By the time the DJ played the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii, inspiring rapturous screams from the crowded main dance floor of Club Instant in Budapest and finally alerting me to what the fuss was all about, Avicii had been dead for months.
I had heard the song before — it had been the “Jam of the Summer” four years ago — but immersed in a sweaty multinational crowd singing along to that song in the most popular nightclub in a world heritage city known for its insane nightlife, I finally got it. I got a lot of things, actually. EDM. Eurotrash. Flow state. Contact high.
Budapest is renowned for its architecture. It’s like something out of a story book.
My trip to Club Instant where I fell in love with “Wake Me Up” and opened my heart to Eurotrash dance parties took place on my first night in town. My companion was a beanpole-thin, handsome 18-year-old British guy, my AirBnB flatmate, with a zest for partying and a masochistic persistence in dancing up to women and getting rejected until one of them finally made out with him.
The Budapest nightlife continued to impress, especially the Blue Bird Cafe karaoke bar located on the touristy alley-walk of Gozsdu Udvar. It wasn’t like other K-bars I had been to before — I requested “Mr. Brightside,” hoping to do my rockstar thing with the wireless microphones … but the microphones were duct-taped to stands that were bolted to the floor, presumably to prevent theft, and anyway I was there for hours and my request was never played. A bunch of pop hits, from Aretha Franklin to Imagine Dragons, kept the night lively in the small clubhouse packed with people singing along and dancing. Things got especially memorable when the cheesy 90’s jam “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!!” by Vengaboys came on (yes, it was that kind of playlist). A crowd of very young people — possibly high schoolers too young to get into clubs even in freewheeling Budapest — coalesced just outside the door of the club, singing and dancing along. They went bananas for the Vengaboys song. Observe:
The next morning my Austinite friend Nicole was arriving in Budapest. By coincidence we were Euro-travelling at the same time and had first crossed paths in Berlin for outdoor tango.
Avicii (the stage name of Tim Bergling) had been dead for about five months by then. In a bad year for suicides, his could have hardly been more sad and fucked up. He was Swedish, a nationality with a bad suicide problem as it is (I was just in Stockholm and I don’t find that hard to believe), but I was shocked to learn that he ended his life in Muscat, Oman of all places. He had retired from touring two years earlier, citing health problems (including alcohol-related pancreatitis). He was apparently in Oman on vacation. Oman has never been near the top of my travel bucket list.
Nicole had booked a room on the Buda side of the river. We expected to meet for dinner, but she messaged me in a panic that her inn had a decidedly rapey vibe and she didn’t want to stay there. She got the hell out of dodge and retreated to my AirBnB on the Pest side. She ended up crashing there and we hit the town together the next day. I’m usually all about solo travel but I forget how much fun it can be to have a traveling companion.
As luck would have it, there was outdoor tango dancing that night on Buda – “Tango at the Castle!!!” We climbed the steps of the massive Citadell, a Hapsburg-era fortress carved into the steep hillside of Buda, and arrived sweaty to find a tango dance in full swing in the plaza surrounding the statue of Emperor Nicholas, with some of the best views in town. In addition to views of the Danube River and the showstopping promenades of Pest, the ornate Parliament building was lit up by spotlights and revealed scores of large birds circling the dome, doing their own slow and ghostly version of the tango.
The next morning we went looking for the famous thermal bath experience. This ended up being the best part of Budapest. The thermal baths are basically indoor spa complexes. Several pools are fed by geothermally superheated underground freshwater reservoirs with vents to the surface. We went to the Gellert Baths. Our first try was Rudas Baths, but the thermal baths were men-only that hour (presumably for those who like to bathe nude). Single-sex hours happen sporadically, but we wanted to go to a bath that was having co-ed hours so we could stick together (and – why lie? – check out the opposite sex in bathing attire). The hot water was relaxing; the surroundings were soothing; it was a thing of beauty to put our heads under the sprinkle of hot water from a sculpture fountain and know that that water was coming from hundreds of meters underground, heated by magma and plate techtonics.
Avicii (aka Bergling) had alcohol abuse problems in addition to mental health crises and several health scares. Few details were released, but handsome rich successful talented admired 28-year-old Tim Bergling seems to have drank a bottle of wine, broke the empty bottle, and stumbled around his hotel room stabbing himself with the broken glass until he finally bled out.
I wasn’t expecting to love the food in Budapest, but I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t usually go for stews, but the famous gulash, cabbage, and other stews are next-level — spicy, savory, and delicious. The Russian-style pasta dumplings served with cream sauce are delicious as well. Definitely go to Budapest for the food. The wine was a little sweet.
Avicii’s family issued this statement after his death:
Stockholm, 26 April 2018
Our beloved Tim was a seeker, a fragile artistic soul searching for answers to existential questions.
An over-achieving perfectionist who traveled and worked hard at a pace that led to extreme stress.
When he stopped touring, he wanted to find a balance in life to be happy and be able to do what he loved most – music.
He really struggled with thoughts about Meaning, Life, Happiness.
He could not go on any longer.
He wanted to find peace.
Tim was not made for the business machine he found himself in; he was a sensitive guy who loved his fans but shunned the spotlight.
Tim, you will forever be loved and sadly missed.
The person you were and your music will keep your memory alive.We love you,
That evening we took the funicular up to the top of Buda hill and encountered a duo of middle-aged men playing classical guitar and violin at a lookout point crowded with tourists. Right as we were walking up, they started playing “La Comparsita,” the famous tango. We dropped our packs and danced in a plaza, within earshot but away from the crowd. When the tango was done, we heard two hands clapping at a distance. We looked up; a teenage girl sitting on the colonnade near the musicians was clapping for us, making “heart” gestures with her fingers. She was the only one with views of both the musicians and our dance.
We got closer to the musicians and they played the “Waltz of the Blue Danube” overlooking the Danube (how perfect), then a ragtime song at which point Nicole and I had the chance to break into a swing dance for a larger crowd.
The chorus of “Wake Me Up” goes like this:
So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself
But I didn’t know I was lost.
Is there a more perfect chorus for the Millenial generation, lost in a world awash with beauty?
What do you think of Budapest? Did the death of Avicii or another 2018 suicide hit you hard?