Anyone who wishes to know what I got up to in Budapest, need only follow the trail of my parking fines. They lead from Józsefváros in Pest, to Bikás park, to the scenic cliffs in Buda that look over the city, the slow ships on the river Danube, and the dark plains beyond.
Parking fines come in what resembles a dog waste-bag, tucked affectionately under the windshield wiper. Once you get one, you begin to see them everywhere. When you see a car with a pile of six or seven, you can’t help but wince in solidarity.
Why did I end up with so many parking fines, you might ask? Why not just pay for a ticket like everyone else? I need only show you Budapest’s parking machines with instructions solely in Hungarian, looking like relics from the Communist times and you will understand my desperation. In the five minutes it takes to find, examine and stand gaping at the machine, a green bag will have already landed on the windshield.
Kertész and Van der Meer
I visit the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center hoping to see Capa’s famous picture of the dying Spanish Loyalist, a photograph which has haunted me since I first saw it in a textbook as a child. Unfortunately, the Capa exhibit is under renovation, but there’s an exhibition of André Kertész’ photographs of rural Hungary on, and it’s wonderful. Also very moving are Hans van der Meer’s photographs of Budapest in the 1980s.
The Buda Castle
Like K in Kafka’s Castle, I have a hell of a time entering. From Gellert Park, I step into a shiny elevator on the west side. Up on the first landing, the door opens on a disorienting scene: People in suits scurry around, vacuuming, sweeping, and hauling large crates of the brightest, largest oranges I’ve ever seen. They barely notice when they crash into each other or into me. The sun sinking in the sky and lighting up the stones only seems to make them run faster.
When I slip away and try to take the stairs up to the next landing, I meet a stout security guard with his legs spread out on the steps. He tells me something angrily in Hungarian and motions with his nose back down to the first landing. When I try to take a kind of ramp, a police woman appears imposingly at the top, shaking her head solemnly. An orange rolls down the ramp and past my feet.
My third and last attempt to get into the Buda Castle is a small elevator, tucked around the corner, which takes me up to the next landing with a jolt. When I exit, I am alone in a stone courtyard, empty except for six or seven huge French flags flapping in the wind. I jog my memory but cannot remember the Budapest ever being occupied by the French. The Ottomans, yes. The Habsburgs, yes. The Soviets, yes. But the French?
Eventually I hear footsteps, and a film crew passes by wheeling a massive crane. Someone appears in the upper windows and slowly begins lowering the French flags, which drop into a pile on the stones.
Inside the Buda Castle is the Hungarian National Gallery. It’s there that I see ‘The Visitation’ in an exhibition about medieval Hungarian altarpieces. Painted in 1506, ‘The Visitation’ shows the figures of Mary and St. Elizabeth surrounded by irises, strawberries, and peonies. The sky behind them is red, as if someone had pulled a curtain over the sun. The picture is beautiful and disorienting, containing both (what I, with albeit little art history knowledge) think of as Japanese and Art Nouveau elements (look at the Iris!). I stand and look at this picture for at least ten minutes before I read that it that it was taken from the Church of St. Catherine in Banská Štiavnica, where we rattled on the doors but couldn’t enter.
The other painting that leaves a comparably deep impression on me is Sandor Trauner’s ‘Picture 1’ from 1929. It’s empty darkness is as comfortable, full and disturbing as a László Krasznahorkai book or a Béla Tarr film. I carry both paintings with me in my mind as I exit the beautiful Buda Castle.
A few streets in Józsefváros, where I’m staying, are being torn up and redone. When Friday evening comes, the street becomes still, and tools and materials are left here and there, waiting for Monday. When Monday comes, the workers return, and with them, the noise. After sitting for ten minutes in Józsefváros, a thin layer of dust has accumulated on my head and I look and feel as useless as a jack hammer on a Sunday afternoon.
From the window, I watch construction workers who gaze at iridescent green beetles on the sidewalk. I watch the shadows of yellow honey-locust trees on the walls. I watch the ticketing officer on his rounds. He slips green bags under the cars with a mournful expression (he doesn’t look nearly as mean as I imagined). I watch old women with shopping bags swinging, propelling them forward, youths who trip over their legs, and middle-aged men who drag their feet as if they weighed a million tons. I watch fights between lovers and neighbours passing objects through windows. At night the street-lamps grow so dim that it’s hard to see anything at all.
October sun streams into Budapest Keleti, the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. I stand amongst a mass of people under the arrivals board. We fidget in anticipation of whoever is coming or perhaps our own going. The station is quiet, and somehow provincial: people run over the tracks and slip between standing trains. The train from Munich finally arrives and A gets off, pale as a ghost. He has the flu. We decide to spend two extra days in Józsefváros, to let him rest. It’s the weekend, so I don’t have to worry about parking fines.
On Monday we decide to take off. Only, the car won’t start. The battery is dead. after receiving detailed instructions from a mechanic friend on the phone, I get into the drivers seat and A pushes the car (this can’t be very good for someone with the flu) down the street. A few bystanders join him in pushing. Second gear! Second gear! They all shout at me. I am screaming. I shift into second, the car starts with a cough, and we glide out of Budapest and head south.