Janacek, the bus driver from Bohemia, wanted to understand the city the way his locale grew complexities and evolved from its past. He underestimated Budapest. He tried to stay away from the nerve of this city, Andrassy Avenue. Instead, he brought us to the peripheries of this proud Hungarian city, the Queen of the Danube.
With insouciance, he simply reconciled all of us on the idea of triple futilities. First, we wasted time. Second, we saw life as lived by ordinary Hungarians who continued to grapple and live with the idea that they will keep on pushing more to gain better leverage in the economic front with their wealthier kins in the west. Third, we tasted the acrid taste of hunger after hours of travel from Bratislava, Slovakia. I would like to believe he deliberately did that to give us the solid grip and discover for ourselves the 2.5 km Andrassy stretch of different museums, elegant boutique stores and fine art displayed in the manner of neoclassic and baroque structures. Indeed, our heads were in limbo, not knowing whether it was a small soporific dose or muscular dystrophy or both. We were going in circles and elephantine circles. Annoyance seeped in, a sharpening annoyance amid the city’s Magyar welcome and a promise of infatuation.
It took us two hours for the driver to regain composure. For me, it took me eight years to regain composure and bring down to letters the memory of this city of a people who carry with them the bark of history in both pain and charred existence. This was in my mind as we strolled around the Jewish synagogue reportedly the largest in Europe. The city divided into two, Buda and Pest, connected by more than seven bridges between the two sides is now a city building its long history of dominance and conquest, subjugation and redemption. Now I am here, standing at the Liberty Statue erected by the Soviet Army at the end of the 2nd World War, salvaging time, miles away from being Proustian in breath and style, but with an act of courage to extend memories’ mortality.
True, every time I remember this city, I am on a bind of missing the more delicate details. What were the details of the stone lions that guard the entrance to the Chain Bridge? For what purpose were they built for? Was that for aesthetics or a totemic pole for the communal prayer of security and power? The details almost always become a haze of somnambulism or a dizzying procession of small and unrelated information I am no longer sure of their significance and original evoked emotions. I reckon. I reckon with the belief that the homeless personal memory of this experience may find the light from the savage beast and fangs of oblivion.
The Argentine’s Jorge Luis Borges story of “Funes the Memorious” tells of a story of a man who after recovering his memory from a bad fall, remembered details of all events that happened to him. He even learned languages in an instant after reading a foreign book. There he realized that this newly found precociousness had robbed him of the faculty of thinking. He was cursed to remember everything. He lost the beauty of making sense of things, their connections, the abruptness and intermittency of episodes.
True, remembering is a gift. I realized forgetting is manna too. I remember a fraction of the details of this trip. Some patches claim their sacred space somewhere in the cerebellum of my being. Right now, I am on a boat cruise on the Danube, with my wife admiring the skyline of the city. On my right, the iconic Parliament Building and my left the Buda Castle staring with medieval chutzpah. My cold hands on the railings, the silhouette of the past independently remembers some murmurs. I remember asking the guide “what is the soul of Budapest.” How does it confront the conflicts that are tearing its fabric; immigration, unemployment and the eroding trust in its democratic institutions? Maybe, there was a rapport that already existed that I was able to ask some difficult questions to her. I experienced some copious pauses and captured some globules of analyses and reflections not as a historian but as a man wants to understand behind the veneers of tourist commodities.
I know Budapest is melancholy.
“Blue, red, yellow poly-daubed
pictures I saw in my dreams,
and I felt: this is the order of things,
not a floating dust-speck’s out of place.
Now gloom-like my dream spreads out to my limbs
and the iron world is the order
By day a moon rises in me and when it’s night
outside – a sun shines here within.” – Attila Joszef
I remembered I stood on the vantage point of the Fisherman’s Bastion having the panorama of the Pest side of the city. The white skeleton building and Gothic Revival style of the Hungarian Parliament stood shining like a frivolous lady whose internal organs of politics and plots are intertwined and throwing dice now and then. There was a haze that hovers over the Danube. Cold on an afternoon, with a faint spray of rain, proletarian and dog-eared in its constitution. I slapped my face twice, inflame the arteries, and in seconds redness seeped dislodging prattling reflections in my mind. I got hold of myself, the amazement, the dreams that clung heavily has now moved my eyes from west to east. I grew more obstinate at that moment. I examined the vista thoroughly. T. S. Eliot may say that this is a city on an etherized table. I say this is a city full of dynamism and youthful vibe, resilient to the past not minding the “people who keep talking of Michaelangelo.” There are the copper and bronze statues that ringed it with the narratives of heroes, of victims of the Second World War, of composers and diplomats. There are the young people who espouse a Europe that is inclusive and free and hopeful and open from the cycle of bigotry and fear-mongering. There now emerge a city that is fertile for new ideas and creativity.
