BUDAPEST, MY CITY
I didn’t know how much I had missed my city until I stepped into it again. It happened as I got out of my brother's car in front of my hotel, the Csaszar Hotel, next to Lukacs Furdo, the thermal baths.
The Lukacs Furdo had just been renovated. I paused to look at the new crop of Hungarian youth: slim tight little bodies shivering before they jump into the warm mineral waters. These are real virgin waters, fresh up from over a thousand feet below, for the first time in the existence of the planet earth.
I smelled the familiar smell of swimming pools; I had spent a lot of time in and around pools in my life, the water tinged with chlorine scent. I associate it with fun, my childhood’s better memories: a long sky-blue pool, kids swimming, pushing the ball in front of them as they swam, training for the water polo games. It's no wonder we got the gold at the last Olympics. Hungarians are watery creatures. We have a lot of mineral baths and rivers and big lakes, and swimming pools.
I want to talk about the city, my beloved romantic city, Budapest.
The Buda side was named after Attila the Hun’s brother. There are divergent stories; some say Attila had a power struggle with his brother, and killed him. We don’t talk about things like that often in big H. Why bother to stir up such old family feuds that happened in the fifth century. We like to think of father Attila as an excellent horseman and great leader, fated by a magic sword, which he recovered by accident (much like king Arthur and his sword), to lead a very successfully-warring nation. Come now, in the 5th century everybody was cruel, and conquerors got no respect unless they burned entire villages to the ground, just to extort more ransom from them. This was done a lot by the Visigoths, and the Goths, and goddess knows who else. There is no way to wage a “nice” war.
So Attila led us several times all the way to Belgium. We sacked Rome three times. The last time, Attila didn’t burn them down, they say, because he saw the sign of the cross in the sky and was fearful to offend the new gods. I don’t believe that. I think the story about the sign of the cross was added later by the Christians. Attila spared Paris as well, and they say it was because they offered him the most beautiful woman, and he was so impressed, he left them alone. This is totally a French mythology. To each, one's own.
Today, Buda is known as one of the greenbelts. The gentle mountains can transform a neighborhood into a garden city, with special flowery nooks, and street names like Akac and Violet.
When I was young, I sliced across my city with my long skinny legs. I walked many kilometers and didn’t feel it because the streets were so entertaining: here a dog, there a fruit tree. I never got tired. In the summertime when it was hot, I just stood under the sprinklers until I got all wet, then walked on some more.
Now, after fifty years, when I am feeling the street-life again, I notice that the smell is the same--flower scents wafting by, a certain green smell, a deep mossy smell exhales on me from tall trees.
The bus routes travel all around the hills. One sees the people who live in those new buildings now, and can still see the old ones as well.
Life, in many ways hasn’t changed. Kids are packed off to school, only now they have to carry a great deal more books than we did. But playing the soccer games in the empty lots, or on the green fields set aside just for this game, is still the favorite pastime of Hungarian kids. Foci, as we call it, is our true sport in Hungary. Yah yah, we win Olympic medals in fencing, sharp shooting, and swimming too. We have not gotten the gold for a long time, but at the heart of our country, soccer is our game. Both sexes play it professionally. We base Lotto tickets on its outcome. There is no quick pick here, like there is in America.
Budapest comes alive at night. On the Pest side, there are no hills, but that’s where you find the wonderful old buildings. This is the side where the streets have space to jut out. Like rays, they shoot forth, and lead the traffic to the end of the city. Chestnut trees are everywhere, some in the middle of the wide streets, others along the sides as well.
Everything is big here: long city blocks with statues and ornamentation. Some still have the entrances from horse and buggy times. When you step into one of these buildings, you discover that it houses another world. There is an atrium, which is embraced all around by long catwalks. I grew up in such a building. When I got home from school, I had to take an elevator (which was only big enough for two people) which pulled you up to the desired floor. It was always cool when I stepped into the Bethlen udvar,(buildings all have names) where I lived with my father. The stones kept their cool temperatures, like memories from last night. In the winter it never warmed up, no matter how much we heated the place with the coal burning kalyha (oven). But in the summer-time… such bliss, cooling off as you traveled slowly upstairs.
