31 May 2008


LUND--"How do you feel about going back to the States, Matt?"

"The time for reflection has passed, frankly. Now I am just going."

And that is the truth. Whatever form a trip may have, a return to the familiar or an adventure into the unknown, all the fantasy and anxiety takes place in the weeks and months and days before. But then, at some moment, you are faced with the fact that your bags are packed and the plane leaves in the morning. The events to come, the closer they come, lose significance in the face of the practical details. I don't, in fact, care much what the hell I am going to do this summer or what I am going to say to my Mom or what the first things I will do upon return will be because those will happen. What I need to do right now is make sure I get to the airport and that I have my passport with me. All the rest of it? All of that is going to be and now, since I have entrusted myself to a big aluminum tube with wings, is out of my hands.

And as I write this Matt is probably packing. He had better do it soon anyway because the train for the Copenhagen airport leaves, at the latest for him, in seven hours. One of the first friends I made in this country, and my only fellow countryman, is going back home to New York City. We were printing photos in the community center darkroom the other day and while they were fixing and washing we sat outside and talked of the United States and of Sweden, what they meant in relation to each other, the all-you-can-eat buffets we missed and how good it is to be an American and how good as well it is not to be in the US. But it is easy to love where you are when you know your ticket home is only days away.

It is possible, a joke perhaps, but one I hope he carries through on, that when his family picks him up at Newark the first thing they will do is take him to IKEA and there, after adventuring out in the world, he can take his people on a mini tour of Sweden. "And these, Dad, are kottbullar, we call 'em meatballs, but try a little lingonberry jam on them. No really, it's good..."

Today was a good day. Lena and I hiked around a lake. The trail was well marked at first, Swedishly marked. There were orange paint blazes on every third tree along a well-worn path. There was little danger of wandering off and being eaten by a random grouse or badger. But after a few miles the orange trail (still well marked) began leading off into the countryside, away from the lake. We found a farmhouse. Lena laughed at my hesitance to approach it. "Don't worry, no one will shoot you, this is Sweden," she said. "In America," I replied, "A lot of guns would live there..."

We walked around the barn and an older man was cutting boards on a sawhorse. There was some barking and his medium-sized black poodle rushed us and began savagely licking our hands. "Oh, yes, just walk down my field and you'll get back to the lake and the trail," said the old farmer. That was not the end, the adventure, in fact, was only beginning, but pleasantly trail-worn we returned home. Lena's friend Elin came over, at a loss while fabulously between parties. We had dinner and champagne with her.

Then after a bit Matt came over. We spoke of space and exploration, the future of the human race, spoke of many things, said our farewells, figured train schedules for the morning. New York City, United States of America. When I go to bed tomorrow he will be back in the USA. And I can't even think much of what that will be like. His trip, not mine. Right now, as I write, all he can think about is making sure a bag is packed and that he makes it to the train on time. Me? I don't have a ticket home. I don't know when I will. So, for me, the US is a fantastical land, far away, across the sea. I hear the streets are paved with gold. Someday I will go there.

27 May 2008

Night and Day

LUND--It is 12:44 a.m. and the sky outside is a deep azure blue. It is dark out but there is light in the sky. It is night but that qualification, up here, is no longer, for this time of year, exact. I have, as compared to times past, been mostly to bed rather early--by midnight or before most times. But last Friday I was still awake at half past three and at that hour it was the beginning of the dawn. At after 10 p.m. there is still light in the sky. I can only imagine what it is like farther north. We are entering the hours and days where the distinction between night and day, dark and light ceases to have exact meaning. The light here is strange and, I think, leads to strangeness. Dark, so dark for so long and more than just dark but gray and gray and mist and gray and then light of absolute clarity, hot sun with cool shadows, light through the hours of night and a sky that never goes completely black. It is strange in the northern lands.

New Adventures

LUND--I will be in Ukraine in a few weeks. My information on the project is still a little hazy but I have the following, sent from the SARA group: "We will be "headquartered" in Nagydobryn (Velekidobryn), will certainly go to Mukachevo (Munkacs) and probably Uzhgorad (Ungvar) plus a miriad of small villages".

