It’s been more than two years since I was last in Budapest, but I think pretty regularly about going back, about the things I’d want to do, places I’d want to go, no matter why I was there or for how long. One of the places that always made the list — perhaps the top priority, as odd as it seems — was the Cat Café on Damjanich utca.
See, the Cat Café was about a five minute walk away from my apartment, if even that. I spent dozens of hours there over the course of my semester in Budapest; during the last month, I practically lived there. I counted the cake and unlimited drinks at the café as lunch or supper far more than was healthy. I knew all the staff and all the cats. I’m a fan of cats generally, but Sushi, Luna, Imhotep, and especially Sophie (even though she was the one who arrived last) will always be among my favorites. I fed the cats on a couple of occasions, helped Emese (the staff member I knew best) clean up after some guests who had left a mess in the game area, and talked to Emese about the new art on the walls. Emese and Réka, the owner, both knew me. Emese knew that my order was almost always chocolate cake and that the first drink I’d want was hot chocolate.
I did homework for all of my classes in that café. I worked alone and with friends there. I took breaks from work to pet cats; I dissuaded (and sometimes failed to dissuade) cats from sitting on my homework. I wrote in my journal, I wrote stories, I talked and played games with friends, and I filled pages and pages with math. After all my homework was turned in and exams were done, I went for what I thought would be my last time. I ate my cake, drank my hot chocolate, visited with all the cats, and wrote in my journal, and then I wrote a note of thanks to the cafe for being a home to me for those four months and left it under my plate. I paid the flat student price (1350 forint wasn’t cheap, but for getting to stay as long as I wanted and have unlimited drinks? And also cats? Y’all.), said goodbye like normal, and left.
Later that day, I had a Facebook message from Emese, who had found me based on my signature on the note.
I actually ended up going back one more time, that time with my parents. We were in the area, going to a restaurant down the street, so I decided my parents should meet the cats and see the cafe I had talked and written about so much. We went in, said hi to Reka, and went to pet all the cats. Before I left, Réka stopped me to say goodbye,, and she checked what kind of cake was my favorite. I expected her to just bring out a slice; instead she returned with a box. She gave me an entire cake, just because I’d been faithfully there for four months and would be missed.
In the Cat Café I found a place to study, a place of comfort, a place where I was known and loved, and I didn’t even realize the extent of it until I was leaving.
So yes, when I imagined returning to Budapest, I always imagined going back to the café. Emese doesn’t work there anymore, and I doubt that Réka would remember me after several years (the cats certainly wouldn’t), but that wouldn’t matter. It would still feel like home.
But I found out tonight that I’ll never be able to do that. The Cat Café, after three years, is closing. I keep trying to find words for just how upset I am — upset about not getting to go back, upset that future students living in the area won’t have that space, sad for Réka and her husband and kids. This is the loss of a place that shaped me and that was deeply important in one of the most formative four month periods of my life. So this is in honor and memory of the Cat Café, of Sushi, Luna, Imhotep, and Sophie, of Réka and Emese, of the time I spent working and decidedly not working (thanks to cats, conversations with friends, or games of Solo/Uno). Thank you. I won’t ever forget.