Thursday, April 1, 2010
I arrive from Boston via Munich and Philip from Amsterdam. We meet at the Budapest airport as planned, at my luggage pickup, a perfect arrangement. Except my luggage never arrives. It takes some time to fill out all the forms, the process is so reminiscent of the Communist days: I indulgently watch the customs clerk place about ten stamps on various copies of the report.
Krista is waiting for us the apartment building. It is a modern post-war ugly duckling squeezed between two graceful old buildings. The apartment is spacious, furnished in a higher quality and lesser style than IKEA. The windows and the balcony look into a courtyard and a blank white wall of the neighboring building, which gives me a claustrophobic feeling. Pretty bad furniture, uncomfortable, but the ceilings are high, the hardwood floor is lovely, the space is large, and there is even a piano. It is clear that this is a rental unit: not a single sign of someone living in, and loving it. The kitchen has only the essentials. We get over it quickly.are high, the hardwood floor is lovely, the space is large, and there is even a piano. It is clear that this is a rental unit: not a single sign of someone living in, and loving it. The kitchen has only the essentials. We get over it quickly.
We take a long walk in the afternoon. We live at a great location. The grand boulevard at the end of our street, Andrassi, is just like Paris. It is easy to identify the scars left by WW II: the buildings replacing the bombed ruins are the cases of ugly modernity, squeezed just like our building between the 19at a great location. The grand boulevard at the end of our street, Andrassi, is just like Paris. It is easy to identify the scars left by WW II: the buildings replacing the bombed ruins are the cases of ugly modernity, squeezed just like our building between the 19th century grace. We have coffee at the famous ‘old world’ café Gerbeaud at Vorosmarty Ter.
Friday, April 2.
We walk to Central European University, CEU for our 11 AM appointment with Kristina Szabados. This is a great part of town. The university is only 10-15 minutes from the apartment. The departmental office is in a new modern ten story building attached to the original building facing the street. It is invisible from the street, which is hard to believe, given its height. We admire the architect who designed it. Kristina is very nice a friendly. We meet another MESPOM scholar (this is my title during this two month stay here), and diminutive woman from Malaysia in a Muslim head scarf. She stays here for three months and teaches Environmental Toxicology. I have no teaching obligations and are free to pursue my own scholarly interests.
We briefly exchange a little shop talk of environmental toxicology: the textbook she uses, etc. We meet the department chair, a burly man with Armenian name, and another young faculty member, a Brit named Allan Watt, a philosopher who shares our interest in sustainable consumption and common friends in the Netherlands. It feels very comfortable already to be here. We check out our office (a little cage with a large window) and the library (very nice), and spend a lot of time standing around, chatting, waiting, signing some papers, and just trying to overcome the overwhelming jetlag and stuffy air in this building.
A café around the corner improves everything.
The rest of the afternoon is taken up by setting up the household. Our shopping list is long, including toilet paper, soap, basic food staples and of course fresh food. We take a tram to the big indoor market by the Gellert Bridge. A wonderful place that reminds me of ‘hala’ in Warsaw. All kinds of food, but all fairly traditional Eastern European. Earlier, in the supermarket, I saw a medium size bottle to Teriyaki sauce (the same I buy I the US) for about $8.00. That is very expensive by local standards. It seems that globalization of food has not entered into the Budapest kitchens. On the other hand, the city has many Turkish eateries, one of which we try for lunch.
On the tram nobody seems to stamp their tickets. We cannot tell if people just ride for free or have monthly passes. For today, we did not buy tickets, but I do not plan to continue that way. The sign inside the tram enlightens me as the prices of public transportation; tomorrow I will buy a book of tickets. The ‘hala’ is next to the river and a beautiful bent iron green bridge. We enjoy coffee and the sun in an outdoor café overlooking the bridge.
It is an adventure to shop in a foreign place and language. We have to figure everything out: how much money to put in the lot to free a shopping cart, how to recognize a container of sour cream or cream cheese. We are doing pretty well.
We make a nice dinner and stay in for the night. Tired. Content. The apartment has no radio or CD player, and the two English language TV channels are CNN and Europe News. This will be a simple life.
Saturday, April 3.
A beautiful day, somewhat warmer than yesterday. I could not fall asleep until close to three in the morning. This is the only cloud in my personal sky, but a heavy one. In the morning we walk around the Jewish quarter, which begins just around the corner form our building. This is the second largest synagogue in the world, after Temple Emmanuel in New York City, built in the style reminiscent of Moorish architecture, though not quite it. But Saturday is not the right day to visit this area, especially during Passover: everything is closed. We shall come back some other time. The Budapest Jews were clearly prosperous, living in the very center of the city, in these handsome buildings. We reflect on their sad ending in 1944, almost at the end of the Nazi occupation. Some of the buildings still have bullet holes pockmarking them since WW II. It is all curiously suspended in time. It would be hard to find such buildings in the center of Warsaw. Somehow, things are changing slowly here. Even the traffic is not so heavy. This certain slowness reminds me of Lisbon.
Walking slowly toward home we discover another shopping ‘hala’, Kaiser Market, similar to the one yesterday, though smaller. It has absolutely everything to eat, and is within a walking distance from our home. This will be our place for the next two months. We feel increasingly at home in this neighborhood and in the apartment, now that we have plenty of food and getting used to the couch (a day bed, not a couch), the arm chair, the pillow on the couch. Philip has figured out the early morning hours when the balcony flood with sunshine. By the time I got up today, late, close to 9 am, he has already had his sun-worshiping session. And even the badly sounding piano in the apartment – a Russian product named Ukraina – is tolerable when Philip plays his familiar pieces.
In the afternoon we head for the Citadel: the big hill on the other side of Danube. This is one of the major ‘to visit’ sites in the city. We take three stops on the familiar tram (47 or 49), and like everybody else we do not bother with the ticket. I am still not sure what the story is with these tram tickets, but for the time being we travel for free. It turns out that at the foot of the hill is the famous Gellert Hotel that George raved about. This is a ridiculously decorated heavy structure, pompous and somehow overfed. This is exactly how one imagines a 19th century places for ‘taking waters’ by self-important people. The view from the top reveals that Budapest has no high-rises or skyscrapers. It is quite amazing. This city is mostly no taller than about 6-7 stories. No signs of frenzied globalization, the way Warsaw has become during the past 20 years. That may explain the conspicuous absence (so far) of ethnic faces or ethnic restaurants. Budapest is still very Hungarian. Later, someone tells us that Hungarians are the most xenophobic people in Europe.
Returning from the hike we stop at Gellert. The architecture of the inside matches the outside. Some people walk around in terry cloth robes. Others sip coffee in the lobby café. We take a peek of the smallish swimming pool, examine the prices (everything, from hot tubs to massages to towel rental to a locker for our things is ala carte here), we decide that a little swim in this pool is not worth the $12 ticket and the fuss of undersign, dressing, renting a locker, etc. We head for the center again. This time we go again toward the street bazaar near us at Szomory Dezso Ter, and the pedestrian mall on Vaci Utca. All the brand stores are here, from H&M to Nike to Salamander Shoes (Salamander seems to be really big in Budapest; I have seen at least half a dozen stores already). But the most interesting thing on this street are the buildings. Every building is in a different style, some very heavily decorated, but all different. The street is rather narrow, and most people do not look up, but I find it so fascinating to watch these buildings.
And so many street entertainers, on purpose or not! One young fellow with a shaved head is walking by while balancing a large glass ball on his head. A couple of about our age, dressed in 19th century clothes and with heavily painted faces is walking in seriously slowed motion. They look like a painting. I bow my head to them, they both bow back, slowly, graciously.
Another cup of flavored coffee with liqueur and whipped cream, and we get home after six, really tired. Cook at home. Linger. I catch my face in the mirror: it is a tired looking face. I hope to sleep better tonight.
Sunday, April 4
I slept better. Take a short walk after breakfast and discover a whole new area in the neighborhood: a series of connected seven inner courts in the Art Deco style, surrounded by renovated five story buildings. These are, as I later discover, a famous creation of the architect Guzsdu, and bears his name: Guzsdu Udvah. These must be quite expensive renovated apartments for the prosperous Budapestians. It felt like the world apart: in the center of a bustling city but entirely self contained and quiet, with a café here and there, a fancy health club, outdoor bars. These courts connect Kiraly Utsa with Dob Utsa, two parallel main throughways for accessing different parts of “our” Budapest by foot.
We work until lunch, then go out for a day of sightseeing. Buda: the castle, the ancient history of Hungary centered around Stephanus Rex in the 11th century. The streets of the old Buda town strongly resemble the alleys of the Old Town in Warsaw. We have seen so many places already in our life together; there is always a resemblance to something. We visit the national museum in the 18th century royal castle. The museum is almost empty. As in the Museum of Russian Art in St. Petersburg, the Hungarian painters seemed to have gone straight from very traditional to modern painting, skipping over the impressionism. There are some beautiful 19th century portraits and modern paintings by artists who clearly spent time in Paris in the first two decades of the 20th century. The work of Matisse, early Picasso, Van Gogh and others echo in these works.
A lot of walking today. Touristing is hard work. Dinner at the edge of the pedestrian street near us, off of Deak Ference Ter. A good meal in a relaxing place with good background music. When we walk home after dinner I realize how close it is. After three days of walking in this area, the neighborhood has shrunk so much. The distances are short and connections more clear.
Monday, April 5th.
Cold and rainy day. The worst so far. Work until early afternoon. Philip does not feel good. I slept better than any time during the past two weeks.
We walk the full length of Andrassi, until the National Museum and the big park. This is not a day for the park. There is a promising exhibit of Cézanne, Matisse, etc., in the museum. It turns out to be great, though not very big. Looking at these paintings we just have to connect the dots of memories in our minds. It is not so long ago that we discovered, in the Trietiakowskaya Galleria in Moscow the great Russian collection of French Impressionists, and in the Hermitage discovered the names of Szczukin and Morozov. I never heard of them before the trip to Petersburg, but here, today, in Hungary, we see an exhibit made up of selections from their two collections. Just connecting the dots…we take in the western culture and art.
Return home by Metro. It is so quaint! The handless hanging from the ceilings are made of leather straps, the seats are tiny, the stations are all identical, look like toys, all tiled the same way, with little ticket booths. Everything is made of fine oak, beautifully carved and polished by a hundred years of human touch.
At night, a concert at the St. Stephen’s (Istvan) church. This is a music digest for tourists, overpriced, not good acoustics, and yet very special to sit there and take in this grand church. It is freezing.
Tuesday, April 6th.
The cold weather continues but the rain has stopped. It is 85 degrees in Boston!
Work at home all morning. Not so great for our moods, we need to get out of this view-less place. In the afternoon we go to the University. Tomorrow they should have our ID cards ready. We spend an hour or two in the library, working, which feels much better than staying at home. I have almost finished the book about rebound effect. Learned a lot of new concepts. Feels good. We come across and attend a lecture by a scholar and former defense minister from Iraq, Alawi, about Islam and the difficulty of reconciling it with the secular human rights norms of the rest of the world. He does not think that attempts to interpret Sharia in the context of modernity will work because Muslims, even the modernized ones, deep down believe it to be a word of God in a literal sense. His approach: use the principles of ethical behavior to guide the legal decisions and behavioral norms, as ethical conduct is an accepted principle in Islam.
A reception after the lecture, then a cheap meal in the 10th floor café at the university. Then we walk, have coffee/tea in a neighborhood café. Philip is still not feeling good, so I continue walking alone until about 7:30. Very cold. I discover another interesting street: Kazinczy Utsa, with an orthodox Lubavichi synagogue, a rabbinical school, a glat kosher restaurant, and several youth-oriented, somewhat retro, cafes and restaurants. Just like the Mare neighborhood in Paris.
Home tonight, drawing, reading. Philip still does not feel good.
Wednesday, April 7th.
Finally, a sunny day. Still cool, but the worst is behind us.
We work for quite some time on the Manchester presentation, and make a significant progress. Have lunch, and go shopping. The fresh meat counter is great at Kaiser Market. We figure out the right size for trash bags, and find shoe polish. These are our little victories in the strange language. I must say that the shop clerks behave here exactly as I remember form the Community days: no smiles, no customer-is-right attitude. They do their job and that is all. I really like this shopping ‘hala’. Though the distance thing is a strange phenomenon. Psychologically, all the distances have shrunk considerably. My explanation of it is that that when we look at a street ahead of us we know where it is going; we know the beginning and the end of our trip. So it does not look formidable. But in reality, these distances are not so short because the blocks in Budapest are rather long. So, in reality, we walk quite a bit to get to places that seem to be just around the corner. This became quite obvious when we schlepped ourselves back from the food shopping trip, with heavy bottle in the bag.