It is strange to think of the twists and turns of life. It is true that I had never forgotten Lena after meeting her all those years ago in Honduras. My heart, I suppose, always held out some hope that we might meet again and, in my obsession with packing I had often imagined what I would take were I ever to go see her in Sweden and what I would wear there and when I got off the plane to see her. I once had a pair of pants I thought would be perfect and was inordinately upset when, during the Ohio winter, I slipped on the ice and tore them at the knee. That being said I can't, in all honesty, as much as the die-hard Romantic in me would like to, say that, "Yes, I always knew I would be here. I always knew we would meet again and that our last kiss in Honduras was only the last for a while." But I did hope and was ready to take the chance were it to ever--and when it did--present itself.

But two years ago, more or less, I did not think that in two years I would be living in Sweden, finished with a documentary film on El Salvador, and off soon to places with names like Nagydobryn, Mukachevo and Uzgorad to film another. I did know I needed a break from Central America, that I had been there too much, too often, and that I either needed to spend time elsewhere or I needed to commit to a long term presence there. Ultimately, however, I needed a break from those lands. I was not liking what in fact I loved. I was not seeing there with the clarity I wanted to and that, I felt, was both shortsighted and potentially dangerous.

I hope, very much, to return to Central America. I would like to make another, more intimate portrait of the lives of the curileros of El Espino for one thing. After my second trip I traveled home overland from Honduras to Ohio. I want to go the other way now. I want to photograph the scenes underwater off Utila and to travel through the rarely visited central highlands of Honduras as well into Olancho and the Mosquitia. I want to climb more mountains in Guatemala, visit the islands of Lake Nicaragua and many more things beside.

But now I want to head south from Sweden, not Ohio, head south and east into the old Carpathian mountains and the plains of Ukraine, to use my cameras to tell stories about places new to me. And then, perhaps, when I am ready, I can return to Meso America with a fresh eye and a refreshed spirit and see the beauty there all anew.

May Day

LUND--Valborg is on the last day of April which, of course, makes it the day before the first day of May. May Day, International Workers Day, the day big tanks and braces of rockets used to thunder in endless hordes through Red Square in Moscow to show the might of the Soviets to the world and make the capitalist running dogs tremble in their imperialist loafers. Well, of course we know now that a lot of those tanks and rockets were sent back a few times for another pass and that the mighty Red Army was underpaid, low on morale and fueled mostly on vodka. But here in Sweden the red star of communism is alive and well and not just recycled for its kitsch appeal.

Valborg was sunny but the next day was full of rain. We stood and watched the leftists speak on one of Lund's squares. The more radical black-flagged anarchists spoke at the train station. We stood in the rain under our umbrellas and I felt like a member of the Central Committee reviewing the troops on May Day... except I was sober and hadn't sent anyone to a Gulag in a very long time.

22 May 2008


LUND--As I walked towards the city park I felt as if I had been caught in some human-sucking gravity well that acted with particular force on people carrying ice-chests, cases of drinks and grilling paraphanalia. The park is partially bounded by a high, grassy berm that is the remains of the city's defensive medieval earthworks. I reached its crest and before me was a stunning sight. The grassy, flowered park was gone, invisible beneath a seething, shouting sea of Swedes. Columns of savory smoke rose from scores of points. Hundreds of portable stereos competed with numerous bands and DJs and the voices and shouts of thousands of people celebrating the triumph over the long winter. Beer cans and champagne bottles glinted in the sun that had suddenly, in the last week or so, broken out over this southern outpost in the mysterious northlands the Romans once called Ultima Thule.

