. This kept me from renting a literal hole in the wall and saved me a trip to Ikea to furnish my miniature one-room version of an apartment.

A week after arrival I had met a Belgian girl, two sweet-hearted Irish mates, four ‘Kiwis’ from law school in New Zealand and an array of other exchange students.

The advantage to doing a student exchange compared with study abroad is a network of students and an email list to guide you through. There is also a student network that runs similarly to the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union.

Attending pub-crawls, parties and an orientation day and finding a Hungarian cell phone filled my first week in Budapest. Finding a cell phone should have been the hardest part of my week. But after my grandparents drilling basic phrases into my head for 20 years, it became the easiest. By the time my hangover and I were racing to class the following week, I knew the person in pursuit next to me and had someone to hold the elevator door for me whether they spoke English or Hungarian.

Now, 11 weeks and 47 new Facebook friends later, I am a full-fledged Hungarian exchange student. But the process wasn’t overly difficult. Corvinus University, similarly to Laurier, has an online registration system and webmail accounts for each student. Their version of WebCT is slightly more slightly more confusing since there is no obvious English option. With the help of some Hungarian language courses and a quick tutorial on Google Translate I seem to have mastered this art. The easiest part about Corvinus’ academic life is the lack of textbooks. Perhaps due to Hungary’s deficiency of trees over six feet or their abundance of online databases, but the professors at Corvinus University have no place for textbooks and course packs in their lecture halls.

This lack of textbooks could easily be because this particular university is run similar to a Canadian high school. Structured class times are comparable to ‘periods’ and attendance is mandatory. Professors expect students to be dressed with paper and pen – laptops are highly frowned upon. Most of my lectures are just missing a cubbyhole and a nametag to take me back a few years.

We students let loose and feel like adults again after class. A regular week consists of beers, bars and something resembling Thai food every day ending in “y.” My biggest challenge these days is remembering the exchange rate of Canadian Dollars to Hungarian Forint while under the influence. That said, drinking beer and spirits at some of the most top-notch clubs around town is cheaper than drinking water. I have also learned if you can impress the bartender with ten years of Hungarian dance training, there will be free rounds for at least an hour.

When we feel rather adventurous there are many bus stations to take us to different cities. So far my travels have included Bratislava, Prague, and Istanbul. I reckon leaving the warmer climates for the end of next semester means I can work on my tan before coming back to Canada full time. The surrounding cities have all given me a new understanding of world cultures. Europe is not as behind in times as I suspected as long as you know to respect a particular city’s culture.

For instance, when in Istanbul, pants are highly recommended for women. Skirts close to the knee should not even cross your mind. Let my experiences being gawked at and treated like a sideshow display be your guide. Budapest has proven a charming town after visiting some more prominent tourist cities. The capital combines an abundance of architecture and old-world charm with chic nightclubs and an array of indie pubs. All this can be found in the tourist hubs, but the pace in Budapest is more forgiving to an inexperienced traveller such as me.

By far my most cultured and sensible experience has been the baths of Budapest.

Thermal baths are a staple of Central and Eastern Europe and are a cornerstone of their history and tourism. They are a staple of the community I come from. I have heard my grandparents and even my father praising the healing and relaxation these massive expanses of shallow water provide. They are filled with thermal mineral water that flows beneath the surfaces of Budapest. Their varying degrees of heat as well as the equivalent of a swim up bar make them a great way to prepare for the night ahead or recover from the previous night. Like I said – cultured and sensible. Despite my extensive research into the thermal baths I was more than taken aback at their beauty. Even more amazing, was the banana hammocks left, right and centre in the baths. I may never easily erase the image of a reasonably good looking man strip down to a Speedo and become “that guy in the pool” from my mind.

Despite seeing some of the wonders of the world and discovering the magical transformation of a Speedo – I miss Canadian maple syrup. I long to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs lose in the last period with an expensive import beer and a pile of Canadian bacon in front of me. Surely I cannot imagine anything more glorious – until living with my parents for a six-week Christmas break and deficient public transportation wears me down and I’m reduced to craving a bowl of something covered with sour cream.

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