Well. Everything about that was awkward.
Tonight as the sun was setting and the snow was falling hard, I went to the thermal baths. It’s a thing here. You kind of have to do it. There are five or six of them around the city, drawing on underground hot springs which are supposed to have healing properties. The Kiraly Baths were built in the fifteen hundreds. By the Turks. Those domes you see above are traditional Turkish bath domes, with inset glass to let in filtered light to the pools beneath. This place definitely looks ancient.
Downright spooky, even, at nightfall in the snow.
I was glaringly out of place from the moment I walked in. All the signs were in Hungarian, which is exactly as it should be, so I didn’t even know what to order. “One..bath? And a…locker?” This is not a tourist spot, which is why I chose it. It also means nobody is particularly interested in showing you the ropes. The woman who took my money just handed me a rubber watch-like thing and pointed to the stairs. “Up,” she said.
So I made it upstairs, but could not figure out how to make the watch-like thing unlock the turnstile. I had to wait for someone coming out of the baths to show me. It was a nice man who took my watch-like thing, and he did exactly what I had done with it, but it worked for him. “Good bath!” he said. Kind of a nice greeting, given the circumstances.
The grandmotherly figure at the lockers Did Not Like The Look Of Me. She grudgingly showed me to a closet-like room where I put on my bathing suit. She came back to lock my door and made all kinds of wild gestures about my hair. “???” I said. “!!!” she said back. Then she shrugged and pointed me down a damp hallway. Tromping down a foreign hall in a swimsuit with February skin, after
a trip two trips to the Sausage Festival, complete with sock lines from just having come in out of the snow, and with hair smushed down from my wool hat, then exploding out into snowy tangles, already felt uncomfortable. And it was chilly.
I rounded the corner and was confronted with two large middle-aged Hungarian men in tiny swimsuits. I’m sure I looked confused, but then, this whole place is co-ed. I followed a bunch of signs in Hungarian around corners and down a set of stairs, through a shower room, through a foot bath, and into the domed pool.
I slid into the spa water as quickly as possible, immediately submerged myself almost to my nose, and surveyed the scene. It was quiet in there, and you could tell from the glass in the dome that half the sky was already dark, and the other half was getting there. The bath was, oh, twenty feet across, and there were eight stone arches holding up the dome. There were two ledges running around the perimeter of the pool, so you could choose your depth accordingly. There were about twenty-five people around the bath, probably fifteen of them men. Someone was standing under the gushing water filling the pool, enjoying the waterfall.
It was not immediately pleasant, what with all the mostly-naked Hungarians staring at each other while seated in a circle and all. There are lots of cultures in the world where public bathing is a big deal. Mine is not one of them. It takes some getting used to. It grew on me, though. I stretched out my legs, and realized that I was floating as if I were in salt water. There are all kinds of minerals in there. A few people were facing outward, and that looked like a good idea, so I flipped over and leaned onto the ledge in a floating cobra pose. I felt everything in the center of my back tense up…and slowly let go. Everything ached, just for a minute, and then it all started melting away. Occasionally I’d flip back around and submerge up to my nose again, survey the scene for awhile, then rotate back to stretching out on the ledge.
There were all types of people in the bath, as you’d expect. The largest percentage, literally and figuratively, were the 55+ year old Hungarian men, in little tiny swimsuits. The oldest was maybe 70; the youngest was twenty-something. I neither won nor lost the swimsuit competition, in that particular bath. That’s always reassuring. Things got to a different level of awkward when I noticed Handsome Hipster Hungarian looking sideways at me. He was exactly the kind of guy you’d see drinking a PBR at Slims and waiting for the music to start. I looked sideways back at him, and then there was a lot of sideways-looking, but hell. If I’m too shy to strike up a conversation with the PBR guys at Slims, then you KNOW I am not about to strike up a conversation in my bathing suit in a thermal pool where everyone is sitting in a circle watching. In Hungarian. What is the protocol for chatting up someone in a giant public bathtub? Seriously?
I lasted for about 45 minutes in there, and I’ll have to say I felt pretty good when I climbed out. It wasn’t until I made it back up to the lockers that I figured out what the grandmotherly lady had been trying to tell me: you are supposed to bring your own towel.
Ohhh. So, well, I got dressed as best I could, and tucked my wet hair into my winter hat, and sailed back out into the snow. And it was snowing hard, indeed.
Since Carolina Gypsy is a judgement-free zone*, and I’ve already told you how awkward my evening was, I might as well admit that I went back to the Sausage Festival. Twice. My basic plan had been Central Market-Sausage Festival-Thermal Baths, but because I left my bathing suit behind, it ended up being Central Market-Sausage Festival-Apartment-Sausage Festival-Thermal Baths-Sausage Festival. I mean, it’s kind of on the way to the baths and back. It’s where all the people are, and all the sausages. After my hot dog with crunchy things for lunch, I stopped by again a couple of hours later for a hot drink in the snow. I got totally sidetracked by my new favorite thing: chimney cake. They take these long snakes of dough and wrap them around wooden cylinders, then roll them flat and bake them on a spit.
When they get dark brown, they slide them off the spit and sprinkle them with chocolate or nuts or cinnamon, and hand it to you with steam still pouring out of the cylinder of cake. Do you see it? Chimney cake!
Annnnnd after the bath I strolled back through the festival on the way home. It was a lot less crowded, due to the falling snow, but there was still music, and still all kinds of food. This time I got some sort of thin Hungarian pizza-like thing, with sausage and onions, and I ate it walking home as I watched it the snow come down.
And I thought about this: part of the fun of travel is feeling awkward now and then. I mean, not always public-bathing awkward, but still. If we’re not feeling awkward, then we’re really not doing anything new, and we probably aren’t learning very much along the way. I’ve said this before, but it’s pretty easy to navigate a typical week at home without leaving my comfort zone very often. And getting out of our comfort zones makes us re-evaluate our perspectives, and stretches our muscles, and makes us more open-minded and adaptable.
It’ll be a while before I go to a co-ed public bath again. I’m not promising the same about the Sausage Festival, though.
* except in the case of fedoras, maxi dresses, club music, bad concert behavior, and certain acts of political nonsense; all of those will result in immediate mocking.