Although we’re heading to Vienna, this must be a German train. It’s obvious the second I step onboard: the posh seats, the plastic tables, the service menu, the reading lights, the onboard television, the electrical outlet, the hard plastic luggage racks, the LCD display alerting you to the name of the next station and expected arrival time. If all this weren’t enough to give it away, the train does something I haven’t seen any train do in the fifty days since I’ve been travelling, not in Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia or Hungary.
The train leaves the station EXACTLY ON TIME.
Off: to Vienna this time, a short three hour trip. Christ, is there any more wonderful sensation than that of being on a train as it slowly increases velocity out of the station? Possibly the feeling of being on a boat as it casts off its moorings. Or that sudden orgasmic eruption of acceleration that comes as an aircraft takes off. I’ve never sat on the top of a rocket as its mains fire and begins its long ascent into orbit, but I’m excited to try it.
I wept bitter tears at the thought of leaving the beauty that is Budapest. I’d known beauty like that existed in the world, known, but forced myself to forget, because if we knew how beautiful the world is we would be constant slaves to beauty, we’d be lotus eaters, gorging ourselves on the wonder and glory that the Chain Bridge, los Torres del Paine, the Hagia Sophia, the Parthenon, the Aegean. If we knew the beauty that awaits us we would all weep as I did last night every damn minute we’re stuck in a fucking cubicle. We forget because we have to if we want to earn daily bread.
But one thing, brothers and sisters: somedays, we AWAKEN. We awaken to beauty and truth and reality, and this awareness is its own blessing and its own curse. For one thing, it leads one to rhapsodize philosophic like an asshole for hours on end.
[Ed note: Thanks. We’ve noticed.]
[Auth note: Fuck you. Who’s writing this blog, anyway?]
[Ed note: Apparently someone with a split personality…]
I don’t know what beauty awaits us in Vienna, brothers and sisters. I can’t believe it could compare with the incomparable glory that was Budapest (Go. Drop what you’re doing. Divorce your wife, quit your job, give the kids up for adoption, abandon everything and GO, you motherfuckers, even if it costs you everything, if you have to live in poverty the rest of your life). But I would not have guessed Budapest could be what it was, nor that Novi Sad would have the world’s most beautiful women,
They tore down the statue of Stalin first thing when the Soviet troops left. Sawed it down at the ankles, leaving only the boots, which remain, collosal boots that greet you as you enter Memento Park, Budapest’s collection of Communist-era statues. Altogether fitting to see this place now, in the summer of 2009, the 20th anniversary of Hungarian independence from Soviet rule. And of course, I’ve forgotten my camera. The statues are all of a type: square-jawed Soviet supermen grasping hands with noble, but inferior, Hungarian laborers. Steely-eyed men with hands raised pointing the way toward a bright utopian future of torture, land confiscation and forced industrialization. I’m sure the official story was that the Hungarian people spontaneously erected the statues in thanks to their Russian brethren for helping them cast off the yoke of German occupation and put on the yoke of Russian occupation. Given the seething hatred for the Russians you can hear coming from the tour guide’s voice, a hatred apparent in almost every guidebook, every document about the Communist past, it really is an impressive feat of restraint that the Hungarians didn’t immediately destroy these statues. But they view this place as a memorial to a dark age of slavery and repression, a time that they forget only at their own peril, a past that must be preserved and remembered because to forget is to become slaves again, to be conquered again. And that is something the Hungarians will never allow. They are the most fiercely democratic people I’ve met, the most rabidly free. They fight tyrrany with every weapon in their arsenal, with irony, wit, remembrance, creativity.
The gift shop sells a T-shirt with the words “East Park,” depicting the heroes of the Soviet Union, Stalin, Lenin et al, as South Park characters. Devastating. Tyrants never have a sense of humor about themselves, which makes humor the best weapon against them.
They also seem to love vampire novels here. Specifically, erotic vampire novels. I’ve seen ads for three separate books by three separate authors in the subway stations. They’re all over the bookstores as well, simply mad about them. To be expected, perhaps, since it is Hungarian that gives the word ‘Vampire’ in the first place, and living in this city, surrounded with its thousand year history, awe inspiring architecture, and infused with an obscure, inscrutable language, one must believe in all kinds of monsters here. The organist plays Bach’s Tocatta Air at a concert at St. Stephen’s. Of course he does.
