Every morning in Vienna we woke up to the bells of St Stephen’s Cathedral. Supposedly, Beethoven understood the severity of his deafness when he saw the birds flying out of the cathedral’s bell tower but could not himself hear the bells. It was a beautiful thing to wake up to the sound of church bells: so European, so old world, so civilized.

Already Vienna is a kaleidoscope of impressions: the fog around the steeple of St Stephen’s, hearing Beethoven Five performed by the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein (OMG! The acoustics! Not to mention the stunning sound of that orchestra AND the clothes worn by the Viennese audience members. I have never seen so many fur coats.), cocktails in dark Art Deco bars, Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Secession, the Christmas lights hanging above the streets in the old part of the city, mistletoe growing in the trees along the river, the cobblestone streets and horse carriages, the cacophony of languages swirling around us, the hot chocolates in a proper Viennese café, the rich red brocade and velvet décor in all the restaurants and hotels, the beautiful old apartment buildings along the Danube, the designer shops crowding the old quarters, the Chagalls at the Albertina, the view of the Ferris wheel from Orson Welles film The Third Man from the window of our hotel, the two-hour Epiphany service on January 6th at St Stephen’s—complete with a full Haydn Mass and a surprise (at least to us) Epiphany pageant with costumed teenagers and Venetian carnival-like masks, the Orthodox Christmas service on the banks of the Danube that same morning, and, finally! the holy Viennese trinity of schnitzels and strudels and Sacher tortes. It is a city of decadence and sugar, charm and culture, artistic thinking and stubborn conservatism (See above: schnitzel and fur coats and then there is that unfortunate affiliation during the Second World War). It was as if we had fallen into another time and another world seeped in other values, yet with complete with cellphones and Google maps, heated towel racks and Uber.

When we were still in Austin, the whole holiday ahead of us, we went to a bookstore to look at maps of Europe, something we had not really done until that point. Anything seemed possible, after all, we had a whole month ahead of us. We knew we had a week in the UK and then a weekend in Vienna with friends, but beyond that we were improvising. We could go to Venice after Vienna and then down to Florence and on to Rome and then to Santorini and then to Provence and up to Paris….Or we could go to Budapest and then to Prague and on into Germany and then the Netherlands and Brussels and Bruges and then to Pars . . . or . . . or. The world was our oyster, the possibilities endless.

What we didn’t take into consideration was how seriously the Austrians would treat Epiphany. It is a national bank holiday, shops and restaurants closed, travel expensive. When we started to make plans for the next chapter of our trip, it started to resemble my pedagogical Grab Bag game, where students have to improvise a piece with only five notes available to them. The world was our oyster, but we only had five notes—F-sharp and A, yes, but not B-flat. You get the idea.

And so, last Monday we took a bus from Vienna to Budapest, driving through farmlands that could have been in Illinois or Missouri, and then arriving in Eastern Europe for the first time in our lives, in the dark. No matter how savvy the traveler or how smoothly the travel, there is something inherently stressful about figuring out a new place, particularly one in a foreign country with an extremely unfamiliar language. There are showers that have to be switched on across the room and washing machines that have to be plugged in in the next room and lamps that need to be switched on at the outlets on the wall. Hungarians use their own currency as well as Euros; taxis can be sketchy so better to use an app that calls a reliable taxi with a fixed rate; there are so many consonants in the Hungarian language. And that’s just the beginning.

But our memories of Budapest will always start and end with this old European-style apartment we rented in the middle of the city. It was a last-minute Airbnb booking, for all of $51/night, and it was, in a word, palatial. 18+foot high ceilings and parquet wood floors and 10-foot windows looking out over a main street in Pest near the Great Synagogue. Living there for three days was much like one of those dreams where you discover there are rooms in your house you didn’t know about. We kept opening doors to new rooms throughout our stay (final count: 4 bathrooms, but we might have missed one or two.) It was an apartment for hosting huge parties with a dining room table to seat 12 and enough room for a Bechstein grand piano (or two). In that dream, there would be no queue to use the bathroom.

Perhaps we are quick to dwell on the charms of our grand living quarters because our top Budapest priority when we arrived was laundry (See Travel Rule #4). After sorting out the washing machine, (See above: “washing machines that must be plugged in in the next room”), we spent two days exploring this fascinating city, getting a difficult lesson in Hungarian history—particularly during the 20th century—and in the atrocities of human behavior in the process. The most sobering part: the history, the behavior, the evils seem too familiar, too present, too current. History repeats itself. There is no new thing under the sun, the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us. It is here. It is now.

Budapest is literally the conjunction of two cities—Buda and Pest—separated by the Danube. It is home to the first McDonalds behind the Iron Curtain and to too many Starbucks. It has bike lanes and street trams and walking paths for miles. There are five coffeehouses and three bookstores on every block. The stairs up to our fourth-floor apartment were made of stone, each one with a dip in the middle of the stair made by tens of thousands of feet. There are two languages (Hungarian and English) and two currencies (Euros and forints). Buda is quiet and reserved and hilly; Pest is bustling and loud and full of young people and flat. It is a city of paradoxes. It is old. It is new.

Traveling after the holidays is its own mishmash of contradictions. There are the visual delights of the festive season everywhere—along the streets, in the churches, peeking out of the windows of apartments and houses. There are less tourists and crowds. Bookings are easy and cheap (See above: “last-minute Airbnb booking”). And yet. There are so few hours of daylight, and all of those are some varying degree of cold. Travel is always a practice in improvisation, but in the winter, it is a creative exercise with only five notes at a time: Cold. Dark. A palatial-sized apartment in an old city. A tiny coffee in a crowded European café. Laundry.