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Winter Travel Report, Part II: The Weathered Splendor Of Budapest

July 12, 2013

Well, it has been six months since I visited Budapest, but I'm at last getting around to writing it up. I have a few notes in my journal and perhaps the photos will shake a few memories loose from the dusty library shelves of my mind.

Vienna was clean-scrubbed and high-toned, a city made safe for plastic-wielding mall shoppers. Budapest is very different. From the moment we stepped off the train and into the into the railway station, it was clear that this is the old eastern Europe.

The Budapest railway station.

First view of the city.

It was a hike of several kilometers to our hostel, through canyon-like streets of coal-caked old buildings.  It was cold.  We walked quickly.  I didn't shoot many pictures.

When we got to the hostel, a Bacchanalian raiding company was forming, with party-people from all over the world—Japan, Brazil, Australia—all gearing up for a night out.  We got swept up in it.

I have no idea who this woman is.

This, mind you, was at the BEGINNING of the evening.

I was fascinated by the entrances to the subway system.  They just seem like portals to a dream world or something.

Magyar is very unusual among European languages. It is most closely related to some central Asian tongues.

The woman on the left is Sally; she staying at our hostel.  The guy is a Hungarian who attached himself to our party.  I ended up talking to him for quite a while.  He was clearly a well-educated young man and spoke several languages.  He told me a lot about the language and history of Hungary. I got drunk and forgot most of what he said, but I do have a strong impression of a rich and literate culture that is somewhat oblique to the flow of history, as seen by those of us in the bosom of the Great Powers.

More subterranean otherworldliness.

The entrance to our hostel must be left unmarked, because it is in a historic building.

Lord knows how long the mob from our hostel kept partying, or where they ended up.  I detached and, after talking to the interesting Hungarian man for quite a while, wandered off to find some falafel and shoot random pictures.  I'm a bit long in the tooth for that all-night whooping-and-hollering business.  I'd rather sit on a park bench in the dark and think my thoughts.   But it was a great night.  When I sacked out, I was good and beat.

The next morning we headed down to Heroes' Square, a huge plaza peopled with giant statues of warriors, soldiers, statesmen, and other historical Hungarian bad-asses. It was created at the end of the 19th century to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar conquest of Hungary in 895.  That's right, I said Eight. Ninety. FIVE.

Andrássy Avenue was impressive enough in itself.  I was pretty much stunned, just walking along, staring dumbfoundedly at the ancient buildings, the people, the old trees… The place has gravitas.  It's not what you would call a cheerful boulevard, but it has an intense feeling of history, of life having been lived there in different ages, of throngs who have come and gone…

Hungarian weiner dog plaque for the win.

As always, I gnashed my teeth at the social conventions that make it impossible to just sit and take pictures of everyone who walks by.  No, I wouldn't like someone doing that to me, either, but still, I found the people so fascinating.  I need a spycam.

I would love to live in this little room, with a window facing onto Andrassy Avenue. I would get myself an old manual typewriter and a victrola. You would never hear from me again.

Heroes' Square.

I was taken with this guard booth outside an impressive estate on Andrassy.  Perhaps it was once an embassy, or the residence of someone powerful. Imagine some guy spending his whole life in there, day after day, year after year. He goes home at night to his plate of sausage and his wife and his daughter. No-one asks, “What did you do today, daddy?” And it was probably a damn good job to have, back in the day.

In the evening, I headed out alone to find some "ruin bars."  These are old manufacturing facilities, warehouses, etc., that have been converted into low-budget watering holes for young people and timeless bohos like me.

Tell me you don't imagine a zombie arm reaching out of this window to claw at your ankle as you pass by.

Can you tell this is a public drinking house?  It is.

Jan from Slovakia.

I found one. There weren't many people there. I sat down with my notebook and a beer and wrote for an hour or so.  Then I felt like playing the beat-up old piano that was sitting there.  A guy named Jan came along and played a bit, too.  We struck up a conversation and then played the piano together.  Some people stood around and listened.  I sang J'ai Faim, Toujours and then we played Minnie the Moocher.  People sang along.

The crowd thinned. I bought Jan a beer and we sat down to talk.  He was down on his luck.    He's traveled around the world, but he is homeless now. He has been a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, and a musician on cruise ships.  He tried to explain to me why it was that he was stranded in Budapest, when he was supposed to be on a ship to Brazil, where he had some kind of business venture waiting, something to do with natural healing… or something… but I never did quite understand his predicament.  It's not often that I talk to someone who makes me feel like I lead a conventional, settled life, but Jan made me feel like I’ve been playing it safe. Not that I’d want to be in his shoes. He’s casting about for options with a look of desperation. His interest in me may have begun to wane when he realized how poor I am.  After a while, we parted company.  I went to see if I could find another place.