At my mothers, on the Pest side, I lived on the ground floor. Our apartment was in a suburb close by, called Zuglo. It was on a greenbelt as well, not as elegant as the one on the Buda side, but green nevertheless. People had little flower gardens with zinnias and hollyhocks and jasmine bushes and lilacs. Summer nights were conducive for walking about alone, or hand-in-hand, on the deeply shaded big, flat, streets. There were few cars back then, and at night it was totally safe to walk in the middle of the road.
Oh the winter smells! When the first snow fell, or when it froze, little wood-burning stoves were lit to warm the ice skating rinks. You could smell it in the air, that old ice skating scent. Brings back memories of sliding on the ice, with my ankles turned. The skates didn’t fit my shoes well but sometimes, just sometimes, my ankles and the ice were not in collision, and then it was like flying. I flew faster than I could ever run, and the circle I made was perfect. Nothing hurt, and the air was just right. Then, you dropped your skating keys, and a boy would pick them up and hand them to you (Ivan is a name that comes to my mind). This kindness was good for a few months of active fantasy life.
I guess what has always turned me on, is kindness.
From my fourth floor window at fathers, I could listen to the live music from the little restaurant across the street. There was some joyous life down there: eating and drinking and conversing. I watched it all until it was too dark to see. I longed to belong to that kind of society; a happy, carefree time, bittersweet love affairs played out, when there was love to be gained and lost.
My life, in comparison, seemed very empty. I was nine years old and had no friends; schoolmates didn’t live nearby. All my school connections had been severed twice already. I'd had to change schools due to commie politics. At first, I was a live-in at a nunnery in Pecel. When those nuns were let go by the communists, I had to join the sister school, still operating. But they too were closed in short order, and I was sent to yet another school, where I had no roots at all. Why did my parents insist that I live in a nunnery from age six on? Because they had no place for me. Neither of them could look after me. After the war, for a very long time, there was nothing to eat. They worried that I would not develop properly if I didn’t get fed regularly. Sounds good, but it doesn’t explain why they didn’t take me out for holydays, like the other kids. Their parents came, and they went home with them for christmas, and easter. My parents let me stay in the nunnery for holydays. Alone, just the nuns and me. My sleeping room, which usually housed as many as twenty little girls, emptied out, and I was sleeping there alone. I have no idea what I did back then, little girl abandoned in the nunnery. I blocked it all out. Well, not all of it. I fell in love for the first time at age six. She was Ruth, 18 years old. She was the big sister of my best friend Eva, who was my age. I had no idea how deliciously the mind could conjure up small things, like when she said my name. I could live for two weeks on that memory alone, recalling it again and again, until I couldn’t think of anything else. This was rehearsal for later loves (I know now), but back then I couldn’t imagine, this secret life was so good. Not even Eva knew about it.
My other memory from the nunnery was of the prayers, the long boring evening prayers, when I mentally removed the many garments from Sister Phylomena, one by one, as she tiredly leaned against the table, at just about her cunt level, her many folds of skirts slightly wrinkling as she leaned. I got very good at this, imagining things.
I drew a lot of angels. I also learned to create an altar; we all had to. Little boxes, nailed against the wall, were our space to create something sacred. I cut out my angels, and placed them inside. I drew the blessed Mother, and collected flowers, which dried at her feet. I enjoyed making the altar. We were to give ourselves little stars if we did something good, and little hearts if we were kind to another student. We gave black stars if we were bad. This was an ingenious self-policing system. Little girls were hard on themselves, more severe than grown ups were.
Once, the nuns took us to the movies. This was the first film I had ever seen, The Thief of Baghdad. I liked the little nimble brown boy playing the main character, a lot. But I liked best the flying carpet, and the special effects.
Things got better once I got older. The nunneries closed their wrought-iron doors. My parents had to take me home. It’s a miracle of the human mind, and children's desires for a better life, that in this emptiness I invented a great childhood for myself. Budapest became my playground. Because I was not watched by anybody, I had great freedom to wander about. Nevertheless, I remained an outsider. I escaped into the streets... and into books. When mother married a doctor, there were many books I could read. I scared myself with the horrible diseases pictured in the chapters of medical books, and got turned on by novels when there was talk about heaving bosoms, and girls ravished by lovers.
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