Do not ‘visit’ Budapest, as I have. It is imposible. One cannot visit this place and expect to see even a tenth of it. One must live here to really see it, I think. When you come, you will buy an apartment in the posh area around Parliament, for 100,000 euros. You’ll buy a bike, too, since this is the best way to see the city, and allows you to avoid the Budapest cabbies, may God forcibly sodomize them all with his most mighty and divine wang. You will buy th best camera you can afford, and the largest hard drive available, and you’ll need both, and you’ll spend a lifetime trying to record the beauty of this place. It will take you six months to be able to order food and understand basic instructions in Hungarian. Within a year you’ll be able to pound out basic sentences. In another year you’ll be able to enjoy Hungarian TV. But you’ll never speak it well. You’ll dance with locals on the shores of the Danube, dance until 5am, until they put on “Summer of ’69,” because really, there’s only so much a brother can take, and you’ll walk home and watch the sun come up over the Danube, AGAIN, as joggers pass you on their way to work.
And this will change you.
The security guard asks me why I am crying. Everyone else has left, the lights have been turned off, and I’m the last one left in the cathedral. For beauty, I explain. For beauty, and because I will never see this place again. I am weeping, literally weeping as they drag me out of St. Stephens, screaming for them to let me spend the night there.
Do you want to see the kingdom of god? I mean really. Because it’s not a joke. This isn’t a gag or me trying to be cute. The kingdom of heaven is here, on earth, I’ve seen it. And when you do see it you will experience joy and sorrow and pain and ecstasy because the reality is you cannot stay in the kingdom of god forever, you are granted only a limited time there, and the knowledge of that is terrible.
The kingdom of god, my friends. The kingodom of heaven. It’s real. I’m an atheist and I’ll concede this point. How is this possible?
There are moments of pure artistic perfection. Moments that arrive as the culmination of years, decades of preparation, combined with a perfection of location and perfection of material, a confluence of human labor and passion and sheer love of beauty that dawns, finally, in one perfect moment in which that divinity that resides within us shines out so blindingly it blots out everything else and there is only love, beauty and perfection.
St. Stephen’s Basilica was completed in 1905. The inscription along the entablature, below the pediment reads “Ego sum via veritas et vita,” “I am the way of truth and life” (I think). It’s central dome is surrounded by a circular railing with statues perched on top. At the front, two symmetrical clock towers that flank the entrance. Within the church, at the altar, a statue of St. Stephen, lit with an eerie, celestial light. In a city overflowing with beauty, a city in which you want to photograph every other building, St. Stephen’s Basilica is the most beautiful thing. The Hagia Sophia is more majestic, more powerful, more central. She is a soaring beauty, layered with millenia of meaning, the accretions of several cultures, multi-significant, a history of humanity captured in the layers upon layers of evidence left on her. But for all that, she is still a ruined beauty, raped by conquest, her crosses washed out and torn down, damaged by neglect, earthquakes and war, her mosaics fading, her banisters graffitoed.
St. Stephen’s was built only one hundred years ago. She is still in her full glory, her gold not yet plundered, her artworks not yet stolen. She is what she was meant to be, untouched by the ravages of time. Perhaps Sophia looked like her once.
Supplementing the visual beauty of her architecture, her statuary, her paintings, her lighting, is her acoustics. I’ve heard the acoustics of the Byzantine cistern underneath Istanbul and thought them perfect. But they are perfect in a creepy, cthonic way, the pools of water softening sound to murderously quiet levels: the acoustics of the cistern befit a graveyard, with its doric columns standing on medusa heads, its darkness, the kind of place Percy Bysshe Shelley might deflower a child bride.
Stephen’s acoustics soar. They take the human voice and raise it, amplify it, enoble it, and reflect it back to the singer in a wave of sound somehow more lovely and more beautiful than before. The human voice is made perfect in this venue, augmented in a way I can’t understand but which overwhelms me utterly.
Behind and above the seating area is an organ of incredible size.
