Tuesday, June 26, 2007

London Fog

Back in London, where it's cool and gray and all the news is of the torrential rains and flooding they had in northern England yesterday, a major contrast with the almost tropical heat of Budapest. It was a very full four days there: one of the best things I did was rent a bicycle with which to pedal all around the city (well, the flat, Pest side of it anyhow), enabling me to get around quickly and see much more than I would have on foot or even using public transportation. And biking along the Danube is an experience everyone who visits the city should try. It also provided me with my only opportunity to get to know a Hungarian a little bit: Tomas at the bike shop courteously offered me some soda water when I returned the bike the next day and I ended up hanging out in the shop chatting with him for most of the afternoon. A solo traveler ought to be extroverted to have the fullest experience of places, and I'm not always, so I welcome these opportunities when they arise. I also continue to think fondly of my Triestine hosts Mario and Michaela, who showed me so much of their haunted, beautiful city and also got me to eat cuttlefish, octopus, and whole fried sardines for the first time. If I'd been lucky enough to meet a Viennese person or two I might have a warmer impression of that city as well.

Biking around Budapest, visiting the parks, going to the movies (I saw Stranger Than Fiction in English with Hungarian subtitles; it was much better than I'd been led to expect, and Dustin Hoffman's slyly poststructuralist literature professor is my new role model), hearing concerts (free shows on Saturday night by a group of Hungarian folksingers, one of whom played the French horn, and a ska band called the Brooklyn Funk Experience; I also found myself in a studio of Magyar Radio yesterday evening for a live recital of songs by Kodaly, Ravel, and Brahams), and eating food tantalizingly similar to yet ineffably different from that prepared by my mother when I was a child, I found myself wondering what my life would look like if I'd succeeded in going there for a Fulbright year as I attempted to do in 2000. Would I still have made it to Cornell and met Emily? Would I have attained something resembling proficiency in Hungarian? The most difficult language I've ever tried to study, even casually--in Italian I could get by, I don't speak German at all but I can at least follow the logic of the language and recognize many words--in Hungary I knew how to say "Good day," "Thank you," "The bill please," and "I don't speak Hungarian," not much else. There are very few cognates and the syntax is almost completely detached from word order, so you need to learn not just new words but a new logic to reach even the beginner's level with the language. The Hungarians at least don't really expect foreigners to know their language, and occasionally seemed touched or at least amused by my mumbled "Koszonom" and "Jo napot." My rather sketchy Fulbright plan involved studying and translating Hungarian poetry--I don't know about present-day Hungary but historically it's been a country where poets have been tremendously esteemed and influential figures--the legislators of choice in a country whose "legitimate" rulers were so often occupiers and oppressors. One of the most famous Hungarian poets, Sandor Petofi (apologies for not attempting the diacritical marks), almost singlehandedly launched a (failed) revolution in 1848 by reading a nationalist poem on the steps of the National Museum. On the plane from Budapest this morning I devoured the astonishing memoir of another Hungarian poet, Gyorgy Faludy, whose English title is My Happy Days in Hell; his poetry and translations of Villon made him a celebrity in his twenties, something unimaginable in a Western country. (His life story is remarkable: fleeing the Nazis, moving to American and joining the U.S. Army, then going back to Hungary after the war against all advice and being imprisoned in a forced labor camp under the most inhuman conditions imaginable, surviving only because of the affection and resourcefulness of his fellow prisoners, saved by the death of Stalin--the memoir ends there, I wish it had gone on. He was a fascinating man--an egotist, but the most charming sort, deeply ethical but unconventional, and apparently bisexual to boot. He only passed away last year, so he lived to see a free Hungary.) And there are innumerable streets in Budapest named for poets, as well as statues--there's one of Attila Jozsef, perhaps the most depressing writer who ever lived, just a stone's throw from the Hungarian Parliament. It's impossible to imagine Americans honoring poets to the same degree, much less a poet of despair like Attila.

Looking for my mother, that's what this comes down to: wandering the streets of the Jewish quarter, wondering exactly where the photo I have of her as a little girl in the ghetto (wearing the yellow star) was taken; wondering if the Hungarian tradition of poetry somehow influenced her own writing or at least her desire to write; trying to breath in something of the air she first breathed. Her Budapest is really unimaginable to me, unrecognizable in spite of the architecture, food, language: imagine being born into a world of terror as she was, your parents taken away from you, your first memories being those of compression in the ghetto with thousands of other Jews terrified for their lives. And then to live with that memory, and the memories of your parents that they never speak about, in a country that prides itself on forgetfulness and the new--growing up in Queens. And none of this is the real story, it's just a mythology I've constructed retrospectively that bears me up in some mysterious way. In some ways that myth has become more precious to me than the truth--otherwise I'd try harder to make contact with my remaining Hungarian relatives. Maybe I'm readier to do that now, having walked those streets.

London, a delicious and very expensive afterthought to this trip, this petit-grand tour. I spent most of it in bed finishing Faludy's memoir. Perhaps tomorrow Emily and I will stroll along the Thames, and tell each other the stories of our nine days' adventures apart.

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