Quite remarkable that there is no recycling here of any kind. I brought our trash downstairs today, with the beer, wine and a plastic bottle in a separate bag, to show the doorman what I meant as a question. He took it all and placed it with the other garbage, with a smile of a man who has just done nice thing for the customer.
We go to the university in the afternoon and got the ID cards and passwords for computers. That allows me to work in the library for while. I really need to get out of this apartment more, partly because the laptop is not good for any prolonged work, and partly because of the limited natural light. But also, psychologically I need to get out.
My book review about rebound effect is making progress. I read and absorbed the entire book, which was hard for me as the book is written in the langue of economics, the hardest of all my ventures into other people’s disciplines. I cannot, for example, get used to the word “utility”, which to me refers to using a tool or appliance. Why cannot they use the word gain, usefulness, profit, or something along those lines, depending on the context? All my thoughts are now down on paper: it will need heavy editing, but the ideas are all there. I have a feeling that in a short time I will not have this unlimited time to read and write because there will be people to see. Philip discovered that Alan Watt at MESPOM has done a project on weatherizing home in Budapest, and wrote to him to meet and talk. Philip has also reached out to other people in the area.
We are busy at the university until close to seven o’clock because of the conference call with the SCORAI executive committee. We walk home the long way around, making more discoveries on the way of our neighborhood. The Parliament House is not far. Before we get to it, at the end of Nador Utsa we pass through a beautiful (Szabadsag Ter) with these over decorated Habsburg houses on all sides and a little park in the center. The fanciest of these buildings, probably some major bureaucratic center in the empire days, is now the home of MTV. But the most enjoyable discovery is the fountain that stops spraying water when someone approaches it to cross. The fountain is a square of rows of openings in the pavement, with an open middle, about ten meters in each direction. When you approach it, just before you think you will be soaked by the three meter high wall of water, the spray stops in front of you, just wide enough to allow you to cross. Half a minute later the water resumes. It is a very amusing thing, and everybody who plays with it (which is irresistible) has a broad smile on their face. We take pictures of each other.
On the way home I am struck by the disproportion between the height of the buildings and the width of the side street. The streets are really very narrow, with sidewalks wide enough for two people and the middle often for only one car. For such alleys, these ornate, 5-8 story buildings are far too high and heavy. They must have once been much shorter, before the 18th-19th century.
Cook a fine meal at home.
Thursday, April 8.
(I am writing on the tenth, and it is already hard to remember our day. Oh, yes…it comes back to me). We worked hard today. Philip at home, I at the university. It works definitely better for me to get out of the house. There was a conference at the “Aula” on the future of Europe. It appears that the Political Science department is the most active group here at CEU. That makes sense. When I got there, they are having a coffee break, so I help myself to some tea and pastry. Work in the library for a couple of hours, and when I emerge, the conference just brakes up for lunch. So I again help myself to some sandwiches and drinks. Then I move to our office in the building down the street Nador Utsa. The computer is great, but I still have to figure out how to print. I finish the book review and the manuscript review. Good work.
It is a beautiful warm day. Philip and I meet around 4 PM at the street corner of Bajtsy Zelinsky and Karoly, the big Deak Ter, by the Metro and go to the bid shopping mall a few stops away to finally take care of the cell-phone situation. Considering that these is close to a rush hour, I do not see an overwhelming traffic, either on the metro or the automobile traffic.
The shopping mall is gigantic, with all the usual as well as more local stores. The movie theater on the top floor shows Hollywood action movies, as expected. We take a while to complete the phone transaction. Judit, the girl who takes care of us at the phone store is so lively, with her serviceable English, her easy smile and her total naturalness in her youth. I end up buying a new phone for $20 with a pre-paid minutes and Philip got a new sim card for his phone. We can now call the US for about 30 cents a minute. A huge improvement over the $3 per minute until now.
Walk home the long way around, making more discoveries of more side streets, and end up having dinner in an outdoor café in one of the Guzsdu courtyards. I give a tip that was too small, and am a bit embarrassed by it. It is because we still get confused by the small value of this currency. 1000Fts equal $5.
A quiet evening at home. We worked probably too hard today.
Friday, April 9th.
Today was a big day: Philip’s talk to the Future Studies group at the National Academy of Sciences. We meet Klara, our long time colleague from GIN and Philip’s Sus-house project, in front of the University, and meet her young colleague Zoltan. A coffee at an outdoor café. I like Zoltan: an easy and interesting conversation about rebound effect.
The National Academy building is a few doors down from CEU. A very nice place, modern inside a traditional. About 20 people come, clearly long time friends and colleagues, one young woman among them, but these are mostly senior academics. These peoples have been meeting every two months or so, giving presentations to each other on various topics, not necessarily in their areas of expertise. It is a learning and study group. Today’s program is two talks about the financial crisis, plus an add-on: Philip. The first talk is by a philosopher, talking about the concept of a crisis; the second focuses on a lot of statistics about the nature of the crisis. Zoltan translates form Hungarian. I have trouble sometimes to follow because Philip sits between Zoltan and me, and I do not always catch what he is saying. Sometimes I listen; sometimes I let my mind wonder. The two talks and the ensuing discussion take about one and half hour, and only then it is Philips’ turn. His talk goes well, but people are saturated, and possibly confronted with too many new ideas, and the language, so there is not much discussion. By now I tune out and start outlining my talk at Miskolcz on Monday. Suddenly, I realize that my name is being spoken, and that everybody is looking at me. Well, the chairwoman has just asked me to give a short presentation. Philip saves me by suggesting in a whisper that I should talk about the rebound effect. That is all I need: the words and ideas just flow, as I have just finished writing about it.
Well, the meeting, including the informal part, takes us until close to 2 PM. I chat with the second presenter, Eva, about the life of a professional woman, and I realize how stressed she is, how overwhelmed by the household chores while advancing her career. It is all so familiar! Except the impression I get is that Hungarian society is much more traditional than the US, and that professional women carry all the burden of children and household.
Klara and Zoltan rush back right after the meeting, so we have lunch by ourselves at the university cafeteria. This is not gourmet, but solid, eatable, and very inexpensive. On this beautiful day we take a walk and sit for a while on a sunny bench.
Dinner of leftovers. At seven we walk over (10 minutes) the opera house. Two tickets for $40! This building is spectacular. In the same style as Paris Opera but so much more imposing and beautiful. It was built in 1895 and miraculously escaped WWII bombing. The staircase, the marble walls, the multiple rooms are incredible. But the program is the most unforgettable event. The first half is a ballet to the music by Eron Dohnani: simple entertaining music and cheerful choreography. I like it much more than Philip. The second half is a one act opera by Zoltan Kodaly, one of tow best known Hungarian composer (along with Bella Bartok) entitled Transylvanian Spinning Room. The opera (dating to 1932) is just as strange as the title. The music is interesting modern creation of its time, with interesting harmonies and a lot of folk tunes. It is all very slow, ponderous. The choreography, costumes and stage setting is all folklore and pastoralism: an infantile view of simple and pure peasant life. This is a huge show; I estimate that they have between 70 and 80 people in this show, including the huge chorus and a dance group, and most of the time they are all on stage. It is really nothing like we have ever seen before on an operatic stage. The plot is incomprehensible: people seem to die, then get up, get married, escape gendarmes, be found and arrested, and at the end it all ends happily. Later at home, we learn through the web that there is really no plot to speak of in this opera, just a series of about a dozen scenes. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, this opera.
On the way home we stop at Café Muvesz on Andrassi. This café may just become our place. I get a little drunk on Kir Royale.
Saturday, April 10.
Shopping for food in the morning. Reading work-related book in the afternoon. A nice slow walk and tea with pastry at Muvesz. Dinner at home. Evening at home. Tomorrow we go to Miszkolc on a 10:30 train.
Sunday, April 11
Three metro stops on the red line. It turns out that only the Andrassi metro line is so quaint. All other Metro lines are very plain. The Eastern Train Station like all other European strain stations dating to early 20th century. A very comfortable two hour travel in an almost empty first class car. The land outside is flat like the Netherlands, and very still. Large fields, some planted, some not, villages and small towns, but no activity: no people, no animals. It is Sunday morning, but still…it seems too quiet. Klara awaits us at the train platform, takes us for lunch to her flat. It is a large place with high ceilings, tastefully furnished with antiques or their imitations. But the building is run down. Also, the walls and ceilings of the apartment badly need a coat of paint, and the curtains need a wash. Klara is not updating anything; it has been six years since Laszlo’s death, but there is that air of sadness about her, and now also about her flat.
We politely eat more than we otherwise would, take our time. Then we take a taxi to our remote hotel (close to the university campus) to check in, and continue to the famous spa of hot waters in a large complex of caves. It all has been built during the communist period, and I really like the style: not because it is stylish but precisely because it is not. We slowly make our way from one pool to another, with water temperature slowly rising. One of the pools has a vaulted ceiling with imitations planetarium on the ceiling, and colored lights that change from red to purple, to blue, to very dark. The room is thick with steam and every word we say is magnified. We stay here for some time before moving on. The last pool is 35 degrees centigrade: too warm to swim but still cool enough for a long bath. We spend two hours in the water! I have never been in water for so long. It is a supremely relaxing experience, except that we need to make a conversation, and that is an effort because Klara’s English is halting and laborious. I wish someone could join us for dinner. That would dilute the hard work for speaking and listening to Klara’s English. Unfortunately, all the colleagues (especially, from my perspective, the young Zoltai) are busy for family matters today.
Dinner at a white table-cloth restaurant where everything is ala carte. Everything: a garnish, a sauce, ketchup. Another strange custom.
Monday, April 12.
Philip’s talk, then my talk. Two great presentations, but these students do not know much about environmental policy or the ongoing sustainability debates. Afterward we meet many people on the faculty here, too many to keep track of their names. Learn so many new things about Hungary. The economic stagnation of this region is profound. Steel mills and other large industrial enterprises closed and abandoned. Workers’ housing, red bricked like row housing in mining English towns, still full of the same people, but poorer and more despondent. Miskolc is like Worcester was at its lowest economic point.
We have no way of telling to what degree the pessimism of our hosts is their Hungarian cultural thing or just a reflection of the reality. They surely do not see a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. On the other hand, one of the people we meet, the Dean of Research at the Miskolc University, owns a farm where he breeds, organically, gray Hungarian cattle, especially desirable right now because it is resistant to the Mad Cow Disease, and because the meat is of high quality. So, we see private entrepreneurship. And Klara tells us a story of a biomass facility, which unfortunately went bankrupt, but still, was tried. But on the other hand, this is an academic backwater. Everybody would like to enter into a research collaboration with us, but of course I have little interest in doing it here or anywhere. Two young women assistant professors we meet are obviously representing the new generation: speaking fluent English, connected to what is going on in the international academic community, savvy. One of them (don’t remember the name) is gorgeous. She spends the entire day with us, but after a while we are too embarrassed to admit that we forgot her name. She is on her cell phone continuously, and it seems like some highly controlling boyfriend.
The hate of gypsies in this country is quite an eye opener. This is a large minority, about 10% of the population, perhaps more in the Miscolc’s region. They refuse to get “modernized”, like the welfare queen-and-king status, have a lot of children, contribute to crime and poverty, steal goods and farm products, and are generally hated. We read about a village that built a high concrete wall between the gypsy part of town and the rest (actually, I think that it happened in Slovakia). We hear about the mayor of Miskolc who, in an effort to integrate the Gypsies, designated housing for them in the city center. The gypsies used it the way they use shacks in the woods: to raise pigs, to cook on open fire, and so on. The housing was completely destroyed and the residents had to be resettled, only reinforcing all the stereotypes. But we also read about perfectly normal children who would routinely be sent to schools for mentally retarded (what horror).