I unlimbered my camera and put on the telephoto hoping its compression effect would give a better sense of the throngs than a wide angle and prepared to enter the fray when a middle-aged man walking his dogs stopped me. "Over there is a good picture," he said, grinning. I looked to where he was pointing, to a short line of young men waiting to urinate in the bushes. I raised an eyebrow. The man smiled again and said, "There is a picture of Prime Minster Rhienfeldt there. The sign says, 'You piss on us, we'll piss on you!'" Which, indeed it did. Back in the bushy cove it was stapled to a short stake, the neo-con PM grinning as his face dripped with recycled beer.

Within the field the city had, in the last days, fenced off the flowers and covered the rose beds in sturdy boxes. These now not only saved the roses from certain annihilation but provided some nice, high, seating. Many groups had brought in old couches, coffee tables even, and set up their own outdoor living rooms. Most sat on blankets and on the fringes there were tug-o-war competitions and dance areas. Students splashed in the fountains. This was Valborg day in Lund.

Valborg is the last day of April and is celebrated in different ways throughout Sweden. Usually, after a day of revelry, it climaxes in the old ceremonial fires of pagan times, traditionally made from the winter's deadfall to mark the beginning of the warm months.

I ran into Calixto, a recent immigrant from Cuba and one of my classmates from Swedish for Immigrants school. When I first met him in the winter he told me how much he liked Sweden. I guess that even the dark and cold can't repress the feeling of freedom. "If I didn't get here," he told me, "I was going to swim to Miami!" Like most Cubans I have met, Calixto has an irrepressable sense of humor. He is in constant motion, talking, laughing, sometime singing and half-dancing when he is not actually dancing. "Andrew!" he said, in his island accented English/Spanish/Swedish mix, "This is how life should be, man. Sun! Dancing! Girls not in big jackets, whew!! When he saw I only had a big camera and nothing else he offered me his beer. We stood for a while, sipping it and watching the crowds and the girls not in big jackets doing the same (though mostly not sipping).

We walked over to where a DJ was playing Reggae and Reggaton and he danced, immediately attracting a crowd. I took photos, my own rhythm, and wandered on after a while, back through the crowds, back to the old medieval wall keeping the not-so-savage sons and daughters of the Vikings safely outside the city. I paid a visit to the Prime Minister then walked home past people still flooding towards the party. Back at the apartment I stood on the balcony in the sun, feeling a little lost, feeling old, missing my friends and knowing that if Jake and Patrick and Jesse were here we would be sitting on a blanket. Not long after phone rang and it was Lena.

"Good. You answered your phone and that means you're alive."

"Yes, usually it means that."

"We just heard here at the paper that someone was killed by a bus." She named a street, one I had just been on.

We found out later that it was a girl, 23-years-old. Two young men had been playing around, pushing each other as young men do, and she was accidentally knocked into the street, in front of a passing bus. The day became a little gray.

I have debated whether to write of this, of death on a clear Spring afternoon. The irony is almost too heavy, the lessons too obvious, struck down in the flower of youth whilst all around the rebirth of life is celebrated... And there are all those barroom philosophers who raise their beery glasses and, to justify their alcoholism say, "Live for today for you never know when you might be hit by a passing bus." And it is always, inevitably, the bus they use as the metaphor for sudden death, the guise in which the reaper comes. They never say, "Drink now lads, for you never know when you might get malaria or dengue or a Katyusha rocket or an Israeli bulldozer or a tsunami. Perhaps the bus is the leviathon of the civilized world. Perhaps that is the point. That in the banal, developed world death comes secretly, closed off in a hospital ward or else from the ultimate innocuous, helpful, impersonal banality of public transportation. The bus never sets out on a mission of destruction like a roadside bomb. It is just a thing that follows a pre-planned route; a route that somehow intersects with your misfortune or inattention, someone else's foolish antics that had nothing to do with you.

Spring came to Sweden. The buses ran on time. And the sun was bright and the people happy and there was just one less young woman who would be there to dance and drink, lay on the beach and make love that summer.

