Saturday, March 12, 2016

Budapest 2006

In 2006 after Paris and before Scotland, some friends and I went to Budapest for a few days. I'm lucky to have a connection to that city through my sister, whose husband's family is from there. We stayed in an apartment that her in-laws keep, a Beaux-Arts relic beautifully restored and only a block from the Danube River on the Pest side. 

St. Stephen's Basilica

The country had shaken off the Iron Curtain in 1990, but it had only just joined the European Union in 2004. Shopkeepers transacted business with a lack of engagement that betrayed a lack of faith in the free market, or what version of it they had been allowed. At corner grocery stores dour checkout clerks were hard to amuse. But the food was wonderful nonetheless.

The first day I stumbled upon the Central Market just a few blocks from our apartment. It is an incredible hall. Stalls are crammed with Old World foods. Red was the pervading color, from cured meats, sausages, and paprika. The red of the paprika was reflected everywhere in the building; in the stone, tile, brick, signs, exciting the appetite by design.

The Central Market 

The pall of Communism still hung heavy over the city, though restoration efforts suggested investment in a brighter day.

The pall was swept away with introductions to my brother-in-law's family. His aunt met us at the door of the apartment and made sure the place was well stocked. She was a striking lady with a glamorous urbanity maintained even while riding her bicycle. A practical woman, she was candid about the economy of her country.

She explained that she was in the process of negotiating the sale of an apartment. The state would only allow her to sell to another family member. She had been renting to a man in his twenties who was eager to buy. Though in her sixties, she and he determined to marry to facilitate the transaction. It was a marriage of convenience. While applying for the marriage license, the couple could hardly contain themselves when the knowing official asked what name they intended to give their first child. 

The first night we met up with the aunt's son. He had gone to college in the U.S. and his English was better than ours. He took us to the then new Szimpla Kert nightclub. The bar was the first in a trend of "ruin pubs." It was located in a dilapidated apartment building in the seventh district of the city, formerly the Jewish district before World War II. The building had been abandoned during the communist takeover but not yet restored since the return of speculative development. 

During the day, Haussmann inspired streetscapes reinforced imagery from the Belle Époque. Streets crowded with buildings and trees, if not people, gave way to plazas; here an opera house, there a cathedral, here a park. Relieving this rhythm were contemporary projects of smooth materials, well proportioned to all we passed. I could have walked forever and never gotten tired. One of the plazas contained Saint Stephen's Basilica. My sister and her husband were married there a few years before my visit.  

The last night I went out with our host and two of his friends, an art dealer and a carpenter. We went to a more conventional bar and through our host/ interpreter shared stories of what we hoped to do in life. The art dealer hoped to one day open a gallery in New York City. Though not entirely unrealistic (he was pretty successful) his vision echoed that of almost every young European I met - to do something someday in New York City. There's a map somewhere that illustrates a European understanding of America. It is essentially a large shape labeled "New York City" with peripheral crumbs for the rest of the United States. The carpenter just laughed at his friend, possibly, or at my trying to speak French and thinking that somehow it was close enough to Hungarian.  

It's not.