I understand that these people have a real social problem, but on the other hand, listening to our educated colleagues talk about how dirty these people are, how inferior, I cannot help but think about the virulent anti-Semitism that must have followed Eastern European Jews. Of course, there the problem was quite the opposite: the Jews were hard working and enterprising and competed with poor uneducated Gentiles for scarce resources, besides being “different” an unconvertible. Still, to observe ethnic hatred so close up is eerie. I never experienced it so openly and from such a “neutral” close up orchestra seat. At some point a Gypsy woman passes by holding a hand of a small child. She is dressed like everybody else, just her skin and hair coloring indicates her ethnicity. A colleague academic leans toward me and in a horror-filled whisper says: “this is a Gypsy” as though we are seeing a monster. Whow! That took me aback.
Our program for the afternoon:
Lunch at the cafeteria’s special dining room (tasty but very rich)
Ice-cream in a special locally famous place (I do not love it)
Sightseeing a 14th century castle
Visit to the famous resort hotel in the hills, over a lake and surrounded by a forest. A measured pleasant walk in the woods, under a waterfall.
When we get off the train in Budapest we both say simultaneously: it is good to be home. How quickly we adopted a new city for a home. This is because we need that feeling of a home.
Tuesday, April 12.
Rainy and Cold.
Work at the university until almost 4 PM. With breaks, with a walk.
Philip works at home. That is our routine: I go to the university, he works at home.
We meet at our café Muvesz on Andrassi, over a beer and tea with cake. Tell each other the new ideas.
Metro to the Big Park. A walk to the Szechenyi great bathhouse there to check it out.
A walk in the park.
Back home at 6:30 for a dinner of leftovers.
Dinner at home: writing, reading, piano playing, drawing.
April 14, Wednesday.
Work on the Sustainable Consumption course. Together, we figured out the syllabus. It is great.
Lunch. Long walk to get the paper, do some other errands, visit the enormous shop with old rare books and maps. It is finally sunny, but still chilly.
Philip is not feeling so great; dizzy and very tired. No explanation. Perhaps he is not cut out for a city life. He really does not like walking that much in the city, finds it tiring to do errands. In the country: yes. But not in the city. I, on the other hand, thrive in the city.
The SCORAI conference call at 5 PM, from the MESPOM.
Dinner in the downstairs Italian restaurant. Very good food but far too rich for a daily consumption, despite the 30% discount for people living in the neighborhood.
Shopping in the corner supermarket. Everybody in the long line buys only a few items. People must shop daily here, just like in Paris and in my youth in Warsaw.
Once someone wrote a poem about Parisian roofs. There should be a poem about Budapest courtyards. The city blocks are long in Budapest, so the buildings need courtyards in order to create enough windows in the apartments. These courtyards are each different, and have more personality than the buildings themselves. Each is different. I think that I will photograph them and make a collection. They are so interesting.
Thursday, April 15.
The bad weather continues. Philip works at home. I go to the university. I finish the book review, which needs to be shortened by more than half. It is good. I still exceed the length limit, but I will negotiate with Maurie. I am ready to share it with Philip. Talk to some students, including a handsome kid from Poland, and to the Malaysian lady toxicologist. Other work: the excellent book on international social movements, notes for the meeting with NYSERDA next week, e-mail. I am done with work before two o’clock.
Lunch at home, then we go to Sechenyi bathhouse in the big park.
This bathhouse is the mother of all bathhouses. A huge palace of sensual pleasure. It must be bigger than the palace in Wilanow in Poland. We move, slowly, from one pool to another, swim in the outdoor pool for more than half an hour (in the rain), move again: between dry and wet saunas of different temperatures, between pools of different temperature and sulfur content, into the very funny pool with strong current that pushes everybody around at brisk pace, into the shower, out of the shower. The people here are an endless variety of shapes, sizes, ages, and with a few exceptions all are white and average looking. No beauties, except for the beauty of youth, and no other ethnic groups. Two and half hours later I am as relaxed as I ever get. The previous three days I worked too intensely, and have a somewhat tired look. This visit to the bathhouse takes much of it away.
On the way home we stop at Movesz café for tea and cake, and beer for Philip, and I cannot imagine a better afternoon in the city. We also discover a dance studio around the corner. Tomorrow they have a dance night. We will go.
Evening at home, listening to rain. Philip has a 9 PM conference call from the university. I am happy to stay put.
Friday, April 16.
Today is the annual junk pick-up day in our city district. There are huge piles of stuff on street corners, from broken toys and worn shoes to construction waste, furniture and appliances. This is a great recycling machine: people are systematically sorting through this stuff and rescuing things. We see people waking with large rolling suitcases, presumably filled with treasures. On one corner two old men have set up a little stall: sitting in two discarded armchairs they are selling small decorative tsatskies recovered from the waste. By the end of the day it will all be removed by the city.
We work until two o’clock: Philip at home and I at the university. What is missing in this life, I just figured out is contact with people. It is more central to my well being that I ever knew. The small talk, the social interaction over stories and gossip, and ideas. As Philip says: I need an audience of my stories. I add to it: I need my wit compartment to open and allow me to laugh. That compartment opens automatically in the present of people, but not at all in their absence. And without laughter I feel tired, I suppose by my own heaviness of sprit that is always lurking in the corners of my soul.
Today we explore the Jewish history of Budapest. As it turns out, we live right in the old Ghetto area. At the start of WW II Hungary (mostly in Budapest) had 800,000 Jews. They almost all survived under the Nazi sympathizer regime until April 16, 1944, when Germans basically toppled it and took the Jewish issues into their own hands. Between April 16 and July 9 they transported several hundred thousand people to Auschwitz, to be gassed immediately. The transports then stopped, and resumed again in October, until December of 1944. During these last months of the war 600,000 people were murdered! We can just imagine the resources it took to transport so many people to Auschwitz when these trains could have been used to support the war machine. Killing off Jews before capitulating was more important than anything else.
We discover a most beautiful synagogue near us, on Rumbach on street, off of Dob Utsa. It is unused, needs serious renovations, and according to an English speaking young man we encounter, it is unlikely to happen as nobody has the money to do that, and the ownership is constantly shifting. The façade of the building has been renovated and cleaned by the Hungarian government in 1990, and partial renovations were also accomplished. Then it all stopped. This is a Moorish looking building with the most beautiful mosaic floors and walls, very tall and graceful. Designed, according to our acquaintance, by the famous Austrian architect Wagner, the only building designed by him in Hungary. Hungary (or, rather, Budapest) still has a Jewish community of about 100,000 people and 22 working synagogues.
We take a tour of the main tourist attraction here: the Dohani Street Synagogue, which is the largest capacity synagogues in the world, and in size only the second, after Temple Emmanuel in New York. We join a tour group in English. The synagogue is really amazing: its structure is almost identical to a gothic cathedral: tall and narrow, in the shape close to a cross, with a nave, an organ, and even the small balcony on the side for preaching. What was they thinking of, there Hungarian Jews, building a catholic church-looking synagogue? But the decorations are all Eastern. Philip tells me that the building reminds him of Aya Sophia in Istanbul, which was built as a Christian Church and later converted to a mosque by the Ottomans. It really is a beautiful building that can accommodate three thousand people in its permanent seats. During the war it was Gestapo headquarters, which is what probably saved the building form destruction. The inner garden has been converted to a cemetery (a very unusual thing) when upon the Budapest’s liberation on January 18, 1945, Soviet Army had to burry hundreds of decomposing Jewish corpses.
The back garden, called Wallenberg Garden has an amazing sculpture: a steel weeping willow where every one of thousands of metal leaves has a name of a person inscribed in it. It is such arresting sculpture. This synagogue has been restored by Tony Curtis Foundation (I find out that Tony Curtis’ family came from Hungary).
The tour itself is quite a scene. Our guide is a Jewish woman in her 40s who gets emotionally very involved in the history she tells. She must be really sick and tired of the ignorant western tourists’ idea of religious intolerance during the Communist era, and perhaps harbors some personal disappointments about the life in the post-communist Hungary. In any case, she walks into a swamp by asking the group what comes to mind when they think about Communism. This is the wrong audience for this question. These are regular Americans who are rather ignorant of history and definitely brainwashed by the decades of the cold war propaganda, both from the government and from the leaders of the Jewish community. One woman in the crowd, I discover, comes originally from Poland, and while in the Soviet Union during the war, was sent to a Siberian labor camp in Novosibirsk for a year or two. Making her way eventually to Tashkent and then Israel after the war (she now lives in the US), she is full of hatred toward the Soviet system, and nothing in the word will change her mind. She is not receptive to the fact that had she stayed in Poland she would have most likely perished in Auschwitz.
The answers to the guide’s questions are mostly ignorant slogans: religious suppression, lack of individuality, persecution of Jews, being forced to share one’s higher income – earned through entrepreneurship and hard work – with some lazy good-for-nothing welfare queens, and so on. Of course, these answers only upset the guide more, and she sinks deeper into the swamp by trying to explain what life was like in the socialist Hungary for everybody and for Jews. She tries to also explain the negative significance of the 1956 revolution to the Hungarian Jews, while probably most of her audience never heard of the 56 revolution! So, the harder she tries, the more she alienates most of the people in the group. At some point I try to come to her rescue, and make a statement about socialism, but to no avail: nobody pays attention to me. I wish I could linger here with some of these Americans, and talk, but Philip has no interest in mingling, so we move on. I am so hungry for a conversation with people about life and about their stories.
In the afternoon we walk a lot, shop for food and other things. Make nice dinner.
At 9 Pm we venture to the dance studio nearby. The music is great: all the slow and Latin dances we have learned. There are not too many people, maybe 20: all young and mostly very good dancers. We really enjoy dancing, and we are pretty good at it (not like these young people, of course, but good enough for us). I suppose that all around the world we can find some dance studios where they will play that music and dance these dances. I wish, again, that we could talk with people, joke around, laugh with them.
One more stop tonight, at close to midnight: a glass of brandy in a neighborhood pizza café. I am very hungry by now, and the waiter brings us a small freshly baked pizza crust, which is delicious.
Saturday, April 17.
Philip feels good again.
Spring has arrived. It is sunny and warmer, though not warm. Good for walking.
We go to Szentendre, 11 kilometers in 45 minutes on a ancient suburban train.
Szentendre: lovely, cute, touristy, overpriced. The art shops I saw there in 1991 are gone, replaced with touristy stuff, mostly local crafts. Massive quantities displayed, the same stuff over and over again, saturates one and discourages any purchases.
After we emerge from a restaurant after a mediocre dinner, all the tourists miraculously disappear, and we get a glimpse of Szentendre’s real face.
Sightsee the Serbian church after hours, guided by the dark eyed Serbian grounds keeper who happened to be there when we stumbled upon the church on our way out.
Sunday, April 18.
A slow day, and an afternoon in the Szechenyi bath house.
Monday, April 19.
In the afternoon we undertake an expedition to Memento Park, the place far out in the outskirts of Budapest, where they assembled the toppled public monuments from the communist era. First we take tram number 49, then bus 150. Our first try with the bus is a failure: by mistake we take 150E, which take us on a large loop and back to the origins. When we finally get on the right bus, the trip takes a full half an hour. On this bus we see the hard working people of Budapest, not the moneyed, intellectual, and student elites that we meet daily in our neighborhood. These faces are worn, the teeth are sometimes missing, the tired hands carry shopping bags, the haircuts are not especially good, and the hair color comes from a kitchen sink. As the bus makes its way through the projects, then urban gardens, then cottages, and finally suburban villas, we get to see a lot of real life of Budapest. The park is located on top of a steep hill. It is only now that we realize that there are these hills outside of Budapest, even though we actually saw them two weeks ago from the Gellert Hill.
The park is smaller than we expected, muddy, but still worth the trip. For me, it is a nostalgic trip back in time, especially the songs blasting from a vintage 1950s radio. I never thought of it, but it is not surprising to find out that the camp songs I sang in Poland were also sang by the youth in Hungary and the rest of the Block. The centerpiece of the display is a pair enormous bronze boots standing on a tall pedestal. It turns out that the boots are all that remains of a huge statue of Stalin, located by the Parliament building, that was toppled during the 1956 Revolution. The boots alone must be four of five feet tall.
In some perverse way I like these statutes. They are so stylized that the fit very well with modernity. And at least they try to have something to say.
