Budapest is where it all came together. When you're moving from city to city every three or four days, time seems to blur and everywhere you go starts to look the same: a huge palace here, a river over there, a night in a bar, a day in the park...
See, what I've been realizing more and more is that, physically, most cities are very similar - it's the people and the energy that makes it special. The cities that I like most have this palpable, youthful energy where the cafes are packed at every hour, nightlife runs into the morning, and there is an undeniable underlying passion running through the city, which can manifest itself through the local street art, food, or music scene.
Budapest is one of these cities.
There's a new surprise down every street corner - on one side of you there may be a 900 year old palace while the other side is packed with kids blasting Hungarian indie rock at a skate park.
Planning to spend only a few days here before heading to Munich and Switzerland, I quickly realized I'd get way more out of this experience by slowing down, settling in, and staying a while - 9 days to be exact. So, I ditched my plans and decided to embrace slow travel.
A common conversation I've had with backpackers here has been about the grind of packing up and moving cities. And, like me, a bunch of people I met decided to stay in Budapest longer. There's no rushing to see the sights, you can wake up late after all-nighters, waste days away at cafes and parks, and not have to worry about running around, catching planes or trains to the next stop. Although it's only a few extra days, you feel much more like a local - you build much deeper relationships with the people around you and start embracing the little things the city has to offer.
Rather than sounding like a broken record, talking about the amazing people I met, the awesome family dinners we had, the girls I fell for, and the crazy nights in the ruin bars (these are bars set up in abandoned buildings that local artists deck out in recycled art), I'll skip to my last night in Budapest. This is when the magnitude of the whole trip hit me.
There's a perfect spot along the banks of the river where you can watch the sun slowly fall behind the castles across the water in what I think is the most beautiful city at night. Around 7 every night, I'd head there either with some people from the hostel, or I'd end up meeting other travelers there. We'd take beer and champagne, listen to music, and talk about how lucky we were to be there. It was the perfect routine.
Only this time - on my last night - I was all alone. Just me, the river, the sunset, and some tunes. The past week had been a blur - I was pulled in tons of different directions and met so many new people since I had stayed in a couple different hostels. Our nights were spent partying til sunrise, while our days were a constant hungover struggle to make it to lunch (yep, traveling is hard work). But by now, most of the people I'd hung out with had moved on to to different cities and adventures. This complete change of pace on the last night had given me time to remove myslef from the hustle and bustle and decompress.
It was there at that river that I started reminiscing about this whole trip and how unbelievably unreal the whole experience has been so far. It's a surreal feeling when something you've been dreaming about doing for years is actually happening, and actually meets all the high expectations you'd imagined. So, I reminisced about the past and wondered about the future, which all of a sudden seemed so clear - but ultimately, it was all about that moment.
We all know that experiences are fleeting, falling through our fingers as we try to clutch tighter, and there's nothing we can do about it. But, for some reason, that night I felt a sense of contentment watching time slip away.
What I've noticed in myself before, is that when I'm truly enjoying a moment, a sudden acknowledgment that it'll soon be gone fills me with a sense of nostalgia, even in that moment. And when we try to hold onto these moments, but obviously fail, we've already tarnished something perfect.
So, what I'm trying to get at, is that after more than a week of people coming in and out of my life, conversations that will never hold the same meaning, and jokes that will never be shared with the same crowd, I finally realized something. With the city sprawled out in front of me, I learned to embrace these short-lived experiences - which have become all too common while traveling - and accepted that it's really the moments you can't control and keep forever that mean the most in the end.