BUDAPEST—The weather was variable in southern Sweden and Lena began throwing up not long after we awoke. The night before I had gotten information that Hungary would be under a general transit strike the day we arrived. When we bought our tickets we had also paid for a ride into the city but if that would still be in effect we didn’t know. She drank a little more coffee and was sick again but we had a bus to catch so I put on the pack, shouldered my camera bag and we walked across Lund. The bus took us to Malmo Sturup airport past fields with just the first hint of Spring green under a clearing sky. Lena went to the bathroom before check in and then after we were through and she slept while we waited for our flight. At the gate she asked for special boarding, we got it and sat up front near the bathroom and she was ill again once or twice during the flight.
We landed in Budapest at Ferhigy Terminal 1 and walked out into a normal, modern airport. The people looked normal. I am not sure what we had been expecting but there was a distinct lack of chain-smoking nervous types in bad suits and slicked-back hair. Lena took a couple barf bags from the plane. We finally found a car with our airline’s sign taped in the window and the young driver had our names on a list. We were lucky to have booked since the taxis weren’t running. We waited almost an hour for the other names to show up but they never did and so he took us into the city. The cab ride in took us past crumbling Soviet block apartments that morphed into beautiful fin de siecle buildings. We passed a yard filled with Soviet military equipment: a Hind helicopter and braces of rockets and other hardware familiar from May Day parade and Afghanistan newsreels, their shapes oddly familiar and disturbing. Lena slept most of the way and I felt bad for her as she had been working very hard and had wanted this vacation very much. For a little extra the driver took us to our hotel, the Hotel Victor Hugo at 25-27 Victor Hugo Utca (Street) and we walked into the old, dingy lobby that was a strange mix of ill lighting, marble floors, Scandinavian modern furniture, cheap paneling and stale cigarette smoke all opening onto a garden.
We were meeting my High School (and long after) girlfriend Blair and her Austrian husband Chris. They had come to Europe a few weeks earlier for his parents 50th wedding anniversary. Blair had visited Budapest years before, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was in love with the city. I thought that I was leading a strange life, the sound of which I had wanted very much as an adolescent, had reveled in in my extended adolescence, but now found simply strange and frightening in the normalcy it had somehow achieved. In less than a year I had been in five countries, had traveled from the mangrove jungles of El Salvador to film a documentary on child labor, had taken a brief R&R at my favorite hostel on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and had packed up my life and moved to Sweden to be with Lena whom I had met over six years before in Honduras working on another documentary project. Since then I had been from Copenhagen, Denmark, up to Stockholm and down to the far Southern tip of Sweden at Smygehuk. Now I was introducing my Swedish fiancée to my high school sweetheart and her man in Budapest.
Blair, through a Hungarian friend, had booked our room. She and Chris had arrived the day before by train and were out when we arrived. We went to room 610 and Lena lay down to sleep, fairly sure by this time that it was a suspicious red pepper she had eaten the night before. I went down to the lobby and soon Blair and Chris walked through the door. I watched them for a while from my chair while they checked for us at the counter. It would be easy to say it was strange to see her there, in Budapest, but it was not. Though even after all these years it was strange to see her easy familiarity with another man. I had only seen her again six months before, at our 20th High School reunion, met her husband for the first time. And this was after I had had become engaged to Lena. I liked Chris and, apparently as a surprise, he seemed to like me. She told me he hadn’t liked any of her other exes. But perhaps that was the thing. I did once love his wife, did know what he had and had no illusions either way. She was a woman worth loving and now, finally, I had found another that I loved free of her so there lay no conflict and the potential for respect.