There is also an indoor exhibit in a shabby shack, which turns out to be an original barrack from one of the Stalin’s labor camps. It consists mostly of photographs fom the 1956 revolution, which is clearly the glorious historical event for the Hungarians. I never realized how bloody that revolution was. There were thousands of dead. One of the photographs depicts corpses lying on a sidewalk; another one shows ruined buildings. But the most entertaining display is a documentary movie about the security apparatus spying on ordinary citizens. It is built around a training movie for secret agents, and instructs them how to conduct apartment searchers and how to shadow people with secret cameras built into women’s pocketbooks and so on. The documentary also includes footage and the audio of two agents spying on a young man with long hair. The audience does not know what the man is accused of. Here, we see him meet with a pretty woman in a park, there we see him talking in a café, and we even see him at home celebrating something. The latter must have been taken from a window of a building across the street. We see the a man with two women enjoying a meal, while the two grumpy agents are complaining to each other in the background about their lousy job of spying, and the fact that they have not eaten for a whole day, much less enjoy a company of two attractive women. It is really very funny to watch and listen, this pathetic security apparatus that employed thousands of people.
I wonder where these people are today. Perhaps they work as ticket enforcers at the metro: there are at least two of those at each metro entry.
We wait for the bus at a solitary stop in the middle of nowhere, not sure if it will ever come. Well, it does come, not quite according to posted schedule, but it take us back to the city. We really are always testing the limits of our ability to get around, as we do not understand any signs or notices in Hugnarian. We did not even acquire a Hungarian-English dictionary, assuming that with such a strange language it would be useless.
Tuesday, April 20.
A perfect spring day. Work in the morning, then lunch with Philip’s contact at Corvinus University by the Gellert Bridge Guyla (another editors of Journal of Cleaner Production) and his female colleague who is doing her doctoral work on the European REACH program. Back to CEU to work until almost 5. Tea and cake at our usual place at Movesz, this time sitting outdoors, which does not have the special atmosphere I like about it. A walk back by a roundabout way, through Ferenz Liszt Square takes us to another discovery: the grand music school. This is an incredible building. The bulletin board on the ground level has several posters for all kinds of musical events in the city during the next week.
If not for the volcano eruption in Iceland we would be going to Manchester tomorrow. It is very very unlikely to happen, but we defer the decision until tomorrow morning.
Wednesday, April 21.
Tram #2 is the cheapest tour of Budapest. It runs along the Danube and provides for very nice panorama of the city: mostly Buda, but also from an angle, of Pest. We did not go to Manchester. The flight to Munich was cancelled, though Munich-to-Manchester was not. Philip hoped to get squeezed into another flight if we went to the Lufthansa office. A receptionist at the neighborhood hotel helped us with finding the address and directions to Lufthansa (while I stole two schnapps glasses from their deserted bar lobby/atrium bar). We take the #2 train to the IXth district, along Danube, but of course we cannot even get by the security guard, who clearly has instructions not to allow any customers through the gate.
I is a very emotional all day about this Manchester fiasco – this trip was really important to me, partly because of Ken, and partly because I feel that my days of belonging to this European community of colleagues is coming to an end – and it all explodes later in the afternoon, over a misplaced computer file: I cried.
On this morning trip, on a cool and sunny spring day, it turns out that we are right next to the National Theater and Palace of the Arts and Ludwig Museum of Modern Art. The latter are in the same building, a modern structure that reminds me of MOMA. Both are opulent in size and detail. I really love the National Theater building, which combines old fashioned shape and the details of a typical Budapest 19th century building, with, however, a modern design. Both buildings were erected in the early 2000s, only a decade after the dissolution of the Communist state; talking about national priorities. We buy concert tickets for Friday at the Palace of Art, which give us a free pass to the museum.
Their collection is pretty good for a ‘backwater’ like Budapest, though not large. The usual modern art stuff: with some exceptions, it does not speak to me. But it is a peaceful time to be in the museum, almost deserted at this hour. We run into a young couple with an infant boy of maybe 7 months. As they move from room to room they put a piece of cloth on the floor and put the boy on it. The baby amuses itself while they watch the exhibition. At some point I notice that the guard woman gives the baby a bottle. We would never see such scene in the US. In some ways, people here are real sticklers about rules, but in other ways the rules are very relaxed. These ways of rules/no rules are very different from those in the US. When it comes to women, babies, etc., it is all flexible, but when it comes to stamping tickets and waiting one’s turn, we better comply.
Before going back we climb a Ziggurat, a strange snail-shell-like structure that has been invented by the ancient Mesopotamians or north African Arabs. It gives us a good view of the entire complex of these two buildings and the gardens around them. Very stylized, tightly controlled nature.
Walk back toward the city center, along the river, then tram the rest of the way. Work in the afternoon, a drink in a new cozy café on Kiraly Utsa, dinner at home.
Thursday, April 22.
Three weeks since we came to Budapest! Today is another day: working until about 3, then shopping for food, making dinner. We shop at the far way ‘hala’ where the food is the freshest. Many of the vendors have a rudimental knowledge of English. It is about 5 stops by tram 49. Perhaps in the US we would consider it too far, but here it is not. I am not sure why; perhaps because we are never in a hurry here.
We are slowly learning about buying meat here. The poultry works best. Beef we do not even try. With pork, we learned not to buy loin, not chops. I try a new green: a large bunch of leaves that look like lily of the valley leaves, and have a delicate smell of onions and garlic. The woman said that it grows only at this time of the year in the forest. We try it in the salad: very interesting. But I think it will be the best cooked with a little soy sauce.
After dinner we go for a longish walk, as we did not walk too much this afternoon, and I missed my pastry and tea at Movesz café on Andrassi. Now that the weather is warmer and Philip is irresistibly drawn to sitting outside in cafes, Movesz does not have the same appeal. Its mystery works only when I am inside.
When we come out of our building and turn left, and go to the end of our street little street Kaldy Guyla, we come to Kiraly Utsa. To the right, Kiraly ends after a few shot blocks, at Bajsy-Zielinsky. On the left, Kiraly is very long. We have not yet walked its full length; one of these days we will. As we walk Kiraly, the neighborhood changes markedly every few blocks. Near us it is very stylish, somewhat bohemian, with many interior design shops and several art galeries. It is clearly gentrifying here, quite rapidly. The next neighborhood is Jewish. Here, some of the buildings are still pockmarked with bullet holes more than 70 years old. It is quiet. Next comes a very lively commercial stretch, not stylish and not touristy, just a regular commercial city street, which brings us to the beautiful Music School. After we pass the large boulevard that connects Kiraly to Andrassi on the left and to Dob on the right (and has this spectacular Corinthian Grand Hotel), it gets seedy: strip clubs and sex shops. After that, we do not yet know.
Tonight we walk on Andrassi and returned on Dob. We discover a strange mysterious club, some kind of performance hall in the basement, but the security guard does not speak English and cannot let us in. Next time…. We stop at the Spinosa Restaurant on Dob Street, right opposite the exit from the seven courtyards. The atmosphere at Spinosa is very cozy, with a piano player right next to us. There is something very Jewish about this place. I just feel it in my bones. We sip drinks and listen to the very good piano player, a man of our age or perhaps more, with serviceable English. He makes the evening just perfect when he plays the “Gloomy Sunday” tune. Why can’t we have that kind of café in Newton? Why not in Boston? So perfect. We chat briefly with the piano player, who tells us that life stinks in the contemporary Hungary. Do we believe him? Philip thinks that this is just Hungarian melancholy, that feeling heartsick is an attitude, a way of being. Perhaps he is right; Hungary has, after all, the highest suicide rate in Europe.
Friday, April 23.
Tonight a concert at the Palace of Arts, on tram 2 along Danube. A very booooring Sibelius, the unsurprising Richard Strauss, and an entirely perfect Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. This performance hall is really very beautiful: modern, with every detail perfect, down to the toilets, with fine acoustic. The audience is cultured and very dressed up for the evening. I fit here.
Saturday, April 24.
We are going away for the weekend. By 9:30 we are heading of the city in our oversized SUV (that is all they had).
About 2-3 hours south of Budapest we arrive at the Gemenc national park. The tourist season starts on May 1, so the place is deserted. This is not a great forest that I imagined, at least not here where we have access to it. We hike along Danube, among swamps, very buggy. Lots if loud frogs and birds.
The landscape is all agricultural and very flat. Some fields are covered with these little yellow flowers that are processed for oil, and the fields shimmer in the afternoon light.
We stop for a while in an unusual village, the name of which I do not remember. I do not recall ever seeing such a village: completely still, with very old cottages built around courtyards with high walls around them. The time has really stopped here. Occasionally, people pass us on bicycles. Otherwise, there are no signs of life. On this Saturday afternoon all but one are closed. An elderly man talks to us at length and with agitation, despite our protests that we do not speak Hungarian.
I figured out what is so unusual about these villages we pass: they do not have central squares or anything else that would mark their center. The have many crisscrossing streets, usually more than one church, but no centers.
We stop for the night at Baja, a medium size town, and check into Kaiser Hotel and Pensione (quite charming). This town has huge central square of 18th century neoclassical structures, really beautiful, along Duna. It is a perfect early evening, as we sip beer at an outdoor café, in the still strong sunlight. How do we get to see such beauty and be part of this great life?
Dinner in a local Mexican restaurant facing the river. The food is just OK, but it does not matter. I am beginning to suspect that Hungarian restaurants are just not very good, regardless of price and location. Strolling back to the hotel afterward the town is completely silent at barely 9 Pm on a Saturday night. No street life, no open restaurants, just these crooked streets form another area altogether.
Sunday, April 25
The bread at breakfast is the best so far in Hungary. I sneak a little sandwich for later.
A morning sightseeing Baja. This city is not old, the architecture is all 18 and 19th century, neoclassical, open faced. The synagogue is now a library, but the two stars of David on the roof and the Hebrew inscription over the front entrance have been preserved for seven decades. It looks like a Greek temple, with Corinthian columns and all. Very imposing. Two catholic churches and two Serbian Orthodox churches.
Drive to Pecs. Open road, flat Danube valley, straight roads, very little traffic. Very agricultural.
Pecs is a great discovery. The city walls date to the 14th century, the archeology is Roman, and the city layout and its buildings are, like Baja, mostly 18 and 19th century. Elegant, prosperous, with great aspirations. Really quite beautiful. Breathtakingly so. The city central square is huge, framed by some buildings that remind me of the Brussels. The Mosque in the square became a Christian church when the Ottomans left. The new owners just added a cross on top of the Islamic half moon.
The synagogue is beautiful and prosperous. We cannot come too close to it because of the road construction. The entire city center is under renovations, paid for by Norway. Pecs has been designated this year as a Cultural Capital of Europe, and is receiving a great deal of EU money to renovate its historical monument. The Jews of this region were clearly prosperous and visible. All are gone now.
A hike in the woods in the mountain above the city. The entire floor of the forest is covered with these leafy plans that I just cooked the other day for dinner. I take a large bunch of them back with us. This is the best time of the year to be here: flowers everywhere, fresh greenness, not too many people, not too hot.
We get home 5 minutes before the car rental place closes. Driving in Budapest is a nightmare of one way streets and forbidden turns.
This was a great trip.
Monday, April 26.
The spring is here. Cool nights, sunny warm days, I do not need it to get any warmer. Women in Budapest dress up well. I do not know how they do it – buy, saw, figure things out – but they look stylish, walk with their backs straight and heads up, and want to be seen and admired. They very much remind me Warsaw women from my days. And Parisian women also, but not such slaves of fashion. There is no particular fashion dominating the scene, but even the jeans-clad women add some elegant finishing touches to their outfits.
Today we bought train tickets to Warsaw. We had some idea of the schedule, based on Philip’s web based search, and still it took about 40 minutes at the ticket office at the train station to complete the transaction. This is a pretty old-fashioned system: the woman checks in a thick book for the right kind of a connection, then she spends considerable amount of time at the computer, doing I do not what, then she calculates with pen and paper how much it will cost, and with our approval she goes into the back office somewhere, only to announce upon her return that all the sleeping seats are sold out. We start this procedure all over again, for a different travel day, and this time we succeed. The round trip on first class costs about $500 for both of us, which seems high, except when compared to the airfare, which would run to about $700.
Once we purchase the tickets it feels like we have purchased another little adventure.
Tuesday, April 26.