And Gyula Pfeiffer sits down at the keyboard.
And he begins to play. And the violinst accompanies him on Handel’s Xerxes. And it is beautiful. Painfully, soul crushingly, exhiliratingly beautiful, and you understand everything, the entire scope of human experience, everything is contained within the sound reverberating in this most perfect of all places.
But it’s not until the soprano starts singing Handel’s “Rejoice” that I start crying.
Do you want the kingdom of god? Do you want to know beauty, know truth, touch the divine, experience perfection? Come to this place. Come now, to Budapest, and listen to the organ of St. Stephen’s Basilica and experience what I have experienced but know also that you will likely never come back here, just as I will never come back here. You will experience this perfect beauty once, only once, and it will then be only an echo in your memory and you must be content with that forever. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart and I am stil weeping as I write this. I’ve heard the human voice perfected through the confluence of place, performer, and song. This is a terrible burden to bear. It is the way and the truth and the life. Come here, but you will either never leave, or you will experience the bitterness of being cast out of heaven itself.
When Odysseus heard the sirens sing, his mariners had to tie him to the mast to keep him from immediately abandoning them for the beauty of their song. Odysseus knew how the beauty of a song could trap a man, as completely as any cage. How can I leave this place? How can I possibly? I leave for Vienna tomorrow, and I can’t bear the thought of not hearing the organ of St. Stephen play again.
It’s the notebooks that worry me. Sorry about the souvenirs, guys, but it’s only the notebooks I care about. The t-shirts that say “Greece!” the coasters in the shape of Minoan artifacts, the erotic playing cards, are almost not worth the cost of shipping. But the notebooks…oh, those are a loss, brothers and sisters, an immeasurable loss. Never again will I send a notebook by poast.
My Greek was much better than my Hungarian is. The first post office I try says they can’t help. At least, that’s what I think they’re saying, but it’s hard to say for sure. They direct me, as best they can, to another post office a few blocks away, one capable of sending parcels, I guess. I find it after half an hour and frequent consultations with the map. I’m already behind schedule for the day from the moment I get into the office.
Two things abour this post office: they seem to sell lottery tickets and candy bars in addition to the usual fare of stamps, post restante mail, and passport photos, so it’s somewhat busy with a crowd of desperate lottery addicts in need of their daily fix. It’s also populated by people younger and more attractive than me, and some are even better dressed, wearing only the most casual suggestion of a postal uniform, a slight white button-down t-shirt they somehow manage to wear ironically, like rock stars.
After a few minutes wait, I say “parcel” in Hungarian to the girl behind the counter, who is so attractive I’m convinced she’s danced for me in a strip club somewhere. She points me to another window. I say “parcel” again and point to the laptop backpack that has been doing duty as my portable bag, and is now fraying at the edges under the strain of the unfair load I’ve demanded from it. This clerk points me to a wooden door, a sort of side room to the little lobby you have to ring a bell to be buzzed into. I fear I’ve done or said something wrong, and I’m being led into some secret compartment where I’ll be tortured for information.
It’s just another clerk, who looks at me from behind his perspex security glass. Why this guy gets his own tiny compartment, I have no clue. It’s getting close to 11am, I’ve got elaborate plans to actual see some museums today, and the 38 degree heat is starting to make me edgy. I managed to explain what I need, and he hands me a flat box, which he slides awkwardly through a slit in the perspex.
The box is one of those origami designs that are supposed to fold up into a container so secure that even the most sullen mail carrier can’t destroy. However, I’m absolutlely terrible at these sorts of things (Spatial Imagination: FAIL), and besides, the size of the room we’re in is only slightly larger than the box itself, and it looks as though you might need to fold the contraption in N-dimensional space in order to make it work.
“No good!” I scream at the guy behind the counter. “You need at least four dimensions in order to get this thing to fold properly. I only have three!” At least, this is what I try to say, but only manage “Fold-no possible-is Klein-bottle-like N-space dimensionality” in Hungarian. He patiently tries to explain how to fold the thing using a blackboard and some Lorentz Field translations, but of course he’s behind the Perspex and can’t just fold the damn thing for me. Finally, I leave the tiny cubicle to try to fold the box in the lobby, which has more elbow room.