While Lena slept Chris and Blair and I walked to Café Comedienne that they had found the night before. There we had coffee and shared a crepe filled with chestnut purée and chocolate and when we returned Lena was better having finally purged the bad pepper. We took a short rest then went out and walked to Franz Lizt Utca and just off that to a little Gypsy restaurant in a basement. The place was perfect, if an almost ridiculously romantic Mitteleuropean basement restaurant. There was no menu, just goulash, a fine red house wine and violin music accompanied by a keyless piano played with mallets. If there had been spaghetti with meatballs I would have pushed one to my love with my nose. And it was good but there is a limit to romance, I suppose, when you are the only man there that has dated both women at the table. There is an odd feeling of guilt when you hold your girl’s hand in front of your ex, your married-with-a-child-ex, somewhat akin to being at a romantic dinner with your mother and her lover, not your Dad. Not exactly that, well, suffice to say it is difficult to explain…
We woke early after sleeping to night air that smelled subtly of a place you have never been. In the morning we had breakfast at a nearby café with Blair’s Hungarian friend Carolina, an elegant dancer and spent the day sightseeing, climbing this and that, walking the old streets. We went to the terror house—the former block-long headquarters of both the Nazi Gestapo and the Hungarian KGB and found it hot, the exhibits overly designed and yet still terrifying.
The order of the day was to go to a famous bathhouse. We went to Carolina’s mother’s house, a strange and magical place, fenced in and ivy-drowned in the middle of a wide city park. But Lena and I had had enough of couple’s sightseeing and decided to forgo the baths. We left them to it and walked across the city. We stopped along the way, just as it began to rain, and had a drink under the awnings of one of Franz Liszt Street’s many cafés, relaxing away from anyone else, away from Sweden, the first time and place we had really been alone together in a place neither of us had ever been before. We had been in five countries together before having that.
We had time to talk and laugh and explore a little before arriving early at a moored boat restaurant called “Spoon” and they came not long after with Carolina and her neurosurgeon husband Attila. The meal was fabulous in every way that an expensive meal ought to be, there was duck and venison and piquant sauces and a soupçon of witty conversation. We walked back from dinner and Lena began questioning Attila on the politics and history of Budapest and Hungary. He was glad to have the stage and answered thoroughly and well, giving a fascinating account of recent and near-recent political developments. We ended the night at an Irish pub. There is one everywhere. My younger brother Kendric recently went to one in Ulan Bator, Outer Mongolia and I can only regret that I wasn’t there first and it wasn’t, through some gross oversight, called Ghengis O’Khanners.
We spent a time with Blair and Chris in their room, the two girls eating a bag of foul Swedish liquorice we had brought along. Chris and I speculated that the grimly modern building across the street with one strangely glowing blue window among the dark ones was the new KGB headquarters. Then, for some time, after Lena went back to our room and Chris to bed, Blair and I talked on the balcony, continuing in this place our strange and often melancholy conversation of travel and culture, people and places we have known and those we wish to. Finally it was very late. They were leaving in the morning: a train back to Austria and their son and then a plane back to Arizona. Lena and I still had a lot of Budapest to see but my flight home, now, would be short, north, to Sweden.
In the morning we were alone. We rose and ate the breakfast the hotel brought to the door: boiled eggs, sausage, bread. We wandered a while through the streets, had coffee and ice cream, found a camera store with a beautiful old Leica for sale I wanted but couldn’t afford but had a nice conversation on the merits of Russian lenses with the woman proprietor. We came across a Greenpeace rally in a park with a good band playing, got a great lunch, visited the museum of Hungarian Photography and spent some time shopping and writing postcards.
In this, I think, is one of the chief joys of Budapest. You see the term “old-world charm” bandied about but this is a city that truly possesses it. There seems to be always something going on, a concert here, several thousand bicyclists here, riding to remind people to bike instead of drive. The cafés and parks are filled with people and the city with art. There seems, despite its bloody past, to be a curious sense of joy and of both gentleness and gentility.
But here and there one comes across the remnants, the hangover of the Soviets. Between stylish boutiques is the closed and dark Aeroflot office. A street-vendor sells a t-shirt that says, “KGB: Still Watching” and Attila had said that this is not mere hyperbole for the tourists. There is a beautiful and sad memorial to several hundred Jews who were shot into the river by the secret police in the form of old-fashioned, cast iron shoes lining a section of the Danube’s bank and downtown is a white plinth topped with a gleaming gold Soviet star. There are those who don’t want it torn down, not in the interests of history, but because there is a remaining and resurgent old-guard communist party. The plinth and its baleful star are fenced off to keep away vandals and, on the other side of the park, stands the US Embassy. The antique shops have dusty Red Army belts and Kalashnikov bayonets mixed with old Hungarian glass and battered Fed and Zorki and Lubitel cameras amidst Gypsy skirts.