I am making progress with the work on the Sustainable Consumption and Production course. This will be a great class. Until about 2 PM at the university. It is friendly and familiar now, chatting here and there with the three young friends: Hungarian Sandra, American Emily, and Polish Krzysztof. They are working for a human rights organization, and are very busy now putting together a conference for next week. Sandra, whose family lives in the country side, tells me about the local non-money economy in their small town, based on small scale agriculture and exchange of goods and services. It is a simple but prosperous live, according to Sandra. I would like to learn more about it, and we make a plan to go out and talk, later in May. Sandra also tells me about the youth movement in Budapest that seeks to slow the “globalization” of the local economy by way of chain stores and restaurants. Come to think about it, other than occasional McDonald, Burger King, and streets like Vaci or Andrassi (with all the usual international clothing chains), there are not too many chain stores. The “hm” drugstores are a notable, and unpleasant, exception, though I must admit to enjoying the access to these stores because most of their merchandise is in English.
A long evening walk toward the 9th district that has recently been written up in the NYT as a bohemian new find in Budapest. The area turns out to be very commercialized: one street with outdoor cafes in the center lining the full length of the street, back to back, and filled with foreign tourists. We get out of there as fast as we can, and head for our own neighborhood. There is a hippie-looking café in a courtyard on Dob Utsa, on which I had an eye for some time. It really is as it looked, and we enjoy the atmosphere (though the high prices surprise us). But after a while we see various English speaking kids in worn jeans and occasional matted hair come by, and suddenly the place loses its glamour. It feels like a hangout for pretend-hippies from the US. This explains the prices.
Tonight Richard Strauss’s Electra at the Opera House. We sit in the fifth row, with two shlumpy German women, with unwashed hair and wearing cheep sweaters, in front of us. The music is very interesting, much better than I expected. I really like this opera. It is about a titanic struggle between three women — the mother, and two daughters – and about expressing emotions. The stage setting is imaginative though at times weird, with lots of people running in and out of public baths, wrapped in towels or naked, and some unfortunate mixing of modernity with Sophocles’ Greek context. This mixing could be straight from the Cambridge A.R.T. and its artistic director Brustein: pretentious. Philip thinks that the leading soprano signs much too loudly, practically screaming, and as a result he cannot hear the melody. I am so involved in her emotions and her powerful and clear voice that I hardly notice. To me, she is great. The performance continues for almost two hours without a break, and Electra sings much of that time. It is quite an amazing performance. I will probably never want to see Electra again because after this performance, and these seats, nothing will come close.
Afterward, a drink at Spinoza restaurant. Tonight the piano player is mediocre, and the proprietor milks money from us: he ignores Philip’s request for a glass of house wine and presents us with an expensive wine menu. We stay, but decide that this is the last time here. Could it be that the magic of Budapest may wear out for us if we stay here longer? Is Spinoza just another tourist trap, like the hippie café from last night? I just wonder.
Wednesday, April 28.
Some of my morning is spent on taking care of the mortgage release from that Bob needs for house closing. I talk my way into an appointment with the American council without waiting in line. The man contests my birth date, saying that it must be a mistake, which of course delights me, even if he is just flirting, or rather because of it. The next stop is the university mailroom, to send the document to the US by DHL. I actually want to pay, but that was not possible, so I charge it the MESPOM department.
Philip buys me a new watch. All golden and old-fashioned looking. Just my style.
I have an appointment in the afternoon with a colleague at the CEU Business School. It turns out to be a very long walk across Margaret Bridge to Buda. My interlocutor is a charming man, thoughtful and very knowledgeable of the issues that these days occupy my mind: economic growth and sustainability. We discover various mutual professional acquaintances. But nothing clicks especially between us. Just a pleasant professional exchange for an hour. That is all. I take a tram back, and get off on the corner of Kiraly street. It is such a pleasure to know where to go, where to get off, how far to walk back. It is, indeed, my city now.
The day somehow slips between our fingers. Philip has a hard time with his computer, I am also somehow out of sorts. After dinner we have a two hour Skyped conference call with NYSERDA and our SCORAI colleagues in the US, which cheers us up. Another call, with Wojtek, to plan our visit to Poland, and then we take a long walk, without going to a café, just a long walk on a cool spring evening. Things feel better now.
Thursday, April 29.
We have a morning appointment with the Executive Director of the Parliamentary Council for Sustainable Development. This is Philip’s show and his amazing networking capacity. He found these people thorough the web, wrote to them, and got invited to a meeting. The office is in the beautiful Parliament building. We have been admiring its exterior from the beginning. It has a perfect balance of gothic towers and domes, perfect symmetry (which, we learned later, is the legacy of the parliamentary system during its days, which has two legislative chambers), and the filigree detail that from the distance makes this huge building look like a piece of weightless lace. But whatever the exterior, it does not even come close to revealing the treasures inside. I have never been in a civic building so gorgeous. Its architecture is gothic, with vaulted ceilings and the most beautiful detailed finish work: the mosaic tiles on the floors, the painted filigree walls and ceilings, the stained glass windows, the colors everywhere, the symbolic sculptures, the carved wood, are all breathtaking. Our guide Mathias tells us that 40 kg of gold were used to mix the gold leaf paint for this building. Even the elevator is perfect, with its carved and inlaid wood walls and ceiling, and parquet floors. I feel like I am walking into a jewelry box. The building was erected between the 1890s and 1905 by people who believed that their Austro-Hungarian Empire would last forever. It is a monument to the blindness of disintegrating empires that cannot see themselves from the outside. They built it while the empire was crumbling, but they thought that it would last for a thousand years, all of it, including their two chamber parliamentary system that required two of everything in the architectural design. What a story this is.
The meeting is great. Erzsebet is quite a personality. In her fifties, wearing a business jacket and jeans, she has risen up to this position through the leadership of the major environmental organization. From what we can infer, she is the mastermind behind this very unusual Commission, which advices directly the Parliament. These people are up on all the new thinking in the sustainable development arena, especially these anti-growth, sustainable consumption crowd. She even had Tim Jackson’s book translated into Hungarian. Matias is her assistant: young, bright, stylish, savvy, once studied in the Netherlands and a student of Philip’s friend Frans. We cover many topics, but the main thing is that we discover kindred spirit in each other. …
They invite us on a field trip to Miscolc on Monday, to meet another major mover and shaker in this field and to see their experiment with ecologically-oriented local economy. Matias gives us a tour of the building, then we have lunch at the cafeteria.
Afternoon working at the outdoor café, walking.
Dinner with Salamajian, my Muslim scarf-wearing Malaysian toxicologist neighbor at the university. We go to a simple outdoor Middle eastern café. She is very nice and direct. A completely emancipated Muslim woman, well travelled, independent, chair of the department at her university.
Evening at home. Piano, writing, reading.
Today is exactly 4 weeks since our arrival.
Friday, April 30.
Rent bicycles for the afternoon from the place right behind the opera house. Suddenly, a different city reveals itself to us. We can take in its layout, leave the details of the buildings, shops, cafes, and people out of the picture, and connect the dots between all its details. We can see how buildings and the river, and the bridges, and the boulevards fit together. They have rudimentary bike paths on the major streets and boulevards, and the biking map indicates the streets with light traffic. We go up north on the Pest side, along the river to Margit Bridge, then to the northern tip of Margit Island, through the island (which is Budapest’s Central Park), then come down southward on the Buda side, to Gellert Bridge, and back on the circle road to Andrassi. It is quite an intense ride, two hours, and very invigorating. We will of course do it again. The car drivers are courteous.
This evening we go to the free concert at the music school. We learn that this is one of the rare times when the school’s great concert hall opens to the public. The occasion is the final exam for the conductor and the soloist. We get there half an hour before start, and it is a good thing because the crowd is already large. By the time they open the door the crowd is very dense, spilling out of the main foyer, but once we start moving it all goes very smoothly, no pushing, everybody is polite. In the end every seat is taken, and several dozen people stand against the wall. The concert starts with delay, as the organizers are thinking what to do about the standing crowd. Finally, a man comes out and tells the audience that this is against fire regulations, the crowd murmurs something, then he goes away, and the concert begins, with the crowd standing against the wall as before. Well, that would never happen in the Netherlands or in the US. The former, because of the importance of rules, the latter, because the importance of lawyers.
The interior of this building is in the style of the Habsburg 19th century opulence, and the acoustic is great. Thy music envelopes us completely. The program is perfect (there are no program booklets, and no signs; you just have to know what they are playing): Tchaikovsky’s some familiar piece (some overture), Prokofiev’s cello concerto, and Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. The conductor is a woman with a 20 year old baby face, no taller than me, wearing black satin tails with white piping all around. She is in a total control of the orchestra and plays with so much energy. Or maybe I am imagining it, knowing that she is in her 2Os? The soloist is a dead gorgeous blond List-like young man who plays this devilishly difficult piece with the ease and lightness one can envy. This is a discovery for Philip, as he thought that he knew all the existing cello concertos.
We make an acquaintance with a girl sitting next to Philip. She is just so gorgeous, maybe 20 years old, with large black eyes and a cascade of long black hair pulled back from her face ala flamenco dancer, including the flower pinned on one side. Her skin is white porcelain, her neck, her smile….well I could look at her forever. Barbara (her name) translates for us what is going in her serviceable English, tells us about her plans for studying history at the university, her favorite past time (ballroom dancing, karaoke, classical music performances).
We walk home along the Kiraly Street, we discover a local youth gathering, some kind of experimental theater and art center, four stories high. Very lively tonight, full of bicycles inside, nothing much to eat, just drinks. The patrons are all local young people, and it feels much better than the more touristy places from the other night.
Walk again, and as usual end up at “our” pizza place around the corner, at the outdoor table, watching until midnight the parade of attractive young people walking by. Tonight I am quite tired.
Saturday, May 1.
Everything is closed today on account of the holiday. Slow morning for me, work for Philip.
Afternoon we head for the Museum of Applied Arts for an ecological exhibit and their permanent collection. The building is massive and quite beautiful, with Moorish motifs, and some elements straight form Alhambra. Budapest architects really liked the Moorish architecture. I have not seen that kind of influence in any Central European cities. We reckon that this has to do with their history being intertwined with the Ottoman Empire.
Take the metro to the …Park, sit at a picnic table and draw.
Tonight there is an all Chopin concert in the Palace of Arts, and we go on a chance that there will be tickets. The concert turns out to be sold out but we buy two tickets from a woman. It is quite amazing that they can fill this huge Bella Bartok Hall completely, to the last seat, for an evening with Chopin. Philip says that that would never happen in the Netherlands, and I think that also goes for Boston or New York.
An evening at the Palace of Arts is a social ritual. The building is somewhat out of the way, quite a distance from the center, accessible by tram #4. We need to change trams once. As soon as we enter the #4 the festive atmosphere greets us. People on the tram are dressed up, and surely, we all get off at the same stop. Before the concert: a cup of coffee at the outdoor café. People come here to see and be seen. People dress up seriously for the occasion: evening dresses, really beautiful outfits, Philip is probably the only man without at tie. I love watching the women: cultivated, elegant, looking their best, young and old.
After the concert, the ritual continues. People in their evening clothes walk to the tram, which arrives completely empty, just for this crowd. Not everybody takes the tram, of course, but several hundred people do, some in long dresses. The trams come in quick succession, clearly scheduled for the end of a performance. We go back with the others; get off en mass at a key stop, then everybody goes their own way.
Budapest musical audiences are some of the best I have encountered. They know the music and appreciate a good performance. They reward good artists with long and enthusiastic applauses, and demand encores. The applause falls into a rhythm after the initial seconds, which creates a feeling of collective enthusiasm. It is such a contrast with the New York or Boston audiences, always in a rush to get out; not very appreciative.
The music completely absorbs me. Chopin usually does, but tonight is really special. The first performer is a very old grand dame of Hungary, in her 90s, obviously loved by this public, and she puts us a bit to sleep with her playing. The second performer is a young genius. He is 31 and totally blind, and goes straight to my heart.
On the way home we stop for tea, cake and Palinka (Hungarian plum brandy) at Hotel New York, the most opulent turn of the century hotel in Budapest. To say that it is opulent does not give justice to this incredible gilded, over decorated, beautiful place. It is in the style of the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw but much much grander. And perfectly renovated. At this hour (10 PM) people are mostly having deserts and refreshments. Next to us there is a party of perhaps ten Chinese people occupying three tables. There are three adults, a little boy and a bunch of teenagers: rich boys wearing jeans and Rolex watches, badly mannered, privileged and entitled. So this is the China’s new wealth. We watch them judgmentally.
This was a long day of “leisure”. Home at close to midnight, tired.
May 2, Sunday.
