Meating Other Cultures

by Jonathan Betts, French horn

Anyone who’s been to Europe knows how easy it is to fall in love with the cities there. Sometimes all it takes is a park-side espresso, a vista from a historic landmark, or even just the way the city moves and its people bustle. For me and Budapest, all it took was an audience, a kebab, a train ride, and a bath. This might sound strange, but having a real brush with the culture of a place and its people always leaves a great and lasting impression.

The UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performed in the Liszt Academy of Music to a raucously appreciative audience. By all accounts it was an amazing concert, both personally and for the ensemble. For the first time in four performances, I managed to play the infamous horn solo in Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 without nick or blemish. The audience was appropriately thankful and called the orchestra back to its feet for no less than three encores. That kind of experience instills a rare sense of pride of accomplishment, comraderie, and pins a unique memory in time. This being the final performance of the tour, the orchestra was elated and found its way to high spirits after the show.

The following morning was our only day of sightseeing in Budapest. My small group of friends collected in the lobby and conspired to visit the famous Széchenyi public baths to restore our minds and bodies after such a physically taxing tour and previous evening. But before we could make it to the baths, we needed to find some food along the way. This being Europe – and deep within Eastern Europe at that – we figured a kebab was in order. No one in our group spoke Hungarian, but we had the great luck of meeting a friendly local who navigated us through the process of ordering. She was so friendly that she even helped us pick out side dishes and then she said goodbye after she had finished eating.

In order to make it to Széchenyi, we took the public metro. We all knew that the city of Budapest had a special relationship with music and had a special love for its musicians and composers. It still took by surprise however when we came upon the metro stop Kodály körönd, named for the famous composer and pedagogue. The very fact that Budapest holds its composers in such reverence to call place names after them cemented my love of the city.

The baths themselves were a beautiful set of buildings surrounding a central trio of heated pools ringed with ionic columns painted a Mediterranean yellow. Deciding to soak up as much local culture as possible, we decided to brave the hottest dry sauna any of us had ever seen. The act of breathing became an arduous task and an act of willpower to continue to pull air into our lungs. However, it worked wonders for our states of mind, and we had a couple shared looks of glorious agony with strangers and locals. Hungarians apparently don’t do things in moderation or by short measures. Following the hottest sauna that the human body can withstand, there is a simple bucket filled with ice water to cool the body back down. This came as such a shock to me that I actually yelped out in surprise completely involuntarily. Beyond the sauna, there were dozens upon dozens of baths filled with all sorts of different minerals or acidity levels in order to cleanse and rejuvenate the body. And the whirlpool in the dead middle of the complex was quite a blast as well.

Jon Betts Budapest

I will most assuredly find my way back to Hungary and will attempt to relive my brief encounters with its culture. From friendly assistance from strangers, to a shared love of music, composers, and taking small pleasures in life, I often find my mind dwelling in Budapest and longing to return. It’s always the small things in life that make you appreciate a place or a culture. For me and Budapest, all it took was a concert, a meal, a subway and a bath.

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