Dec.1-7, 2008

We were waiting in the van while our driver, Attila (yes, like the Hun) collected our press packs from inside the Danubius Heath Spa Resort Sarvar, Hungary. Jan, one of the three travel agents with whom I was traveling, remarked from the front seat: “Watch that guy, he’s moving the ladder without getting off it.” I looked up from my Blackberry and sure enough, a burly, grey hair fellow in a puffy winter jacket was hanging Christmas lights around the front portico while balanced on a narrow, wooden step ladder. Unlike the stainless steel ones that Bob used, this ladder was a simple pair of wooden triangles connected by skinny rungs; it was missing the flat cross bar at the top and, in fact, the long sides extended far higher than the last rung. The worker wiggled across the driveway like a circus performer on stilts performing with a long string of lights in hand. He stopped, fastened the multicolored connector every sixteen inches or so and restarted his wiggle-walk maneuver on down the driveway to the next spot and the next.

I can’t say why I started giggling; the movement just touched my funny bone. I felt like I was watching a contestant participating in David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks and giggle I did, spontaneously, and it felt good.

Bob had been gone for six months and nine days (but who’s counting?) and, except for some late-night political humor–thanks to TIVO and Letterman, Leno and my favorite, Jon Stewart, giggles were a rarity. This outburst reminded me of Carrie, in Sex in the City, the movie. Like me, she was certain that she’d never laugh again, but her friend assured her: “When you see something funny, really funny, you’ll laugh.” She did and, so did I.

I didn’t travel to Budapest in search of my smile, though it’s a great pleasure to find it even for a short while. I accepted Ruthanne’s assignment to research and write an article (for Travel Agent) about Hungarian health resort spas in and around Budapest in part because I am forever curious about what the next spa is like and in part because I was grateful for the work. Ruthanne had been good enough to send me to St Moritz (heaven on a mountain top and we also got to spend a day at Villa d’Este) and Bordeaux (which I loved) not to mention Napa and San Diego spas and more. While Bob was ill, I had to turn down her invitations and assignments, so I really appreciate that she is still inviting me.

Actually, traveling to Budapest was good for me because it was a bit of a stretch to go somewhere where I didn’t know the language (or very much about the history and culture). Although I flew alone and had to change in Vienna (someday, I’m going to say, non-stop or non- go!) there was a promise of a driver at the other end, plus a host so it really wasn’t much of a challenge.

It was, however, different on a variety of levels. The driver wasn’t actually waiting for me at the terminal, but he had left a message at the information booth that he had been there and had to leave to pick up the others and that I should wait. Knowing that (and having enough cash in pocket to take a cab to the hotel IF I had to, eliminated that stress). When Attila arrived, he took me to the van where I met three travel agents all of us invited on a FAM (familiarization trip) to check out Danubius hotels, not just the three we stayed out, but three others outside the city and about four additional ones in Budapest.

I usually travel with other travel writers and the occasional editor, so one of the valuable experiences on press trips is the opportunity to talk shop, even to connect with a new editor. I met women who became good friends on press trips: Susan in Florence, Barbara in Bermuda, Connie in Phoenix, Carla at the Montage and Patti in Kenmare. Each of them have enhanced my world in various ways and been the mainstay of my travel writing career.

As food/travel writers, we are usually treated like VIPs, though on those occasions when there are rose petals strewn on my table, I feel as if I’m in the realm of Royalty. Travel agents, on the other hand—or at least this trio of agents—aren’t treated to such rarified moments, in spite of the fact that they actually send paying clients to the venues.

This particular group of strangers was really an eye-opener and quite different from being with typical, sophisticated and spoiled travel writers.

Judy, the most elegant, refined and well-traveled 76 year-old, is based in Westchester where she works part time in an upscale agency, after selling her own company. The two other women were home based travel agents—one from New Jersey and one from Brooklyn—with clients from modest means whom they helped travel back to Eastern Europe. Each had lived in Latvia, where one was raised, both had emigrated to the US as adults and both spoke Russian, the language they were taught in school, and were very familiar with Hungarian culture and cuisine. Our young host, a Ukrainian tour operator for Tradesco–which specializes in Central and Eastern Europe– lives in Florida and had just become a citizen in time to vote for Obama. She had met a Russian on the internet and had moved to the states to marry him. Because they all were familiar with the foods and spoke Russian, the language they had each been taught in school, they were able to share culture information with us although they frequently lapsed off into prolonged whispered conversations, leaving Jan and I no clue as to what they were discussing.

It didn’t matter because I was entranced with the pastel painted buildings in the small towns Heviz and Sarvar and appreciated the beauty of Budapest, the palaces, the beautifully decorated St. Mathews, the opera, the grand synagogue, the gracious boulevards and tree-lined Champs Elysees-like, Andrassy Avenue. There’s something about the Belle Epoque and Art Deco 19th and 20th century aesthetic, the Castle, the Parliament that are just so appealing. Drinking coffee in Café Gerbeaud, a patisserie with warm wood paneling and high painted ceilings adorned with gold leaf is as memorable, in Budapest, as it is at Angelina’s in Paris.

And, the spa culture was something that was totally and completely comfortable to me. In Hungary, the swim, sauna and Thalasso medical treatment lifestyle—where thermal springs prevail–is very similar to what I’d experienced in Israel, in France and even at Spa’Deus in Italy. Christina Newburgh, whom I loved and adored, hired mostly Hungarians to work in Italy, not only because she’s Hungarian and could communicate with them but also because they are hard workers, who cooked the foods she loved, appreciated the spa mentality and—not such a minor point—appreciated low pay, at least by American standards.

(As I edit this, in April, 2017, I realize how much a giggle means and how much each travel experience has influenced my enhanced life. )