At home until about 1, quick food shopping at the corner market, then an afternoon at the bath house. Dinner in an outdoor Spanish restaurant on Dob Utsa. Lately, we favor Dob Utsa over Kiraly because it is more authentic, less trendy and touristy, and more shabby.
I finished all the fundamental thinking and preparation for my Sustainable Production and Consumption Course.
May 3, Monday.
A second visit to Miszkoc. 8:30 AM train.
Erzsebet picks us up at the station, and drives us for an hour, through a pastoral landscape, to the home of Ivan Gyula, the most famous environmental leader in Hungary. We are only a few kilometers from the Slovakian border, the end of the world for the Hungarians, and very very rural. We are full of anticipation. Ivan meets us at the gate, looking like an intellectual farmer: in his 50s, dressed in peasant clothes and looking at us with these sharp quick blue eyes. He shows us his cottage, an old three room low ceiling abode with a newer wing comprising a kitchen, bathroom and another room. Then we inspect his garden, orchard and a boiler room. He explains a lot to use about the plum and apple trees, the horses he keeps, the wood burning technology he uses. All while a half a dozen dogs are running around and between us. Ivan has lunch ready: flat unleavened flour-potato bread which he made that morning in the outdoor oven, green salad, and deer meat. For desert, or rather a second course, we eat some unusual balls of fresh cheese (something like ricotta) fried in butter, sugar and bread crumbs. This food is tasty and rich, and I can feel that it will take me the rest of the day to digest it. A grounds keeper, an older man who does not speak English, shares the meal with us. We talk about this and that: I let the hosts set the pace and direction of the conversation.
After lunch Erzsebet stays behind and Ivan takes us to the village he has adopted: Kelemer es Gomorszolos. This village is dying: its 78 residents are all old people. But there seems to be also a turnover in the air: some rich people from the city bought a decrepit cottage and renovated it for tourism, another cottage has just been acquired by a banker from Budapest. For Ivan this village is an ecological project and an educational center. He shows us around the various projects in simple technologies: a waterless composting toilet, a mushroom drier, a windmill: all totally independent of energy inputs, and requiring hardly any maintenance. He uses these technologies to educate the locals and the neighborhood Gypsies in ecological living, energy independence, and entrepreneurship. In the summer, he runs training course at the little education center, for I do not know whom. This man is amazing: besides running this village and his own farm, he keeps an apartment in Miskolc, where he heads a research Institute/NGO, writes books, and is a brain behind the environmental movement and environmental politics in Hungary. And he spends a day with us! People he never met but who were recommended by Erzsebet. Extraordinary.
We also visit the local museum: a collection of old frame machinery, tools and other implements of farm and village life, collected by one of the families and open to anybody who will find it (the village is not even marked on our detailed driving map of Hungary). At some point a tractor passes by, and Ivan explains to us that the driver is the mayor of the village who subsidizes the local Gypsy population by hiring the men to do some useless menial jobs. I watch the tractor and the cart behind it go by, with a group of Gypsy men in it. It seems like we are in some other parallel universe here, at the end of the world, with the 78 people in the dying village.
Later in the afternoon Erzsebet joins us and we sit at the picnic table on the verandah of the educational center, talking about the Sustainability Vision White paper that she gave us at the meeting a few days ago. Various ideas get tossed around. Ivan is not a great listener: as many very strong people like him, he is just too involved with his own ideas. So we let him. Though I would prefer a more even keeled conversation, more open to throwing ideas around. By five o’clock we need to leave, just as the conversation is getting really good, but there are three hours ahead of us of driving to Budapest.
Erzsebet drives us back, sometimes we talk, and sometimes we are silent. I like this woman very much. She is a powerhouse, and also very involved in her own agenda. At some point she cuts me off without ceremony and asks questions that have nothing to do with what I was saying: this is what she is interested in and that is all. I do not mind, I like her.
She lets us our on the corner of Andrassi and Kiraly, we have a quick meal at the Indian restaurant (excellent). The traveling, the early start, and the day spent with people I really do not quite “get” all add up. This was fascinating and exhausting trip.
Tuesday, May 4.
I got up tired. Worked for a while at home and at the university, and by about 1 Pm Kati and Teddy arrive from the Netherlands. It is great to see them. Of all Philip’s friends in the Netherlands, I have the greatest affection for them. Lunch together of bread and cheese, then we hang around for a while. I need to lie down, not feeling good at all, so they go out without me. Later, I join them at Muvesz café, which is no longer special for me since we moved to the outdoor tables. I love its indoor atmosphere, not the sound of the outdoor traffic. But still, this café at this place is the Budapest’s equivalent of Champs d’Elisee.
We make dinner together, talk, they leave around 9 for their distant hotel in Buda.
Wednesday, May 5.
I get the hair color at the place around the corner (mediocre job), later in the afternoon go shopping and buy an expensive summer dress in the elegant shop across the street from our office. I have been watching their window displays for a month. I really do not need another summer dress, and after an initial joy in acquiring it I feel down. It is always like that when I buy clothes I do not need.
Teddy is not well, so they do not join us today. Teddy’s lung cancer is growing and I feel that he does not have much time to live.
At 4 we attend a lecture at Corvinus University by Mary Kaldor. She is a well known peace and disarmament activist from the 60s and 70s, and author and an intellectual at the London School of Economics. A wonderfully articulate, intelligent, lively Jewish woman. An extremely interesting talk about the current crises: ecological, financial, social. She sees the future in Europe, but also she talks about deep signs of trouble in the EU: a procedural democracy is increasingly replacing substantive democracy. The US seems so far away, and so far behind the thinking that is going on around here, as these Europeans are trying to figure out an alternative (to neoliberalism) path of development. The discussants – social sciences professors – are also interesting. Philip asks a question about economic democracy. This is great.
Philip stays behind to attend a discussion at Corvinus about future visioning with some of the National Academy people we met during the first week in Budapest (including our Klara from Miscolc), but I go home. We enjoy a quiet night at home.
Thursday, May 6.
Some work, the afternoon with Kati and Teddy. Walk in the city center. Discover more amazing buildings, especially the Old Post Office building which is now the National Treasury. Another building with the Eastern or Moorish motifs: the signature of Budapest. It is abutting, back to back, with the American Embassy, but I never noticed it before. In Budapest you need to keep your eyes directed upward: the more I look the more architectural marvels I discover.
Another discovery: a shopping “hala” right across the street from the Post Office building. Closer and lower priced than “our” hala (Kaiser Market).
Spending so much time with Kati and Teddy weighs on us heavily. It would be so under normal circumstances, but here we have Kati’s hearing impairment (she needs to read our lips) and Teddy’s health. He is deteriorating before our very eyes. Today he coughs more than on Tuesday, and is visibly tired. We all know that this may be the end for him, and possibly soon. Just like the gathering with Heniek and Minda in Santa Fe in the summer of 2000.
We have a great discussion about the Netherlands and the Jews and the Germans during WW II, about the movements during the 60s, and about parents not talking to their children about their own transforming life events. Teddy tells us that Germans stationed 1500 personnel to occupy the entire country of the Netherlands. They were so sure that the Dutch would not rebel, cooperate and follow the new rules of the new authority that they did not need bigger occupying forces.
Friday, May 7.
We meet them somewhat later in the afternoon. I go with Kati on an unsuccessful shopping trip for presents. We walk very far in search of a particular china shop, and find nothing there worth buying. Discover the beauty of Ference Square off of Kossuth Boulevard.
In the evening: Barber of Serville at the Opera House. Dinner at the Italian restaurant on our street. Walking to the Opera on this lovely spring evening, dressed up and full of anticipation. The crowd is gathered in front of the Opera Building. I have never seen Kati so happy as at this moment when we wait for the green light to cross Andrassi. The most wonderful moment is the anticipation, the “going to” moment. It is the best, better than being there. Teddy’s immense sadness is about not “going to the Opera” of life any more.
The conventional wisdom says that we need to live for the moment, to enjoy the present, rather than live in the future. But I am not so sure. The joy of anticipation, of going to some place is much greater, and it must be terrible to have taken away. Minda had a gift of enjoying the present, but most people do not have it to the same degree.
The performance is a farce, a madcap, a sitcom. It is overplayed, but I really enjoy the madness on the stage. Figaro is a superb singer. Rossini’s music is heavenly. During the second act I can see that Teddy is drooping, not concentrating on the performance, turned inward into his own sad thoughts. It spreads to Kati, who is anxiously watching him, then to me.
When we emerge from the Opera house, the streets are full of people. We would like to go to a café but Teddy needs to get back to their hotel.
Saturday, May 8
A mad shopping trip for the Polish friends, before shops close at 1 PM. A little rest at a café on Kiraly. In the afternoon Philip joins Kati and Teddy at their hotel, and for an outing. I stay home, working on a pre-proposal for the Duke Foundation, doing domestic things and personal maintenance, calling Tata.
Dinner at their hotel in Buda. We open the subject of dying, and Teddy’s feelings. We cry, we say goodbye to each other. I do not think that I will see him again. His health is failing rapidly. These last few days we have experienced each other more than ever before. It is our gift to them: the feeling that they are not alone with each other in a company of impending death.
Sunday, May 9
Budapest is filling up with tourists since the first of May. There are some areas that we avoid. Vaci Street is the worst. These tourists seem to me like a disturbance, after a month of becoming a Budapestian. There is a convention of orthodox Jews somewhere in our neighborhood, all sounding straight from the Crown Heights, NY, with their shlumpily dressed bewigged women and children in tow. The world is weird.
I have an unexpected piece of work to do over the past few days, a response to an RFP from Doris Duke foundation. Despite my decision not to raise grant money any more, this one was exactly on the topic I have been thinking through for the past couple of years, and it is only a short pre-proposal, it would feel bad not to submit something. But even a short something requires some long thinking, so that took some of my energy. If we get it, it will give me time to find some young colleague to run with it. I really do not want to manage projects any more. Sitting in cafes is more like it for Philip and me.
The visit from Kati and Teddy revealed how we have settled into a quiet and self contained life here. In the beginning I missed the small talk and human contact, but we somehow got used to it, and the change of pace caught me by surprise. Well, in Poland we will be with people, that is for sure.
Embark on the 8 PM train to Warsaw. The first class sleeper car is very comfortable. We leave late, and arrive an hour late, which is good because the scheduled arrival time, 7 AM, was too early. In the compartment next door to us is a group of Poles who use foul language. I have a visceral revolting reaction to these people: they represent what scares me about Polish mob. Philip asks why I go to Poland if my feelings are so mixed about it. Well, precisely because they are mixed.
Monday, May 10th
Wojtek picks us up at Warszawa Centralna. Great to see him. Wojtek does not seem to age much, mostly because he has the same overworked tired look for years already. But he lost weight and it is becoming.
The afternoon in the city: Nowy Swiat, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, and the usual places.
At 5 PM we go to Magda for dinner.
Tuesday, May 11th.
Magda’s house is so completely filled with stuff that I can hardly breathe. Every inch of wall is covered with paintings, photographs, art objects, and collectibles and mementos of various kinds. It is all covered with a thick layer of dust and dog hair. It is a dark house to begin with, but these possessions make it oppressive to me, so hungry in the morning for light, air and movement. By the time we finish breakfast all I can think of is how to get out into fresh air and sun.
Together we drive to the Jewish Cemetery at Brodno, and take a walk there. Very few graves have survived intact, and much of the place is just a young wood (to be precise, about 70 years old). But at some point, deeply into the walk, we come to two enormous piles of grave stones. Hundreds of them, on two sides of the path. Judging by the amount of soil between the stones, they have been here for years, perhaps decades. We have no idea who put them here, from where, and why. They look like piles of corpses I have seen in videos from the liberation of Buchenwald.
Lunch with Danusia and Wojtek, then we go to to my own neighborhood form long ago: Nowowiejska, the Politechnika, the Lazienki Park. I call Tata while sitting under chestnut tree blossoms in Lazienki, and it feels heavenly.
We meet Basia for dinner and Moldawska Restaurant across the street from the American Embassy. Good food, dead atmosphere. Basia talks about her very full life, with the chorus and other engaging activities. And about the terrible troubles with her daughter. And about the death of Stasio, the long ago lover and a lifelong friend. And about her 92 year old mother who defiantly lives on, by herself, in the same apartment that I remember. Basia’s father died around 1966, which would make her mother a widow for 44 years! Basia looks no different than four years ago, except perhaps the wig she wears, I do not know why. Philip likes her self-possession, sensibility, equanimity, and her engaging manner. I do, too. He leaves us for an hour to talk Polish. As soon as he leaves Basia tells me the story of the death of Stasio, the lover of her, going back to highschool. We barely start a real conversation when it is already time to go. How can I connect with her in this tiny window of time? It is crazy.
