The Essence of Place


Living in Budapest for three months taught me a lot about Europe. Sure, we all visit the touristy spots and go on vacations in Europe; many of us have backpacked through Europe and done the hostel thing after college, but how often do you get to live in a European city, to have an address, a daily routine, and a job? That was essentially my life this summer, and the experience went well beyond what I could have picked up from a mere visit.



The city itself is very safe and clean, the people are wonderful, and the prices (for housing and eating) are very cheap for a major city. The culture is great. You can find anything you want in Budapest: great museums, concerts and plays, jazz clubs and live music, ruin bars and cocktail clubs, speakeasies and great restaurants, it’s quite remarkable. Of course you can find that in cities all over America as well, and yet I felt as though this city was fundamentally different.



Perhaps one of the most incredible realizations for me was that people in cities all throughout Europe are, at this very moment, sitting at tables outside restaurants and cafes eating locally sourced ingredients, drinking wine and strolling from spot to spot, often with no entertainment other than their own conversation. That’s the difference between so much of America and so much of Europe, the tone, or feel of how one does culture, entertainment and community. Things in Budapest always seemed unplanned, spontaneous, natural, whereas so much of my time in America is planned, almost somehow forced, and rigid.



For example, in Budapest, there’s very rarely any urgency, to be served at a restaurant, to order or to get to get the check when the meal is done, and the conversations often run beyond the superficial. In America, we’ve heard of the magic of Paris, the parties of Barcelona, the romance of Venice, the history of Rome. But I submit to you that nearly any major yet perhaps overlooked European city will carry with it the je ne sais quoi that European culture exudes. Perhaps the love of food, the walkeable, classic urban deign, the cultural and intellectual roots, the aesthetics of public space and art, the value placed upon family and locality all come together and wash over you in a remarkably soul-cleansing way, reminding you of the priorities in life. Work to live, not live to work, live to eat not eat to live (for those fortunate enough) and share to for the sake of sharing, not for lack of your own.


The great thing about Budapest is that it hasn’t yet been commercialized and commoditized and distilled down to a quasi marketing hook (the Eiffel Tower, the Canals of Venice, the Coliseum in Rome) and subsequently overrun with Disneylandish summer crowds in search of their, “I’ve−been−here−checkmark−souvenir.”



Of course, all great European cities still have their authenticity, perhaps not unlike New York when you venture away from Time Square into actual lived neighborhoods. Venice BARELY does, as the second homes and Air BnB properites displace longtime struggling natives (like in so many cities today); but look hard enough, and around the corner they are there: people living their lives as if to a different drum, a beat and rhythm that I’ve become increasingly drawn to as of late. That authenticity seems to exist closer to the surface here in Budapest, and believe me the irony of saying this is not lost on me as a short term foreign resident, courtesy of the global economy. I may, in some small (or perhaps larger) way, be a part of the Disneyification process as I spend my American dollars on the Hungarian duck liver and post about it on social media.



But here’s perhaps a central message to my life’s written and filmed message, and this is for Americans specifically:

You don’t have to go anywhere to capture this magic. We Americans pay to go to Disneyland so we can walk and stroll and admire the architecture, we construct elaborate malls that look like old towns, again so we can stroll, eat and drink and enjoy company. But we commodify, and monetize those experiences, we think they need to be marketed and paid for, and so we manufacture experiences for ourselves to mimic in some way that feeling of authentic community, space and leisure (that is, after work) time. My point is, we don’t have to try so hard. Indeed, it’s the trying too hard that kills it for me. Why not just create neighborhoods that we can live in and enjoy with public space for free? Why not create spaces where we can enjoy each other’s company without paying for some entertainment of some sort? Why not just focus on living embodied life wherever we are and allow mental, emotional and physical space for that? Europeans seem to do this very well. Us Americans do not.

If you come to Budapest, I would hope some of that mentality would rub off on you just as it has on me, and let us seek to fill our own neighborhoods with life, in conversation, in culture, in spontaneity, in the appreciation of the little things, in leisure and in community.