Sunday, 21 August 2016

"The Amazing Race" Kind of Summer: Budapest

Listen, I'm no TripAdvisor.
Chain Bridge closed for the Air Races (and iPhone photo opportunities)
Please don't expect me to wow here with my review of the veal cutlet served over corn polenta with spicy tomato and roasted red pepper spread, topped with a slice of calf liver done so deliciously to perfection it qualifies as one of the best five dishes my palate has ever experienced. Ever. Or expect me to choose for you the best goulash soup in town, review the intricate layers of the Esterházy torte, recommend the ambiance of Café Pierrot on the Buda side or insist you can't leave without Szeged's Hungarian hot paprika as a souvenir (what's weed for Amsterdam is paprika for Budapest). Nope.

And if I sound a little grumpy to you, there's a reason. Budapest and I - I discovered - have this complicated relationship. You see, this wasn't our first time. It only dawned on me late afternoon on our third day as I was impressing my husband and our boys by navigating like a pro through the city streets on both sides of river Danube, that is not really schönen let alone blauen  showing them the major landmarks, that the previous three visits to this magnificent city had nothing to do with sightseeing. They more resemble a young woman’s shaky journal entries and serve as monuments to my eventful personal history. 

The first visit was in 1990 with my boyfriend - a magical stay in this majestic city that was going through one of its hungry years, just fresh from shedding the communist era and - like a rebellious teenager - having no clue how it all would end. I remember being struck by witnessing old women selling family heirlooms for cash on the pedestrian-only Vaci Utca: art, china, silverware, intricate hand-made lace ornaments. Those forints were food money. We were young and with long-weekend pocket money of about 200 dollars we were beyond wealthy. Caviar for breakfast anyone?

Second visit - 1994 - same boy turned man and husband. My first husband. Atrium Hyatt hotel and a room with the mesmerizing view of the Chain Bridge. After a few days of empty small talk and group sightseeings with his entire family, captured on the photographs I recently happened to have found, there was one evening and a critical conversation with his mighty uncle from America during which we made our first emigration plans that both felt like a breakthrough and a more-than-solid lifeboat out of former Yugoslavia. What a relief! He would re-enrol in university and get a degree. I would license as a pharmacist in Texas. We wouldn’t be sharing a bathroom with all the smokers in his family nor be helplessly waiting in Belgrade for NATO to bomb!

The final visit in 1995 was far less glamorous. Now we were the poor ones, arriving at the TOEFL test with an overnight bus loaded with smugglers. Sausages, toothpaste, laundry detergent and diapers were hot items on Belgrade's black market. When the bus doors closed at midnight at the Central terminal, cigarettes lit, shoes came off and we marinated for 378 point 4 fucken kilometres in odours I can still recall, ears numb from the turbo-folk music that blasted all night through the crackle of worn-out speakers. We took the test at 10:00 a.m. Then we each savoured a Big Mac at the Vaci Street McDonald’s. By then, the city was all done up, facades renovated and posh world brands had moved into Budapest’s prime locations. Everybody had a cellphone. We hung around the river banks and the Chain Bridge for as long as we could then rushed back to board that same bus for the same many-hours-long ordeal back, the experience only enhanced by the mandatory 10 Deutschmarks per person bribe for the customs officer not to open the the trunk to check for possible imported goods.  
     “But we didn’t buy anything, we just went…” we tried to fight the injustice of it all. 
     “You are welcome to walk home" the toothless driver replied with a grin, cigarette dangling off the corner of his mouth. “In my bus we’re all equal: everyone pays the racket!” 

Nevertheless I passed my test of English as a Foreign Language with flying colours (the then-husband did not do as well but still adequately for the mediocre private university in Texas that had accepted his uncle’s tuition cheque) and we were cleared for emigration. 

The jolly never-ending tune playing in between the tourist sights information on channel 2 for English on Budapest’s double decker bus woke me up. Or was it my family alerting me to our final stop - the 5 star Boscolo Hotel. It was day 6 of us gumping* over Europe, I must have dozed off in exhaustion.

So if I sounded crabby - forgive me. It is from the stark contrast of this before and after for me. The life I willingly signed up for as a young, educated woman and this beautiful life I turned out to be living. The many different dead-ends and near-fatal turns that could have occurred has left me vulnerable in retrospect. I wish my happily-ever right now was more than just happenstance -  that I actually had had a say in it.

Somewhat ignorant or simply unaware, Budapest the beautiful has witnessed all of my personal drama that unfolded over the past quarter of a century, seemingly analyzing my life with equal emotion - oh well: here comes the rain, here comes the sun, take a walk, take a seat, sip a coffee, eat a cake, take a long soothing bath - you will most certainly feel better. This too shall pass. 
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" inspiration?

Dobos torte

I did manage to relax, unaware of the PTSD-like 3-day walk down the memory lane which was lodged somewhere in my subconscious, only to resurface during a short bus ride. Like most European cities there are scars and the monuments of real suffering all around Budapest, once home to a vibrant Jewish community. 
Names of Hungarian Jews killed in Holocaust inscribed on each leaf
But it is what we do with these scars that makes the whole difference. We expose them, we honour them. And we are certain they won’t happen ever again. Never again.
Never again
Just below the Buda Castle there is this 3m tall limestone sculpture called the Zero Kilometre Stone. Erected at the Adam Clark square this stone marks the reference point from which all road distances to Budapest are measured in the country. While kids were busy chasing one another around it and my husband waited in a long line-up for the tickets to the Budapest Castle Hill Funicular, I placed my forehead on the warm, rough stone. The symbolism of how far I've got to go from this true zero point in my life made me sigh in gratitude. There was never a need for a helping hand or a rescue boat. We are all capable of doing it all by ourselves.        
            "Hey guys!" I summoned my crew. "Forget the shortcut! Who's with me to climb the hill on foot?" And so we did.  
Here comes the Sun!
*gumping - the Hasson family trademark name and signature activity. While Forrest Gump was aimlessly running, we aimlessly walk. 

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