More than ever, I feel that my past life in Poland happened so very long ago. Visiting the familiar places does not have the emotional significance it once had. So does seeing the people form the past, pleasant as it is.
Wednesday, May 12th.
We travel to Torun, through Plock. I remember taking that trip by train with David, about 15 years ago. It was a much easier travel at that time because we took a train. The insufferable traffic and bad roads make our trip very long: about 4 hours one way and more than three hours back. Plock is worth seeing, all renovated with EU funds and charming. This is an ancient Polish city, older than Warsaw. Torun, the birthplace of Copernicus, is beautiful, even in the dismal rain and cold that catches us by surprise. The city is filled with young people.
I am wiped out when we get back to Warsaw at close to 10 PM.
Thursday, May 13th.
Despite the long sleep I feel the yesterday trip in my body and my head. I feel cranky all day.
We spend the morning at the Jewish Historical Institute, working with Yale…on finding information about the Szejnwalds in Poland. A young Israeli man next to us is working with the other employee of the Institute, and tired looking young woman, to establish his links to Poland in order to claim Polish (or, more likely the EU) citizenship.
Several surprises surface: there were several Szejnwalds living in Poland after the war, registered in the 60-ties, contrary to what Tata always said that there were none. There is no way of contacting them because only the voivodships have been recorded (none in Warsaw); after the war, my parents never registered me and Heniek, probably because they were afraid; there is a Szejnwald right now registered in the Business registry in Wroclaw; and someone is currently doing genealogical search for the Szejnwalds in Sochaczew, with the most recent entry in January 2010. Yale writes to that person in order to get them in touch with us.
We find very little about tata’s family. If we want to get more we need to go to Lodz.
In the afternoon we visit with Wojtek and Danusia Marta and her three boys. Wojtek is responsible for picking the boys up and feeding them and spending an afternoon together. The traffic jams and the residual tiredness amplify each other: I really do not like this driving. Impatiently, I muse that he visit in Poland would be much nicer if I was not so fed up with people driving, traffic, and having to listen to my friends labored English. It seems that Poland is well on its way to the same development path as the US: endless suburban sprawl, insufferable traffic jams, people sitting behind the wheel endlessly. Pretty soon they will start getting luxury cars with entertainment systems to compensate for sitting in the traffic.
Marta has made a miraculous recovery since her stroke four years ago, but she will never be the same person. Apart from her disabled hand and foot and other residual handicaps, her personally is very different from the one I remember. Marta seems to occupy a slightly different universe that the rest of us: dreamy, calm, with no nuances. She speaks very directly and without any of the usual layers designed for social acceptance: no superfluous smiles, no unnecessary words, no irony or double meanings, no extra pleasantries. She is entirely open and factual in describing her physical and emotional travails after the stroke, but she relates it in some neutral way, almost removed. I am intrigued by it.
On the way home we stop to visit Ula, Danusia’s younger daughter and husband Piotr in their remote newly constructed palatial house. Philip and I are struck by the remoteness of these very young people who elected to live this lifestyle. There will be much for us to digest about the desires, aspirations, and choices of these young people in the new Polish economy.
Again, a long schlep home through traffic.
Friday, May 14th.
We visit Clark’s GSOM outpost, which is located right in the middle of the Ghetto area. Walk thought the financial district, full of gleaming towers.
Sleep in the afternoon, which is very restorative.
At 5 PM Ewa picks us up. She looks the same, only a bit older. Dinner, an all Beethoven concert (great) at the Philharmonic. Tadeusz is as handsome as ever. I call him “prince” because of his impeccable manners, very much of the Polish upper classes. Drive to Prazmow, their village house. Talk late into the night. The house is beautiful.
Saturday, May 15th.
A late sleep. A late breakfast. A long walk through the woods. A very good lunch/dinner at the Georgian restaurant in Piaseczno nearby. A long siesta until 8PM.
This house is really spectacular: large, well built, interesting in its Podhalanski style, finished with quality and furnished in great style with a mix of fine antiques, folklore and modernity. It can easily compete with anything we have in the US. My friends in Poland are prosperous. Ewa has this house, an apartment in the Projects on Ursynow, and a cottage in the woods somewhere, in a colony on a lake. The cottage is owned by her mother but it will pass on to her and Rafal, the brother. Rafal, likewise, has an apartment and a country house. In addition, Ewa is paying off a small studio for Jasio, the younger son, in the center of Warsaw somewhere, and this studio will become her piede a ter in the future, when she gives the Ursynow apartment to the son. And, of course, there is her mama’s large apartment in great location in Warsaw, which will be a very valuable inheritance. They have more real estate than we have! And much of this prosperity dates back only to 1989. So we can congratulate them on their equally unsustainable consumption patterns.
Talking until late, over drinks. The conversation at some point veers into the healthcare system, which is trying to reform itself. As it is now, there are two ways to get fine care: to pay or to have connections. When Ewa came down with spleen cancer (a lymphoma), they used connections. When Danusia came down with breast cancer, they paid. In both cases it got to the top of the waiting list for surgery and chemo, of course creating delays for everybody else on the list. A pretty disgusting system. Not that the US system is anything to be proud of either.
I drop into bed into an instant deep sleep.
Sunday, May 16
It rained heavily all night. We walk up to more rain, and a cold wind. Hard to imagine a worse weather in May. No matter: we are here to be with people. Their friends Wanda and Jacek join us at around 10:30. Interesting, accomplished, educated, well positioned. We all manage an hour walk during a short interval between outpours. We walk in two-somes: Ewa and me, Wanda and Philip, Tadeusz and Jacek. Ewa and I talk. I am attached to her in some deep ways, she is my witness of the past 50 plus years. We talk, much too briefly, about our sexual awakenings way back in our shared Polish youth, and how it impacted everything after that. There just no way that I can sit and talk at a leisurely pace with these women form my youth! It is frustrating.
Philip very much likes Tadeusz. I come across their wedding picture: In this picture, a beautiful and virginal looking Ewa casts her eyes down and away from Tadeusz. Although her pose can be seen as an expression of modesty and shyness, from the perspective of time I see in it the root of their problems. I would have loved to have him for myself then.
We share a long lunch until 3 PM. A good conversation, but I can tell how tired Ewa is from speaking English. It must be especially hard for her, so used to being a fine conversationalist, a social charmer, and today she is marginalized by this language barrier, in the shadow of her two girlfriends. In my mind I empathize with her.
Wanda and Jacek give us a ride back to Wojtek’s. We rest, we talk, we eat, we are saturated with human interactions. I talk to Magda on the phone, to say good bye. I am looking forward to the return to a quiet life in Budapest.
Monday, May 17th.
We take the 9:20 train to Lodz. The weather is a disaster: cold, rainy, windy. These rains are causing floods in the South of Poland, Slovakia and northern Hungary. The nightly news programs are full of images of underwater houses.
Our first stop is the National Archives at Plac Wyzwolenia. Taxis are cheap in Lodz. The “research room” has long tables with computer terminals and microfiche readers, and people are quietly doing their work. A pleasant young man takes the information from me, makes me fill out and sign a long form, then disappears in the back room. I am full of anticipation when he hands me, upon his return, a stack of index cards, with names and information about people named Szejnwald who lived in Lodz between the two wars. Alas, none of them are Hirsh or anybody else from Tata’s immediate family. Our next tactic is to search for birth certificates, but for that we need to take a taxi to another location. A very pleasant young man gives us a stack of books with names of new births, year by year, from 1878 to 1890, our estimate of the birth date of Hirsh. Of course, his birthday is written on the gravestone we located four years ago, but we did not bring this information. Furthermore, it is the name of Hirsh’s parents and siblings that we want.
These records are written in long hand in Russian, very difficult to understand, but after some time we find one Szejnwald, born in 1890. But the first name is Shimsza Zelda. The friendly archivist finds the original book with the birth certificate. I touch this handwritten document gingerly, feeling that it stores some secret of my family. But the birth certificate turns out to be unreadable. Apart from finding the name and profession of the father, I just cannot make anything out of this old style handwriting. I order a scan of this document, which will eventually come to us by regular mail, and we leave.
Suddenly, I am not all that interested in this investigation. Watching and helping Mark for the past few years has revealed how tedious these genealogical searches are, but now I also discover how boring I find this work. It is three PM, and the weather outside is terrible. We have coffee and pastry in a little shop, then take a taxi to the train station. Sitting on that train the feeling of a farewell to Poland overwhelms me. My business here is really finished. The friends are fine, and it is enjoyable to visit with them, but that is all. No new insights are waiting for me here, either about my own life or about this particular piece of history. I have come with Poland as far as I could, and there is nothing else here for me. It feels like a psychotherapy that has reached its goals: there is nothing else to say.
By 5 PM we arrive at Warszawa Centralna. The city is very much alive at this hour, people hurry, buses and trams are full. Poles have really made a remarkable transition to the market economy, and here in Warsaw the transition looks like a success. It is a busy enerprenurial and prosperous place. My friends are prosperous and well established. Let us face it: they managed without the Jews after all. The little pang of malice goes through my mind as I contemplate this fact. I will never settle my issues with this country.
Wojtek and Danusia are waiting with a splendid dinner. It is very cozy in their place, and relaxing. I am glad that we did not rent an apartment in Warsaw. That would have turned us into tourists, which is the last thing I want in my relationship with Warsaw.
Tonight is our last one in Poland. I call Magda.
Danusia sits on my bed and talks about her father. This is one of the things I do in Poland: I participate in other peoples’ lives, and I listen. Danusia’s life was a string of painful disappointments in men she loved, but now, with Wojtek, she found a safe and peaceful haven. I am glad for her.
Philip and I take a last walk in their neighborhood at Saska Kepa, which is actually very nice, full of small shops, cafes, restaurants, all under shady old trees. Only their building is in the wrong location, looking at the major automobile throughway Lazienkowska Trasa, with its horrendous noise 24 hours a day.
Again, I feel overstimulated. I have a smoke of marihuana and go to sleep while Philip and Wojtek are still sipping palinka and talking.
Tuesday, May 18th.
Wojtek and Danusia pack up sandwiches for us, and we buy “sernik” cake for the road. I love this Polish sernik, and most of the food in this country.
The 12:45 train from Warszawa Centralna leave on time. Danusia and Wojtek wave. The kindest people they are.
The trip to Katowice is very fast. After that, we gingerly make our way through the floods. At times, we see houses under water up to the second floor or the roofs, and the water is only inches away from the railroad tracks. I think that the train is actually taking detours from the usual route, but I am not sure. By early evening we have accrued a delay of about one hour, and we loose all hope to make the train connection in Breclav, Czekia. Indeed, we get to Breslav after 8, and find out that there is one more train tonight, in an hour, to Bratislava, where Philip, in a stroke of genius yesterday reserved for us a hotel room for the night. Wojtek’s text messages follow us like a guardian angel: “you must be in Slovakia by now; there are no more trains tonight to Budapest; tomorrow there are two morning trains between Bratislava and Budapest.”
This station is pathetic. The waiting room consists of three rows of plastic chairs and a cage-like room smelling of years of cigarette smoke, two of which are occupied by sleeping men. We select standing around, inside and outside. We get some cash from an ATM machine, in Czek Crowns, and only after we buy a cup of coffee from a vending machine we figure out, more or less, the exchange rate.
We arrive in Bratislava around 10 Pm and check into Hotel Kiev, and 15 story high survivor from the communist era. This place is both horrendous (in its shabbiness) and very interesting (as a historical curiosum), and is filled with young people from various countries, traveling on a budget. Before going to sleep (we really cannot stay in that room other than for sleeping) we take a walk through Bratislava’s Old City, which is actually quite lovely. It is 10 degrees centigrade, windy, and it feels like November.
Wednesday, May 19th.
Another train ride through a very uninteresting flat agricultural land of Slovakia and Northern Hungary, and shortly after noon we are back in Budapest. It feels great to be back home.
We spend the afternoon at our computers, finally quiet, finally not interacting with people. A conference call with the SCORAI team.