And outside of the city is the statue park. You must take a bus there; we caught on at a central park, paying for both the trip and entrance to the outdoor museum. There, several miles on the outskirts of the city in a wind-swept field are the monumental statues to communism that had been removed from their places in the city (those that were not destroyed). You could say that they kept each other bad company, I suppose, the massive proletarian soldier, the standard-issue huge Lenin with blowing trench-coat and an outstretched hand, beckoning one to universal socialism I suppose but looking more as if demanding a hand-out. There are the somewhat abstracted old fathers, Marx and Engels, looking a bit like stern Santas and marble reliefs of happy workers clasping comradely hands, now lying on the ground, the hands separated by grass growing between the different sections. In the indubitably capitalist gift shop you can buy reproductions of Soviet posters, a mug that reads, “I like my coffee black and my communism red,” a CD of revolutionary music titled, “The Best of Communism” as well as various movies, cigarette lighters, hip flasks and other red kitsch. I liked the whole thing. The monuments to oppression keeping themselves company in a suburban lot, the commercialization of what had once been taken so seriously and that, as you stood in front of Vladimir Ilyich’s bronze bulk in such a banal setting, you could still feel a frisson of his and their lasting evil.
The last day we wandered some more and went to Basilica where enshrined in a gold reliquary, is the hand of St. Stephan. Standing next to it was a morose old man, chanting in a heavy accent, “Turn on light, 100 Forint. Turn on light, 100 Forint.” I waited until someone else paid and took what pictures I could of the shriveled thing, reflecting on a grotesquely sweet story told in the brochure. To mark some anniversary or other they hand brought the arm bone of St. Stephen’s wife from where it lies in another church. They let the two rest together, arm in hand for a time, nearly a 1,000 years since they were last together in life. We took the elevator and some stairs to the top of the Basilica then for an open-air, 360-degree view of Budapest. Across the rooftops cranes rise everywhere, speaking to the city’s rebuilding and ongoing, if slow, rebirth.
We dressed for dinner and went out, planning at first to go back to the gypsy restaurant, just the two of us. But we had already been there and picked one of the bistros on Franz Liszt Utca instead, settling in the fabulous repast. Lena had venison tenderloin with gooseberry sauce and a rosemary-apple cake and I the duck steak with grilled fruit – pears, apples, grapes and oranges – with a wild rice risotto. With it we drank a 2006 Takler Cabernet Franc.
We had taken the subway into the center from our hotel, using the little book of punch-cards Blair had left with us. To go back we had one more each. We dutifully punched it, took our first train then began looking for our second. A tall uniformed man asked us for our tickets as we were looking. We pulled them out and showed them.
“You need another ticket. You didn’t punch another one before coming in here,” he said.
“I’m sorry, where were we supposed to punch this one?”
“Now you must pay fine, $6,000 Forint each.”
“We don’t have $12,000 Forint.” I replied.
“We haven’t even changed trains,” said Lena, “We’re not even close to one.”
“It is the system.” He said, sounding like a ghost from the bad old past, “You must get money or I call the police.”
We argued for a while and finally he sent Lena off with vague directions to a ATM. We stood ackwardly for a while and I kept on him, letting him know I though we were being cheated and that this had spoiled our otherwise perfect impression of his city. He, in turn, kept muttering, “It is the system. I give you receipt for fine. Lena was a long while coming back and finally we went up to the top of the stairs. A while later she appeared in a high rage. He took one look at her, realized he had sent a woman off into the night perhaps, realized perhaps that we had not been trying to cheat and he let us go with a classic, “Uh, well, don’t do it again.
We walked back, cooling down, slightly shaky, aware now just a bit of remaining unpleasant undercurrents. Neither of us had ever been in a subway anywhere in the world with such a system. Late, then, we sat at a neighborhood bar, had a last Dreher beer and talked of our time and, definitely, what we would do when, not if, we came back.