17 May 2008

Springtime in Skåne

LUND--I was standing on the back balcony, looking over the apartment's back yard, letting the sun bathe my face. A door opened from the basement door below and a woman walked out pulling a large cat on a leash. The feline didn't seem particularly upset, merely disinterested. It would walk up a couple steps, stop, lay down and lick its fur. The woman finally got it into the backyard where it promptly lay down again and stretched. I was watching this little drama with some amusement when the woman looked up and saw me. Then came the surprise. She smiled, waved, and said, "Hej!"

I had been told of this phenomenon. Now it is a given that people who live in cold climes tend to liven up when the sun and warmth return--it is certainly the case in Ohio--but the Swedes seem an extreme example. They spend all winter behaving as if nothing and no one else is sharing the gray universe. Say hello to a passing stranger and they look up, startled and slightly afraid as if you might be a troll about to drag them off into the mist. I have it on good authority that it is even worse up north where the night is even longer and the temperatures colder. There, I am told, the Swedes spend those dark months staring with Nordic moroseness into their beer and brannvin and occasionally uttering depressive grunts. I also had it on good authority that as soon as the sun returns the Swedes thaw out.

The fields of Skåne are in bloom. Flowers cover cherry trees and fall like soft, pinkish rain. The leaves have unfurled on the trees, cloaking with soft green what had been skeletal forms filled with the croaking balls of raven's nests. The Swedish flag is a gold cross on a blue field and the land here mirrors that symbol in a way that seems almost embarrassingly patriotic to the undemonstrative Swedes and their low-key nationalism. But the rolling rapeseed fields of Skåne blossom in vast swaths of bright yellow making gold lines against the clear blue skies.

The Swedes respond. Not only, at times, do they randomly say cheery hellos, they even smile and laugh while sober and in public. To my surprise, the mid-May days have been more than merely warm and sunny. Some have been downright close to hot. The squares and parks and benches are covered with people eating ice-cream, talking, drinking beer. Every bar, eatery and coffee-shop has put out tables. Practically overnight Sweden transforms itself from a lightless land full of silent and dour herring-eaters moving quickly through scabrous half-light to a café society of exuberant sun-worshipers. From everywhere comes the savory smoke trails of BBQ's. There are ducks out on adventures, waddling around the city squares begging for food. Life moves from inside to out and for me it is more than just the sun; it is an affirmation that this land is more than mist and night and no amount of second-hand reports can make up for seeing a new season in a new country.

Budapest 2 (excerpt from my journal)

BUDAPEST--As we walked back to the Hotel Victor Hugo the wind began to pick up, blowing over the flat plains of Pest. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, turning the golden light to a shade of oxidized lead. We rested a few hours in room 610 and lightening flashed, illuminating the darkened room in bursts of electric blue. The flashes were accompanied by long, sustained thunder, a sound I had not heard all winter up in the northlands. When we went downstairs, to go out seeking dinner, the rain was falling. The lobby was dark and the old man behind the counter sat in cloud of smoke and a pool of light from an old desk lamp. The streets, slick and dark looked more like I had imagined, a place for grim deals in the back of Ladas and Trabants, where quick bad endings happen in rain pooled alleys, a place for upturned trench-coat collars...

But at the counter Lena asked the old man if there was an umbrella we could borrow. He smiled and rummaged around for a bit and came out with a huge, two-person affair, bright red and emblazoned with the Coca Cola logo. It kept the rain of no doubt but detracted from my espionage fantasies.

We walked down the slick, black streets, through pools of orange lamp-light, to the neighborhood restaurant we had found the night before. Inside it was warm and bright, all wood and stone and brick with heavy plank tables filled with eaters and drinkers and laughter. The night before I had eaten a deep-fried filet stuffed with Camembert and Lena had had goulash. She stuck with her regimen of goulash and I opted for the cutlet, Parisian style. We both had cold Drehers and we laughed and talked and planned.

When we walked back to the Victor Hugo the rain had stopped and the streets were full of smells; plants and the river, the old buildings and their must, flowers in new bloom and the indefinable scent of a new place with its essence released by nighttime rain.

12 May 2008

We'll Meet You In Budapest in the Lobby of the Hotel Victor Hugo...

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.