After two-and-a-half months of travel, we thought we had a handle on Europe. We could automatically convert euros to dollars in our heads, we knew we had to find food before 2 p.m. or wait until after seven, and we were finally resigned to the fact that air conditioning was practically nonexistent, even during a record heatwave.
A couple of weeks in Morocco and Tunisia should’ve been a wake-up call for us, but as soon as we returned to Austria, it felt like we were back on autopilot.
Hungary changed all that.
We were still in Europe, but everything seemed a little off, like Liz Lemon’s Peppy Bismilk on 30 Rock. You can figure things out, but they aren’t quite the same.
The money was the biggest and most immediate change. No more euros — we had to switch to Hungarian forints. (Try dividing everything by 278.73 in your head!) Lots of places didn’t accept credit cards, and ATMs were few and far between, so getting local cash was difficult.
Hungarians speak Hungarian; Ballards do not. Thus far on the trip, we’d been getting by with English, intermediate Spanish and French, and a useful smattering of Arabic. This had served us well in every country we’d visited so far, including Morocco and Tunisia, where most people learn French in school. Hungarians, however, typically learn German as a second language.
Once we’d used guten tag (good day), danke (thank you), bitte (please), ja (yes), nein (no), auf wiedersehen (goodbye, which I only knew from The Sound of Music), and Sprechen sie Englisch? (Please, oh please, tell me you speak English!), we’d exhausted our knowledge of the German language. (We also had fahrvergnügen, but there was no one else in the rental car with us.)
My knowledge of Hungarian cuisine was also limited. I knew goulash (thank you, Sean Connery), chicken paprikash (thanks, Billy Crystal), and, well, that was it.
Our first night in Hungary, we learned about lots of traditional fish and game stews as well as classic Hungarian desserts like sour cherry soup and dobos torta, a seven-layer sponge cake with chocolate buttercream and caramel.
We also learned how gorgeous the countryside is, with 10 national parks and 145 nature preserves in just 93,030 km² (35,920 mi², or roughly the size of Indiana). Hungary is divided into thirds by the beautiful Danube and Tisza rivers, and it’s also home to Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe.
Our Hungarian journey began in Transdanubia as we drove in a horseshoe from Sopron to Győr on our way from Austria to Slovakia. We traveled through lush forests and small villages, mature vineyards and sloped mountains, and it was some of the loveliest scenery we’d experienced so far.
And I learned how to say “thank you” in Hungarian.