Monday, June 13, 2005

American Graffiti

Greetings from Budapest, the goulash, graffiti, and paprika capital of the world. If you’re like me, your main impression of the Hungarian capital came from the Michael Jackson concert that was videoed here and played on VH1 about a thousand times in the late 90’s. At the end of the show he got in a space suit, strapped on a jet pack, and flew off the stage and into the night. “Michael Jackson has left the stadium,” a voice intoned. It was only after watching the show a half dozen times that I was able to pick out the moment when Jackson swapped places with a stunt double who performed the trick. But that doesn’t have much to do with Budapest, does it?

My trip from Asia to Europe went like this: Bangkok to Seoul to Paris to Athens. It took about 24 hours. I was killing time at the Paris airport when someone kissed the side of my face from behind. “Hi Brook.” I didn’t have time to fully formulate the short list of possible culprits before I turned around and saw my mom. She was supposed to meet me in Athens but managed to surprise me in France.

Now we’re in Budapest, which as I mentioned has perfected goulash, graffiti, and paprika. Goulash is really good. You can get it as an entree of chopped meat in a lovely sauce or as a soup with vegetables. In either case it’s spiced with paprika.

That leaves the topic of graffiti, which is ubiquitous here. I’m not sure if this is a common Eastern European thing or not (and going to upper crust Vienna and Prague next may not reveal the region’s norm) but it is everywhere.

Budgetarily, Eastern Europe is a good halfway house between Asia and Western Europe. A good meal is $5-$10. That’s a lot more than $2 curry but a lot less than what I’m expecting in Paris or Rome.

Culturally, I am very much in the West and it’s different. It’s the West: the bathrooms have toilet paper but the restaurants don’t have flies. The streets have cars instead of motorbikes, the tourist maps highlights churches instead of wats. There are tourist maps. The tourists are harder to spot because everyone is white so people assume you can understand their language but you can’t.

And, worst of all, I’m afraid I’m “that guy.” That guy is the guy who complains about what I’m about to complain about. Mom and I were shopping at a market today when a voice cut through the peaceful murmur of commerce. It was a loud female voice that sounded American. Her origin was confirmed by a few “hey man”s. Why are these stereotypes always true? Why is the loud, obnoxious person always an American?

What makes me “that guy” isn’t just my disdain for the loud American. My real thought about her and her friends—and as soon as I thought it I hated myself for thinking it—was this: “Who do these punks think they are getting all excited about being in Europe? This is backpacking Disneyland. Try a week in Delhi if you think you’re such a world traveler.”

Some European friends have told me I’ll regret coming here; that Asia, Australia, and South America are better traveling choices. I don’t believe them and I’m certain I’ll have a great time in Europe. But for a moment I couldn’t even let some girl who DJs at a radio station (we all learned a lot about her as we shared the market with her) enjoy herself. That’s a fairly unforgivable traveling sin. The only stereotype worse than the loud American is the I’ve-been-everywhere snob. And in case I’m unknowingly a loud American, I can’t possibly risk being both.


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