It is cold in Budapest. Dinner at the little Thai restaurant on Kazcinski street. Total capacity for 16 people at 6 simple tables, and one Thai woman in the kitchen. In April it used to be empty, now it is full.
Bad news from Ted and Kati: his lung cancer has metastasized to the brain and liver. No hope.
Thursday, May 20th.
Working on the proposal at the university. Philip gives a talk at Corvinus in the afternoon. I shop for food at the recently discovered Hala, right behind the American Embassy. Buy Opera tickets for the 28th. Greatly enjoy walking the streets of Budapest. It is getting warmer.
Friday, May 21st.
One of the high points of my day is that first moment in the morning when I open the door of the building and start walking toward the university. I remember experiencing the same high in 1991 during the sabbatical in Warsaw, where it took about 20 minutes to reach the Institute where I worked. This is how my fundamentally urban soul expresses itself: briskly walking to work.
I cover the distance to the university in 15 minutes, checking out the people sitting in the sidewalk café at Andrassi, the windows of the boutiques, the shoe repairman, and finally the display at the expensive fashion house across the street from my building. I work at a frenetic pace on the Duke Foundation Proposal. My brain is fried by the time I finish around 3 PM. I join Philip at his customary bench at the …..Ter. …Ter is a perfect place to live because it is quiet in the midst of a very busy part of town, it has a foundation, and because of its openness, it allows a lot of light into the overlooking flats. The majority of Budapest streets are too narrow for the bulk of their buildings, and I imagine these flats being dark inside. Budapest is really quite new: most of its lovely “old” parts have been built between 1860 and 1918, right before the demise of the Autrio-Hngarian empire. This was a period of great prosperity for the Hungarian side, following the winning of the relative political autonomy.
In the evening we go to a free concert at the Music School. This is a final examination for a flute student. We find out about these concerts from the bulletin board at the main School building on Kiraly Street, often with the help from English speaking students. In contrast to the big concert we attended a few weeks ago in the large performance hall, this is definitely a family event. The entire rooms has maybe 120 people capacity, is not full, and everybody seems to know each other. The performer is a beautiful girl, which black hair piled up high on her head. In Philip’s judgment she is not a great musician, but it has no effect on our enjoyment of this concert.
It is a lovely evening when we emerge, at only 8 Pm from the Music School. The outdoor cafes and sidewalks are full of people, it is still light. It takes us four hours to make our way home, between strolling, taking two stops at cafes, talking endlessly.
Saturday, May 22nd
I finish the work on the proposal by 1 PM, while Philip shops, cleans, etc. We both have a cold, which we caught from Wojtek.
At 3PM we meet Gulya, the young professor at Corvinus University, at Rudas fürdő (bathhouse), on the other side of the Szechenyi Bridge. This is a 500 year old structure in the Eastern style, with a large dome in the center that has, like stars in a planetarium, openings in it, so that a saber of sunlight enters at different angles throughout the day. There is no swimming pool, only several soaking pools of sulfurous waters at different temperatures as well as a wet and a dry sauna. It is dark and quiet: not too many people. This bath house has traditionally been open only to men, and even now, since its co-ed transformation about a year ago, women are allowed only on a restricted schedule. Perhaps owing to this old tradition, there are men here walking with nothing but towels around their hips.
We stay here for almost three hours, talking, not talking. All kinds of topics, professional and non-professional. How can professional colleagues remain formal with each other after spending three hours together in a bath house? Impossible. After we get dressed, Guyla stands over me while I put makeup on and fuss with my hair in front of a large wall mirror. This Hungarian custom of going with your professional colleagues to a bath house is truly a splendid idea.
Guyla would clearly like to spend more time together, resting in the bathhouse café, eating these deadly open sandwiches of bread with schmaltz and slices of fried onion, talking some more. But we have cold and prefer going home. There is a huge thunderstorm, so Guyla gives us a ride in his car. We have a beer in a nearby café, then go home to make dinner and to rest.
Sunday, May 23th
With Philip’s help I finish the proposal to the Doris Duke Foundation and send it to Clark to be submitted. Shortly before noon we leave home for a daytrip to Visegrad, the ancient capital of Hungary until the end of the 16th century. We take a sad looking train, full of graffiti, from the miserable Nyugati station. 45 minute train ride, then a ferry across the Danube. We do not go to the city but instead head straight for the historical ruins. The excavated and partially restored royal palace is a pleasant place to explore. There are just a few tourists here, and none are foreigners. This place is for Hungarians looking to explore their history. The most interesting thing to me are the remains of the city walls. They climb, like the Chinese wall, up the steep mountainside, and toward the great fortress on the top. This was an incredibly good defense post and I wonder why the Hungarian kings moved it to Budapest.
Lunch on a terrace of a very touristy Renaissance restaurant, with a spectacular view of Danube. The quantity of food does not go very far to compensate for overcooked potatoes and overthickened mushroom sauce that solidifies on arrival, but it really does not matter much. We take a long time to relax at this place. After lunch we try to climb the mountain toward the fortress but never make it: the paved road (for cars) takes a huge detour, and the foot path is too muddy to venture into it.
Our best discovery of the day is the boat landing where we can take a boat back to Budapest. Very inexpensive, the almost too hour trip is just a dream: the views, the gentle breeze, the light from the downcast sun, the quietness all around us, all add up to a very relaxing time. If anyone asks me about visiting Budapest, I will strongly recommend taking a Danube boat. Back in the city, the boat first stops on the Buda side, then on the Pest side, right in front of the Marriot Hotel, practically in our neighborhood. Before going home we stop at a café overlooking the river, one of these very popular places with forgettable food and unforgettable views. It is about 8 PM and the hills and castles of Buda are all alight. I recall my first visit abroad, to Varna in Bulgaria, when I graduated from Highschool. On that trip I saw for the first time the glitter of touristy resorts in warm climates. I remember being mesmerized by the evening lights and gentle breezes from Black Sea. Somehow, tonight feels similarly, even with my jaded memory banks of beautiful places I have seen since those days in 1966.
We get home around 10 o’clock, to a reality check. An e-mail from the neighbors in Newton that they are selling their house and moving to Copenhagen, and Tata informs me that his surgery is scheduled for June 4th, and that the home care from the Hospice agency is ending on May 31. I cannot fall asleep for a very long time. I need to be back for his surgery.
Monday, May 24th.
Today is a holiday. Most places are closed. I spend the morning on the phone with Clark, with British Airways (to move my return flight forward by two days), to talk to Tata, to take care of a few other urgent matters. Philip goes to the Palace of Arts to buy tickets for tonight.
The concert tonight: Haydn and Bruckner. After the intermission we move to the seats in the first row. I have never set at a symphonic concert so close to the musicians. It is a completely different experience. I may not be listening very attentively to the music so much as observing the process of making music. Instrument by instrument, player by player, I watch them create the sounds.
On the way home we have a drink in a new to us little bar on Nagymezon Utsa.
Tuesday, May 25th.
A nothing-in-particular day. Get a haircut, go to a pharmacy, buy some milk, write a Sabbatical report, walk around with a camera in search of special views of Budapest courtyards (not very successful). It is warm. A consummate networker, Philip has two meetings with graduate students at Corvinus University. Summer in the city is approaching. My mind is increasingly shifting toward the events in New York. I am mentally separating from Budapest.
An afternoon coffee for Philip at Gerbeaud Café, our first “old world” café visit two months ago. Then a cup of tea for me at my favorite Cucrazsda on Kiraly Street. There is some kind of a begging organization operating in this part of the city. We come upon several very old tiny women stationed at key touristy locations, begging. It is clear that someone brings them here in the morning, and picks them up in the evening. Their uniform consists of a dark long dress, worn sandals and a black kerchief tied so low over their brows that their faces are invisible. For all I know, these could be children, except for the old hands I can see. One of them is bent over so low that her face is literally one or two feet above ground, and she is only able to look down toward the sidewalk. The other women we have seen usually stay on their knees, downcast. Today, the bent-over beggar is stationed in front of Gerbeaud, but I have seen her in other locations. In a short span of time I observe several tourists giving her change.
The weather is very unstable: several times a day we get violent thunderstorms.
We spend an afternoon in the park at the End of Andrassi. The Hungarian idea of a park is puzzling: they have hardly any benches.
We cook our last dinner at home. The next two days we shall eat out.
My thoughts are increasingly drawn toward the US, New York, Clark. Philip plays piano tonight, something he has not done in a long time. This is his Newton activity. More than ever, we are becoming aware of the shortcomings of this apartment, especially its uncomfortable furnishings. The lack of a comfortable place to sit and read bothers us more than ever.
We are both still struggling with the cold.
Wednesday, May 26th
We linger in bed and over coffee until late this morning. I do not go to the university, but rather bring my readings to the bench at Szomy Deszo Ter.
The feeling of farewell is ever so present! On my way through the underpass toward Deak Ter I note with sharpness the two terrible violin Gypsy players in the underground passage, and the tourist hawks selling city tours.
Thursday, May 27th.
The final report from my Budapest stay is sent out. We spend the afternoon in Szechenyi Furdo bath house. This is the last visit, and it prompts us to look afresh at this monumental structure: the domed ceilings, the art deco motifs on the walls, the endless showers and tiles, the dozen or two (I did not count) pools, the huge outdoor lap pool, the current that amuses us so much. Who paid for this palace and what was the vision? Philip advances the idea that this was a populist gesture on the part of the City or a monarch that felt rich and invincible. My idea is that this was just the opposite: a country club for the aristocracy who paid for it through very exclusive membership fees. Need to do a web search.
We meet Aleh for dinner in one of the eateries behind the Opera House. This is crazy that we do so, for the first time, at the very end of my visit. Aleh’s intensity is so immense that I feel electrified. His eyes are constantly scanning the external scene as well as his own horizon of thoughts. I can tell when he is focused on us and when he is not, and he goes between these two states rapidly. I like this fair skinned slender young Belorusian-to-Hungurian-to Swede cosmopolitan: his directness is very refreshing and his curiosity captivating. We have an interesting discussion over dinner about the necessity for economic growth. After reading a lot of Tim Jackson’s and the other usual suspects, Philip and I have the industrial world perspective (don’t’ need it) while Aleh has the perspective form the global south (need it). Of course, things are more complicated than that, and it is fun to talk about it, but we should have done it weeks ago!
The peculiar role of CEU also becomes more apparent. Faculty salaries at CEU are something like 5-7 times higher than at other Hungarian universities, which is a sufficient reason to be hated. The fact that the endowment comes from George Szoros, who also invests it with great success, only feeds the hatred: of the left, as the manifestation of the link between CEU and the global corporate capital; of the right, as the manifestation of the Great Global Jewish Conspiracy. Aleh has built the MESPOM program, with its sister institutions in Manchester, Lund and Athens, practically from scratch, and is very skilled in tapping into generous EU and CEU funds. From the sound of it, Philip or I could come back here or to one of the other institutions. Philip throws a big idea – a SCORAI workshop on sustainable consumption and economic development of Hungary and other transition economies – and between the three of us the ideas takes on a great shape.
Friday, May 28th.
My last visit to the office, returning the key, visit to the MESPOM office to say good buy to Krisztina Szabados, then a lecture and discussion at CEU, as part of an ongoing two-day symposium. We do not have enough interest to stay beyond this one session. Another long walk in the afternoon, discovery of a nice park/children playground in the District VIII. While we read on the shaded bench, there is some kind of folk festival taking place at the other end of the park, a celebration of Belorussian culture. The sound of folk songs is diffusing into our space.
We don’t have a lot of time: dinner at 5:30 in an outdoor café to celebrate Philip’s birthday and our farewell to Budapest, then a 7 o’clock performance of Puccinin’s Nabuko. Not his greatest opera, and the performance is weird, with long dead breaks when we sit in front of a drawn curtain, listening to music or a distant chorus. The audience is also weird, applauding all the time, after individual arias and at intermissions. They remind me of New York audiences, not the usual Budapest audience. Not a surprise, as many are foreign tourists. No need to see Nabuko again.
My last evening in Budapest is not climatic. Nice, but somewhat distracted.
Saturday, May 29th.
One last cup of coffee and pastry at the café on Kiraly, and at 11 the taxi arrives.
I estimate that during the past two months Philip and I spent at least three hours a day on direct conversation: at cafes, bathhouses, walks, in restaurants. That adds up to about 200 hours of conversation. Wow.
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