Upon arrival to my hostel, I was immediately asked if I would need to rent a towel for the baths in Budapest. Not gross hostel bath tubs, but for the city’s various bath houses that the citizens pride themselves on. It seemed like whenever anyone mentioned Budapest, the baths went hand-in-hand. “Wow, this city must really enjoy their swimming pools” I kept thinking to myself. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but I gladly rented my towel and headed off towards the Szechenyi Bath House to stretch out after a cramped bus ride.
Once I arrived at the main lobby, I was completely taken aback. I felt like I had stepped inside a local club, where the entire neighborhood gathers to gossip. Not a tourist trap for Instagram photos, which is what I was expecting. I had pictured arriving at a small building with one main pool for everyone to enjoy, kind of like the pool in my home town park. Instead, I was greeted with grand staircases, labyrinths of hallways and 18 geothermal pools to choose from. After eventually finding the locker room, I walked to the main outdoor bath, where I was impressed by the sophisticated style.
Stepping out onto the main deck of the 100 plus year old geothermal baths made me feel like I was stepping back in time. These gorgeous outdoor pools were surrounded by statues, columns and wrought iron lamps, making the bright yellow exterior of the building pop. In the water, old men floated next to chess tables, where the games were reserved for only the most serious of competitors. It felt like I was at an exclusive party at an ancient European palace.
Back home in the US, people are proud when they show off their jam-packed Google calendars. “I’m just so busy, I have no time, I have so much to do!” folks constantly chirp.
The beauty of the baths is that there is no equivalent back home in the US. The closest comparison I could think of would be a swanky YMCA. However, the Y doesn’t hold a candle to the intricate architecture, various pools and the ambiance of complete relaxation in Budapest. There, there aren’t any crying kids in water wings, or teenagers whipping a football over your head as you try to unwind.
This is what struck me as so different between our two cultures. In Budapest, the citizens took their relaxation and rejuvenation very seriously. Back home in the US, people are proud when they show off their jam-packed Google calendars. “I’m just so busy, I have no time, I have so much to do!” folks constantly chirp. As Americans, we never take the time to slow down and make sure that our bodies are taken care of. We don’t bother to sit and enjoy a lazy afternoon. Instead, we burst with pride saying how overscheduled we are. But how long can this lifestyle last?
Like it or not, we need to take a moment to catch our breath and maybe the best way to do that would be to take a page out of Budapest’s book. The baths are a perfect symbol of the cultural differences between Hungary and the US. By having a neighborhood institution that encourages you to stop, relax and float under the sun, your society is encouraging you to take time to recharge yourself. As I drifted through the warm water at the Szechenyi Baths I kept thinking, “This is a whole lot better than swimming laps at the Y”.