Date: 2 March 2015.
Location: Waiting for the train at Luton, back 'home' in the UK. Well that's weird to say.
…and then we all felt brilliant the next morning and did heaps of really dedicated sightseeing and decided that that was way better than drinking anyway so stayed in the next night and played cards instead.
Lies. No one saw much of the next morning. At one point mid-morning Twiggy groggily sat up, asked whether or not I was alive and, seemingly satisfied with my acutely inarticulate response, promptly fell asleep once more. At some point someone must have trekked across the road to the Strudel House and fetched us wretched souls sustenance for when I woke up there was strudel and filter coffee in the kitchen. Together, they brought me back to life.
By 1pm, things were looking significantly livelier in the flat. Coffees were in hands and we'd vaguely decided to stroll down to and then along the Danube to a goulash restaurant that the journalist swore by. Safely ensconced on the top floor of this warm pub, beers breathed more life back into us. The goulash did its bit too. The pub welcomes you to draw on your placemat and leave it tacked to the pub wall so I borrowed a pen and scrawled, drawing the crew and taking suggestions. However, no one else was feeling particularity arty. Instead, a paper plane competition was conceived and there was much trash talking as, after the meal, we all trouped out into the square to compete, Cooper crowed shamelessly when he emerged victorious (not the most amazing aeronautical feat given that at least two planes flew backwards).
We wandered down to the Liberty Bridge across the Danube, today a shade of glossy green grey.
By pure chance, our group dynamic is great. Everyone is sufficiently comfortable with a few others to encourage mingling and lend a real sense of ease to the gang. The brothers, Chandler and Cooper, jostle good naturedly with their cousins and with each other. Chandler, as birthday boy, is fair game for us all but he's a happy teddy bear this weekend, so evidently chuffed to have everyone together to celebrate. The cousins keep everyone in stitches, especially J.J., (who, incidentally, reminds both Twiggy and I so very strongly of Wolfgang, right down to the scraggy beard and unapologetic humour). Monica takes patent delight in herding us all, Cooper patent delight in provoking her. The odd man out is perhaps the Frenchman, Chuckles. His language has him at a disadvantage, as does a gruelling banker work schedule that had him in Dubai all last week, returning just in time to crawl onto an early morning flight to Budapest. This means that he's Paris's main focus for the weekend. But he's sweet and always so sincere — and she's patient with him, and so obviously happy to have him here. Cooper is the cerebral type — if sometimes a bit fussy — and it's interesting to almost be able to see his mind working sometimes, clocking over taxi maths or someone's politically-charged comment. Our lanky journalist friend 'The Meeting Place' is exceedingly well travelled (even in this group of holders of well-loved passports) and it's to him we defer for bar choices and easy chats. Naturally enough, Twiggy and I fall together and this works well for us both I think. She's a good travel buddy, cautiously cheeky and whip smart.
From the Liberty Bridge we trippped slowly along a touristy street, picking up postcards, trying on stupid hats, doing conversion maths on prettiest items in the Zara shop windows, before finally settling into a bar by St Stephen's for 'afternoon tea'. Of the alcoholic genre. Lazily, we played games including a not safe for school version of categories that started with 'Brands of Condoms' and fast deteriorated into 'Things You Suck' and 'Things That Stain'.
Back home an hour later Cooper sat us all down for a serious chat. His adaptor was missing. It was not where he'd left it the night before. He stared around at eleven innocent faces and declared his intention of rooting out the guilty party, Poirot style. Chandler pointed out that there was a twelfth suspect: Drunk Cooper. And so began the interrogations: What time did you go to bed? Who was with you? What country plug does your iPhone have? It would have been dull except that a few minutes back we'd all (save Cooper) witnessed J.J. stumble in blithely waving the adaptor and asking who he'd nicked it from. Knowing Cooper was on the warpath, we'd advised him to plug it in next to the TV then sit back to watch…
That night we had dinner at a teeny tiny local restaurant that was just large enough to seat the nine of us (the 3 cousins haven flown home that afternoon) and a few hapless couples. Hungarian food is a delight. It has the strong potato focus of German food, but the more delicate spice of a country closer to Asia. There's paprika in everything! The table was soon covered in goulash, Transylvannian meat platters, dumplings, cabbage rolls and other paprika-dusted delights. As a group we decided to finish dinner with a shot each of the local aperitif, palinka. It burned. But kept us warm for the walk to a bar.
Because when it isn't broke don't try to fix it, we ended up at Szimpla yet again. Everyone was in a silly mood. I think it was there that Paris had her brilliant idea: what if we only drink palinka tonight? Yeah! After my second knee-trembling shot, I was starting to question the wisdom of this idea, but my wisdom was also starting to be in question. So, we rolled with it. That night we were to discover that, though the bottles are variously and e tick hoy labelled sour apple, fig, apricot, pear etc. there's really only one flavour of palinka: paint stripper flavour. Around 1am (on a Monday morning, might I remind you) the dance floor at Szimpla had heated up and the hours before close rolled away to a background of The Kooks, The Fratellis and Empire of the Sun. George Ezra's Budapest even got a look in, much to us girls' delight and the boys' (totally fake) derision.
The lights came on around 3. The journalist swore he knew a rooftop bar from which we could watch the sunrise and the last ones standing — Twiggy, English Muffin, Paris, asleep on his feet Chuckles and I — followed him. Reasonably enough for a Monday morning, the bar turned out to be closed and we sobered up enough to find our way home and into bed (but not before being treated to some terrible whingy ballad that I'm led to believe is the Liverpool Football Club theme song).
Some time later that Monday, nine sleepy bodies numbered off once more, punctuating numbers with farewell hugs for the journalist. Eight of us trudged up to the beautiful Buda Castle and the last one got on a bus to Bratislava.
Later still, over our last Hungarian lunch, despite everything, no one could resist the shots of palinka offered to us by the kind restauranteur. We finally let Cooper in on the adaptor conspiracy. We tried to figure out how many flavours of palinka we'd tried. We had a giggle when Chandler explained how he'd met Monica one night after already having a cheeky pash with two other girls. He described this to the perplexed, very French Chuckles as 'Try Before You Buy' dating. Chuckles (his name usually ironic) chimed in with a perfectly timed, 'And so, uh, how do I make return?' and a glance at Paris.