Thursday, April 30, 2015

Budapest #3: The Synagogue, The Elgin Marbles, and the China Syndrome

Let me tell you straight off, we did not make it into the synagogue in Budapest. Yes, it was on the short list of things we were told we had to do. Yes, we went and found it twice. But on the day we found it and had actually set aside the morning to see the inside of it, we arrived after several hundred other people had the idea to see the inside of it, and got there before us, and stood, in a great scrum, with their shit together a bit more ours.
Crowd outside the synagogue, Budapest

When I was in high school a friend and I went to London to visit another friend whose family had moved there. We dutifully tried to do every touristy thing imaginable, as if filling out a Bingo card, including two whole days at the Victoria and Albert Museum looking at spoons and armor, and getting on the wrong train to what ended up being my favorite museum in London (the Imperial War Museum) and being heckled by a crusty old guy who cackled about us being from Shepherd’s Bush. But try as we might we never made it to see the Elgin Marbles, and it became the thing we giggled about the most. Nothing’s more hilarious to teenaged girls than an inside joke.

I also never saw The China Syndrome. The China Syndrome came out in 1979, starring Jane Fonda, who I thought was generally ok in movies, and Jack Lemmon, who I thought was pretty awesome, and I think it was playing at the Esquire Theater, or maybe the Shady Oak, and though I made a big show of saying that I was going to see it, reasoning that it was a movie I might have actually wanted to see, checking the movie times and everything, I used the excuse to go get stoned with someone. I no longer remember who it was. Back then, I did not make up weird specific lies about what I was up to, usually, because I had very good grades and reasonably nice friends and my mother’s attitude was we could do what we wanted as long as we stayed out of trouble, which really meant, fundamentally, that we didn’t get caught. Probably, there was a family thing that I was avoiding going to by inventing the seeing of a movie I never intended to see.

The time I didn’t see The China Syndrome was not the only time I smoked pot in high school, but I have no memory of how I obtained it on any occasion. It seems unlikely I would have known who to get it from. Also, no way would I have spent money on it when there were sweaters to buy. Anyway, The China Syndrome came to stand for lying to your parents so you could go do dumb stuff.

To this day I have not seen The China Syndrome. I did not even know what it was about until I looked it up.

When we meant to go to the big synagogue in Budapest, but didn't, it was not an Elgin Marbles thing (just not getting around to it), or a China Syndrome thing (saying we would when we never intended to). We had a morning plan and it was seeing the synagogue. We also had an afternoon plan, so the collapse of the morning plan meant immediate implementation of the afternoon plan.
On the tram

Our consolation for missing the synagogue was taking the tram up to the yellow bridge, known as Margit Híd. The people who put streetcars in cities back in the day knew what they were doing; the people of Budapest who have fought to keep their clunky old electric trams know what they are doing.  The afternoon plan, now the primary plan was to walk back over to the Buda side of Budapest to find the Tomb of Gül Baba, an Ottoman dervish and Islamic poet who died in 1541. It is said to be the northernmost Muslim holy place and the oldest historic landmark in all of Budapest. Hungary has been overrun many times in its history, and the Turks had their turn under Suleiman I back in the 1500s.

It is marked not by a fading sign in Hungarian but with one of those man-sized bronze statues they have of all the great men of Hungary, all over the city. There he is: Gül Baba standing at the entrance, on a smallish plinth, and there, just around the bend, the backdrop: a closed and padlocked gate, flanked with an old Budweiser sign and a smaller one for the now-closed café. 

I heard the crow before I saw him
This quiet hilltop was guarded by a single crow, solemnly serving in his uniform of a dark gray jacket and black, black wings, and he cawed and bobbed in genuinely surprise at our arrival.

The tomb is an octagonal little stone building with one door and one window and a domed roof. We were alone there, walking slowly over broken pavement and weeds. Two dogs were having at it, loudly, in a hidden yard, below, their barks piercing the quiet sunshine. A car struggling to get up the narrow, rutted street, bottomed out, scraping violently on the cobblestones. Having been alerted to its presence, we took this to be the right way back down the hill.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Budapest #4: Lions in Budapest

Lions resting majestically

Lions thinking that if the raven would come down from the roof they could steal that golden ring

Lions too tired to walk

Lions, stoically posing in profile on menus
Lions glaring at the police because gay Budapesters are people deserving of protection, too

Lions riding bicycles, stopping to cough up a hairball

Lions rolling their eyes about what locals think is bad traffic, snickering, “Have you seen New York on a Tuesday?”