I didn't find another bar I felt like going into, but I enjoyed just wandering around, looking at the rain slicked streets in the city of night.

A street lamp outside one of the grand old hotels.

View from the balcony of our hostel the next morning.

The next morning, the skies were fairly clear and it was far less chilly than I would expected of a Hungarian winter.  I got to explore the city in the sunlight for a change.  I didn't take my camera.   I think it's good not to snap pictures sometimes.

Later, we headed back to the train station, to buy our tickets to L'viv.  Better to do it a bit in advance, so as not to worry about it while we enjoyed our last day in the city.

They don't make it real easy to buy tickets.  The dead hand of the old Soviet bureaucracy still casts a shadow over the Hungarian railway services. You can feel it in the great weariness of the most minor official.

"Do you know how much a ticket to L'viv  is?" Rachel asked at the customer service office.

"I have no idea," said the agent, with a heavy sigh. "This is not the ticketing office."

THIS is the ticketing office. Note the bulletproof glass.

The ticket office is across the station.  It is an awkward, cramped, L-shape. The clerks are safely ensconced behind what appears to be thick, protective glass. There is tape on the floor, marking off the line beyond which the citizen—excuse me, the customer—must not transgress until called upon. People are standing about, but not in lines.

There are numbers flashing in red on an LED display on the wall. I see people clutching little squares of paper. I find a computer screen with six buttons. Next to each button is somethg in Magyar. I press the last one and receive a ticket with the word closed printed on it. I try a different button and get the number 110. The numbers that have been coming up on the wall are in the upper 300s, but our number pops right up, so we proceed forthwith to window number 3, where we are informed once again that the only service dispensed at this location is information, and that we should go back to the video terminal and press the third button in order to receive a number which will entitle the bearer to approach a window from which a ticket can be bought. Following these instructions, I receive ticket number 405. The LED screen is currently flashing 393.

While waiting for our number to come up, there occurs a scene. A professorial-looking gent in tweeds raises his voice to an alarming level, to such a degree that he incurs a large bubble of space around him, even in this crowded room. He is yelling and making broad gestures at the clerks, who are safe behind the glass. The manager, quite a young fellow, is called. Despite the safety barrier, he seems fearful and keeps his distance. The well-groomed and respectable gentleman is in no way placated and yells even more loudly. There is something calculated in the way he is escalating the situation. It is as though experience has taught him that nothing else will have any effect on these implacable functionaries.

Security appears, a bunch of beefy dudes in black shirts. Cold eyes of those accustomed to sizing up opponents. The man moderates his tone, thank god, but I can see that his explanations will be for naught; security does not exist to resolve procedural misunderstandings. What they do is address disruptive behavior, and they do this with the threat of violence.  There are occasions when even I am not stupid enough to snap photographs.

For a while, their faces remain flat while he explains his grievance, but then, failing to receive any redress, he begins to become excitable again.  The alpha railway dog escalates alongside him, with an air of calculation that gives me the chills.  He first matches, then overmatches his tone, stepping up nose-to-nose,  and edging him out the door, in a classic show of schoolyard dominance. I see the old fellow stomping off, cursing. He is rational enough to know that all he is going to get out of these guys is a stomping, but not cool-headed enough to resist baiting them as he disappears from view.  He’s lucky these guys are at work.  I doubt he’d get away with his parting shots out on the street.

And so the scene ends. Everyone is relieved. The tension evaporates.

And yet, one security guard remains. The turbulence is over, but. like a fever, the spirit of disobedience may spread. An Official Presence will be there to still the waters.  That would be a slightly reformed soccer hooligan, standing by the wall, cracking his knuckles, looking bored at the lack of action.

Later, I took a tram ride to the non-tourist areas of the city.  I love to just ride the trams and see the ordinary people going about their lives.

Around the corner from our hostel, I discovered an art-house cinema.  It looked like they showed mostly old Hungarian films.  Heaven!  I love old black and white European movies.

I saw the 18.00 movie.

This guy was one of a total of five people who went to the movie I saw.

The movie was entirely in Magyar, but I still got the gist of it. It was a backstage intrigue story. The male lead became obsessed with the female lead because she was stealing his thunder and he started coming undone psychologically and dressing in drag. In the end they turned out to be in cahoots to screw the money guys… not to mention the AMAZING communist propaganda shorts that opened the showing.

More night wanderings.

Threatening Hungarian honey bears.

Walking to the train station.

I don’t recall what I did after the movie… probably got a sandwich. As I recall, we were set to leave rather early the next morning for L’viv, Ukraine.

I loved Budapest.  I could happily live there if conditions were a little different, but I don't think the market for English teaching is good, and I'm quite sure I would never master Magyar.  There are also some worrying larger political trends in the country as a whole.  It's a troubled place.  But I will be back, I'm sure.  It captured my imagination.  I want to see more of it.

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