Despite the chilly February air, I had planned a full day of sightseeing in Budapest and was determined to check off every activity on my list. It was my first solo trip in Europe. I had travelled alone on a day trip to Luxembourg before and spent a few weekends by myself in London, but this was a 14-day journey across Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, and Czech Republic. It required 2 flights, 3 trains, and 13 nights of sleeping in hostel dorm rooms. I viewed it as the ultimate challenge to my courage and independence. It was my European coming-of-age adventure, and Budapest was my first stop.
The morning had started off with a 2-hour walking tour around the Buda area. My tour guide, a Budapest local in her late 30s, was full of knowledge. I was very satisfied with her history and architecture lessons and strolled happily toward the subway station, towards my next destination.
As I turned the corner onto a busy sidewalk, I bumped into a slim man in his 40s, with light brown hair and a tanned complexion.
“Sorry.” The Canadian in me instinctively responds.
“Do you know how to get to the shopping street?” He spoke English with a hint of accent, but not strong enough to give his true nationality away.
“Do you know where the shopping street is?” He stepped towards me. I did a mental check of my belongings, concerned that this conversation was a coy for pick pocketing.
“Um…” Although I was slightly worried, I still wanted to be helpful. Plus, I was pretty certain that we passed by the shopping area on the walking tour. “Go to the intersection and turn right.” I pointed in the direction I came from.
“Thank you” He smiled, planting a kiss on the top of my right hand before walking away.
I hurried away in slight surprise. As I waited on the subway platform, with all of my belongings safely in my purse, I wondered if it was custom in Hungarian culture to thank a female stranger by kissing her hand. I also hoped that I had given him the right directions.
When I returned to my hostel that night and proudly announced to Alex, the hostel owner, that I had given someone directions on my first day in town, it was him who pointed out the peculiarity in a European-looking man asking for directions from an Asian girl, especially in a homogenous country like Hungary. When I revealed that he kissed my hand as a gesture of thanks, Alex announced that I had been duped – the man was likely a local who simply wanted to chat up an ethnic girl and kiss her hand.
I can’t deny the likely truth in that conclusion, and I can’t say I wouldn’t feel a little used if that were indeed true. Having grown up in a richly diverse country like Canada, I’ve learned to see everyone as similar in some ways yet unique in others, but I sometimes forget that while I’m accustomed to being surrounded by different ethnicities, others might not be.
Today, nearly 8 months later, I’ve come to view the incident as a reminder that traveling is an exchange of cultures: sometimes, the very people we want to learn about are just as interested in us.