Lions with relaxed tails, reminiscing about hyperinflation

Lions being swallowed by snakes, wondering if that really fine beauty in the ruin bar gave her real phone number

Lions sneering at pigeons, saying that revolutions are fought with bullets not feathers

Lions reflecting on how a child having a tantrum sounds just about the same in any language

Lions stopping in the beer garden near the zoo to relax with their homies

Lions thinking that Hungarian is not so hard to learn because that’s what they’ve always spoken

Lions lost in the Budavári Labirintus, thinking it wasn't worth 2000 Ft

Lions yawning

Lions scowling about western fast food joints, but still wanting to wear that cardboard Burger King crown

Lions glaring at attempts to change the constitution

Lions snarking that if you’re a successful Hungarian man you’ll get a plaque or bust or a statue, for sure

Lions squinting in the sun, ordering sparkling water but secretly wishing it was sparkling wine

Lions on bridges, listening for the bells on the handlebars of cyclists

Lions longing abstractly for Emperor Franz Joseph because at least he understood that cities need decent produce markets

Lions pretending that there must be female lion statues somewhere, too

Lions tipping 500 forints when the pianist plays “Memory” again

Lions reminiscing "We always called them Rohadt Trabant"

Lions chasing pink elephants into the Belgian bar

Lions having belly aches

Lions drooling and mumbling that they are members of a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party

Lions denying allegations of genocide

Lions unfettered by bourgeois prejudices, savoring their five favorite ways to prepare foie gras

Lions humming Liszt

Lions remembering the red kerchiefs they wore, but not what they stood for

Lions stirring atop the Gyógyszertár 

84% of lions nodding in agreement that that Hungary should become a member of the European Union

Lions wondering when the repairs on the funicular railroad will be finished

Lions secretly preferring the Buda side to the Pest

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Budapest #1

We’ve been here in Budapest a couple of days and so far we’ve been delighted by things small and not small. The perfect spring weather helps. 

Today, we started with hotel breakfast, where they did not manage to burn the bacon to my liking but it was still delicious. After that, we went for a walk in search of maybe a hat or sunglasses but found ourselves walking one of those streets that shows up in the guidebook as “where you should go shopping” but we would only describe it as “where you should never go under any circumstances unless maybe you wanted to make video footage of terrible restaurant barkers.” Bleh. Tourist traps! But then, we wandered over to the Central Market Hall where they sell, you know, like, real traditional Hungarian cured meats, and the spices, and wines, and all the fruits and the vegetables, like Budapest’s version of the Pike Place Market. It was gorgeous and full of Hungarians. 

Központi Vásárcsarnok

After that, we crossed one of the many scenic and lovely bridges over the Danube to the Buda side of the city, and on an impulse headed up the hill to the citadel. This park is full of crumbling steps and dilapidated railings and increasingly stunning views and an uneven path up to the fortress at the top and I would recommend the climb to anyone just coming to the city and seeking a way to see it all, because you get to see it from above. After that we walked down the other side to Bartók street and chose a random café for lunch and it was great and then, after admiringly watching those yellow streetcar/tram things going by we took one back over to the Pest side where our hotel was and could not figure out how to actually pay for the trip.


After that, we needed a rest but then after that we went and had high tea and then we got dressed because we had bought opera tickets.

It was the Janáček opera Jenůfa and if you don’t want spoilers about the plot of this opera skip the next paragraph.

If you don’t mind spoilers, I will start off by telling you that I always Google the plot of operas before I see them so I know what I’m getting myself into. I am a good audience member in that I laugh at the funny parts and cry at the sad parts and mostly I need to know in advance when I need to be prepared to be sad or happy or whatever. So let me just say (here come the spoilers) that this is an opera about a dead baby. And it did make me cry, twice, but briefly. I am also a bad audience member in that I get bored easily at the opera, and I’m not what I would consider an actually educated opera fan but I have gone to a bunch of them over the years and I usually enjoy them if they are not too long. I don’t mind extremely sad operas or even the ones where people take a long time dying on stage and singing their guts out at each other (looking at you Tristan and Isolde). 

Anyway, the old opera house in Budapest is glorious and seems gently well-preserved in a not-kept-wrapped-in-plastic-to-preserve-the-freshness kind of way. It’s extravagantly gorgeous, with painted ceilings and a lot of marble and gold leaf, but not gargantuan like the Met in New York. And our tickets were the nicest seats in the house, in a little box on the dress circle, and were about $50 each, which doesn’t even buy cheap seats in New York.
Most of the guidebooks to Budapest will recommend seeing the opera house, because it is very beautiful and special, and, yes, it is those things, but it is also an opera house and you are supposed to see an opera there.