I soon found out that memory is not perfect. It selects its soul. In this case, there was the altitude. Things seen from a higher elevation mimicked the behavior of vapors and skies. They perceive with clarity and purer confidence.
I could have wished for a big cubicle balloon, drifting and seeing happiness in the minds of people that crossed the bridge, the bride that waited outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, or the copper shoes, a dozen of them at the port – reminding our short memories of the victims of the World War II.
I could have stayed there for another hour, yet, people kept forging on and trying to erase your presence for their selfish perfect pictures be taken with the flickering grey skyline of a Magyar city. They were dying to preserve the little bell sound of memory with the Canon camera picture. Softly, lamentably and softly, those stretch of actions and events are being glossed over and are being painted as murmuring ants in the recesses of their brain. Surprisingly, again, even with the velocity of imprinting in mind is happening at that very instant, years from now, that one picture is the only witness to that one moment on Wednesday at that spot shadowed by the towering belfry of St. Matthias Cathedral. I moved down, climbed slowly to the waiting bus down to cross to the other side of the city. We left Buda surprisingly fast in a landscape of breathing cars like little worms with haggard and long faces. We left the other side that carries within its belly all the memories that packed the halls of the Castle, the entangled history of the old hilly terrain overran by the Ottomans in the 13thcentury.
I remember Budapest is music, poetry and another layer of music being peeled like a fresh onion displayed at the famous Central Market.
For one, Franz Liszt floated in the silence of our Danube river cruise. I felt the virtuoso continues to live in the life of the city. He allows the Danube to hear his performances continuously and faithfully. Thus, every time a visitor’s face is reflected on the surface of the river, that visitor understands Liszt’s fortissimo with clarity. For the currents that bring the enigmatic waters is the flowing tempo with Liszt’s cadenzas, tremolos, and trills. For me, I felt there was a sense of cosmic abandonment, of liberated feeling, of existential energy and impetuous response as I listened. For someone whose memory incorporates the shape of sounds and the sexiness of pauses would find himself like a guest stepping with wet feet on a new house and is embarrassed sorely for the intrusion. This same hopeful guest with a spleen of great anticipation would still find himself wondering whether that memory was indeed of an imagined one or that lasting effect of imprinted music in the corpus of our brain. I knew I felt this as we moved along the river. I felt this as I held the hand of my wife in that afternoon cruise before the full lights became a luminous celebration of darkness brutally pierced by millions of lightbulbs and flooding neon lights.
As poetry, it is a city soaked in fragments and seasons of lyrical sounds and odes against a backdrop of pain, sorrow, light triumphant in blackness and love introspections. April 11, just two weeks before we arrived is the nation’s National Poetry Day. Again, Attila Jozsef’s ode blared as a paean to love.
“Every single smile, movement, word of yours
I keep like the earth keeps all fallen matter.
Like acids into metal
so my instincts have burnt
your dear and beautiful form into my mind,
and there your being fills up everything.
It is redolent and sensuous. It is remembered and reconstructed with shifting renditions to the extent that it continues to get back to its bearings. It smells of fresh flowers and refugee thunders that steal ultimate layers of darkness.
In the end, my resolve would be to go back to Budapest. This is not to soothe the aching lapses of a memory of an aging man. I would go back to hear more of your music and your poetry, their sadness, their multitude scents, and eager longing. I would aimlessly stroll again in that Great Market Hall, admire the orange brick facade and tiled roof of bright colors. There was just so much vibrant energy in the men and women who kept on moving behind their stalls as they proudly display their curated fresh produce and cheeses. I would go up its second floor again and dive into the river of anonymity squeezing yourself in the crowd of international people buying their Hungarian beer and sausages.
Beautiful Budapest, your narrative may be conflicting at times, yet your soul is constant – forever hopeful of the future. Whether old people kiss in the bench at the park, locals look at their national Opera House, or the few who walk around Heroes Square, the many signages of classical concerts or international poetry readings, the city’s dream of thriving is so strong and inspiring.
One Hungarian said, “only that person knows how far we’ve gone who saw where we set off from.” I wholeheartedly agree with him.