Take Me to the River

I got to the hostel around 8. It was built into the top two floors of an otherwise mostly vacated building just a few blocks south of Andrassy Avenue, the main drag running through town.

When I say town, I mean Pest, which flanks the east side of the River Danube. Together with Buda, on the west side, it forms Budapest. Buda has the old history, with its churches and castles all perched on the steep hills that echo the long and dramatic history of the Magyar people.

Pest is the cosmopolitan heart of city. If you’re looking for nightlife, it’s where you want to be.  My hostel was right at the center, within perfect walking distance of the restaurants, pubs, clubs and all the best late-night cafes and wine bars in town. It was also just a ten-minute walk from the State Opera House, where I’d soon go to attend a concert, one that sent shockwaves through my universe.

I walked inside to meet a young girl behind the desk named Orsolya. I gave her my name and she found my reservation, smiled, gave me a key, and pointed down the hallway toward my dorm. I thanked her and thought maybe I’d ask for any recommendations on things to do in town, but then figured I’d wait until the morning. Tonight, I’d go out and discover things on my own. I’d head toward the river and see what I found along the way.

As I write, that feeling remains vivid in my mind, alive and kickin’ in my blood, the impulse to get out into the night and see where that same instinct takes me.  When in doubt, I’ve learned to just follow the river.

Take me to the river, I remembered the voice saying. Over and over like the chorus of a song. The melody was my own, one of those songs that you can feel deep within the soil.

I’d first heard the words a month or two before, walking alongside the Cumberland River on my first night in Nashville, which I’ll talk more about later.  I only mention it now because it was the first time I became aware of my connection to the river, when I’d adopt the unspoken credo for whenever I was in doubt or had lost my direction. Head to the river. You can find me at the river.

Take me to the River. Take me to the River.

Now it brought me here, and of course, being that I was in Budapest, I was approaching no ordinary river. I was heading toward one of the greatest in all the world.  The beautiful Danube was immortalized by Johann Strauss II, the ol’ waltz king himself.  I stood on its bank and looked out in either direction, watching the ships sail north and south.  I could hear the violins, the strings, the whole orchestra playing.

It felt like something not of this world, though of course it was.  It was nature’s offering to those looking for solace and stability within the metropolis, the life-force that penetrates and provides for everything the city is, like the blood that runs in our veins, reminding us that no matter how deep we entrench ourselves in the concrete crevices and winding streets, beneath it all, the earth remains, mighty as ever, living and breathing—it’s pulse beating in every rising and crashing wave, gently through the flowing current. It was here long before we arrived and it would remain long after we’re gone.

At the same time, the river seemed inexorably tied not just to the natural world, but to the human experience, and now–more specifically–to music somehow.  I felt a similar way along the banks of Seine, the Thames, the Cumberland or the Mississippi down in New Orleans.  No matter where I was, when I reached the river, I heard the music.

I could visit any old courtyard, palace, or main square in town; but the real heart of the city was, and always would be, the river.

I stood facing this pure expression of earth—and by extension, the city itself. The music I’d heard in Nashville was clearer now. More finely tuned and concise.  I felt like it was smiling at me, winking, speaking to me while conversing further with the stars of the night, almost like it knew something I didn’t know, but was sure to find out, somewhere down the road, or maybe just upstream.  An elemental rhythm, a sound of drums beating low beneath the water, somewhere in mud. 

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