So if you go to Budapest, you should not go to the opera house and take a freaking guided tour. You should put on your dress or a tie or both and go to the freaking opera. The tickets will be much less than New York, the opera will be good, you can read the supertitles in English, the sparking wine at intermission will be more than adequate, and then, at the very end, when you are clapping and watching the many singers and principals and the orchestra and the conductor and all the many members of the audience sharing this experience, you can reflect, as I did, upon the many, many hours of musical education and practice that went into this one night happening. And you, like me, might be really grateful that there were people ready to teach all those musicians to sing and/or play, way back like 30-40 years ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Ride Out in Early Spring

For weeks it felt like spring’s start was delayed, because the snow had been so plentiful and long-lasting, but now all is thawed and the grass coming green and the trees are slowly starting to set buds. The cardinals are busy again, and the blue jays noisy, and the irritated robins call, “Yeep! Cuck, cuck, cuck! Yeep!”

“Let’s go down the road and up and over and see how the trail through the woods looks,” said W----, and I agreed to it. X--- didn’t know what any of that meant, but was willing enough to join us. X--- has been preoccupied lately, having unexpectedly lost his job. He has admitted to folks in the barn that he’s still having nightmares, and though he’s still smarting from the indignity of losing his job without cause, he seems relieved to be done with it.

W---- led on Jenny, a semi-retired show-jumper, a big, dark bay with big, dark ears, and the oldest mare in the barn. I followed on Mars, chestnut in color and temperament, and, at 6, the youngest horse in the barn. X--- rode his gray mare, a steady, sensible horse that knows her job and rarely gives anyone any trouble.

The road was quiet. There is little shoulder to ride on, but not much in the way of traffic. The last time we went this way we turned off the road and a flock of unexpected birds had flown out of a building, startling Mars. Now, he walked calmly but carefully past the spot of prior alarm. There is plenty for a young horse to look at on this route, crossing two bridges over the Shekomeko Creek, winding around old buildings, cornfields, and small piles of decrepit farm debris, down several residential streets. We’d done the ride recently enough so it wasn’t completely new to Mars. The only new part was going to be the trail through the woods.

When we reached the woods, the beginning of the trail looked like it had been cleared quite recently. It is wide enough to ride abreast. But once we were in, we encountered a fallen limb of the kind that we couldn’t just step over (too many sharp and pointy bits sticking out). W---- hopped off Jenny to clear the branch, and having done it, stayed on foot in case there were more.

And, there were more.

Every fifty yards or so there was a tangle of fallen branches. Some were easier to clear than others. The woods here are a mix of deciduous trees, mostly, with a few long-needle pines, and many thorny bushes and climbing vines. By the third obstacle, W---- needed both hands to try to budge the mess, and she had to hand me Jenny’s reins which I held while I sat on Mars. I was focused on watching her, keeping Jenny and Mars a safe distance apart, and staying relaxed.

At the deepest point of the trail the ground falls away to the left, revealing that we were riding atop a steep, wooded hill. There was barely room to hold Jenny and keep an increasingly uneasy Mars out of the sticker bushes. I don’t think X--- was feeling entirely ok about the terrain, and before I got a chance to look, I heard X--- behind me make a noise.  I turned to see him standing on the ground next to the gray mare, running up his stirrups.

W---- called out to ask if he was ok.

X--- said he was fine, but he said his horse wasn’t having it.

Horses can read your mind, of course, which is why people who are terrified of horses rarely learn to ride. Horses can feel your anxiety through your seat and hands, and, as prey animals, they take it seriously. Maybe you know something they don't about lions or bears.

At this point, Mars checked the mare ahead of him and the mare behind and surmised that he was the only horse with a rider still mounted. Mars gave a pugnacious buck, popping into the air and kicking both hind feet out. This was my cue to get off as well.

W---- asked it I was ok.

I said I was fine.

She said, “Next time, when we get to a fallen tree at the beginning of the trail through the woods, remind me that there will be more and we should just turn around.”

We were not far from the end of the wooded section. The trail leaves off at a spot with a nice view, from the top of the hill to the south. Winter's straw-colored hills are now washed with pale green, though the trees are still as bare as bones. We found a large rotten log for remounting. We all got back on, including X--- who picked himself up and mounted his horse from the ground. Descending the hill, Mars finally let out a breath.

And then we rode home.