I had spent almost all of the forty-eight hours I’d been in Budapest in a fevered haze, eating practically nothing, unable to keep down what I did eat, barely getting out of bed, not even leaving the hostel since I came back from an ill-fated, lost-making walk I’d decided to take while the illness was still descending. I had really thought my trip was over, that I would have to spend a lot of money I didn’t have to change my flight home, that I would have to lose three more weeks in Europe because I was clearly dying.
But by the evening of the second day, I was finally feeling stable enough to go out into the world. I left the hostel and headed a few blocks to the nearby major street, Rákóczi. And that’s where I noticed something unusual was happening. The street was filled with people–no cars. Families and large groups of friends, young people, old people, everybody was out in the street. A celebratory air, not a protest. Everybody walking in the same direction: to the Danube.
I tried to ask a few people what was happening, but no one spoke any English, and I had about ten words of Hungarian. I bought some pumpkin seeds, spooned into a paper cone by an old woman, and the only way she could communicate the price to me was to grab my hand, turn my palm up, and write the numbers with her finger. It had been so long since I’d had any physical contact with another person that I shivered at her touch. I ate the seeds one at a time, sucking the salt off and playing with the fragments of shell that got stuck between my teeth with my tongue, being careful not to eat too much or too fast, given the tenderness of my stomach.
I walked along the right side of the street, trying to stay out of the densest part of the crowd so I could get a better view and figure out what was happening. I approached the bouncer at a casino, a giant of a man with a long, slick ponytail and a sharp suit. “Beszélsz angolul?” I asked. “Yes, a little,” he said, the standard answer of Europeans who speak flawless English. “What is this?” I asked, gesturing to the mass of humanity. He pondered for a minute, trying to decide on the right word. “It’s a fire party,” he said.
Well, of course.
I walked the rest of the way down to the river and found myself a perch on the steps alongside a huge bridge, nestled up against a stone wall, plucking seeds into my mouth and drinking from a bottle of water I’d brought with me. It felt like all of Budapest, all of Hungary, was packed in around me, but I’ve always been one to find comfort, not anxiety, in a crowd. I felt safer and happier than I had in days, since I’d left my friends behind in Berlin and struck out on my own.
And then the show began.
To call these fireworks is to completely undersell it. The bridges were glowing with strings of lights. Lasers flashed through the air, and actual torches were lit on the bridge. (I remember there being people dancing with these torches, but my journal doesn’t mention it, so this is probably a trick of memory.) The pounding soundtrack, as I described at the time, “alternated gothy techno with gothy classical.” And the fireworks themselves, every color, every configuration, were neck-breakingly, jaw-gapingly overwhelming. They were fired off from both sides of the river, deafening explosions that lit up the whole city with an eerie, smokey red. It felt like they went on forever, and even when the grand finale was over and the applause died down, I just wanted more.
This is one of my favorite travel stories because it illustrates the important lesson that the best experiences are the ones you don’t plan for. I hadn’t intended to see the fire party–it wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook I had with me. And if I had planned to see it, I would have missed it. This was the celebration for St. Stephen’s Day, a huge national holiday in Hungary on August 20. But this story takes place on August 31. The party had been delayed for more than a week due to extreme flooding that summer. And even if I had planned for it and it had happened as scheduled, I couldn’t have planned to be so sick and miserable for the two days prior, thus making the experience even more revelatory and intense. Everything happened entirely accidentally, and there was no other way for it to be so perfect.