But the lobby has since filled up with lottery addicts. I manage to get the box folded, only to discover that its somewhat smaller than the bag I want to ship home. Desperately I try to jam the damn thing in there, but to no avail. I go back to the clerk, buy a larger box, try to remember the steps I used to fold the first box (Up, up, down down, left, right, left, right, A-B-A-B select start). The exertion of struggling with the box has worn me down, and I’m sweaty and gross from the heat. Finally, the bag is in the box, which is securely fashioned shut. I get back in line, go back to the only clerk who speaks any English, and try to explain that I want to send it to the US.
A problem arises on the issue of the return address. I don’t have one. He shouts “hotel” through the Perspex again and I try to explain that I can’t remember the name of the damn hostel, much less its address, it was just the third one I tried at the end of a long night. Good luck explaining that one. We stare at each other. I try to ask him if he can just put down the address of this post office. No comprende. We shout at each other through the glass, trying to come up with solutions while we’re both getting more frustrated. Finally, I pull a map out that has the names and addresses of some hotels. I put one down at random and he takes the parcel.
I try to pay with my credit card, and he asks for the pin number. “It doesn’t have a fucking pin number,” I say wearily. “It’s a credit card.”
“Have to have pin number to pay.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I hand over my ATM card and use the pin for that, hoping they’re not going to charge me some ridiculously usurious fee to complete this transaction. The cost comes to about $75, at which point I realize it makes no sense to ship any of this stuff home. But I’ve come this far, goddamn it, and I’m going through with it. I pay, we both breathe a sigh of relief that the transaction is over. As I put the receipt in my wallet, I see the small business card I took from my hostel, complete with name and address.
Oh for fuck’s sake…
Ok, it takes me frakking forever to upload these things, which is why I haven’t been doing it lately. But there was a request in the comments section so…
Hungarian ticket takers have what can best be described as a relaxed attitude toward efficiency and expediency. Even with 20 or 30 people standing behind you, they’re more than happy to take al the time in the world to debate the pros and cons of various ticket options, whether to get teh audio guide, and if the Turner exhibit is really worth the extra 1600 florints. Nor will they rush you while you decide. It takes me 15 minutes to get my ticket in the Museum of Fine Arts. Which is an absolutely gorgeous museum full of interior Corinthian columns and courtyards, some very nice paintings by El Greco and your Flemish masters, but absolutely NO GODDAMN A/C. So after my usual four hours in an art museum (never go to an art or archaeology museum with the Vagabond, friends, I get sucked in) I’m drenched in sweat. The mercury is pushing 40 degrees Centigrade, and will do for another two days. Go ahead, work out the conversion…
I discover the museum also has a small marble piece by Rodin called “Eternal Spring.” And for Rodin, boys and girls, I can forgive any lack of A/C.
Fortunately, the largest bath complex in Europe is right next door. The bath, Szechenyi furdo (but spelled with some umlauts and pronounced “Gary”) is a gynormous Beaux Arts (I think) building, painted yellow, with two wings, an interior courtyard, and three pools: two hot springs and a cold-water swimming pool. I pay about $10 for two hours and my own cabin, which is really just a closet to keep your clothes in. I’ve remembered to bring my swim trunks and towel, but neglected my flip-flops, so I pad around cautiously on the hot cement. I swim a few laps, but my lungs soon collapse under the weight of several days of nicotine abuse, and I spend the rest of my time lying on my towel on the cement, or relaxing in the hot spring pool.
By sheer coincidence, the three Irish lads I met from the other night are there at roughly the same time. We don’t run into each other, but we figure this out later.
I top the day off with a quick stop at yet another cafe, where the waiter tries to rip me off. He tells me he’s going to rip me off though, and only has the balls to do so for about 75 cents, so I still tip him. I’m drinking filtered coffee for the first time in months, after all, and it tastes glorious, like pure Jesus dripped in chocolate with sprinkles on top.
What? You Catholics eat Him every Sunday, don’t complain to me about being sacrilcious if you’re too stodgy to put some delicious condiments on him…
Ok, straight to hell for that last one.
I try to stop by the ticket office for Hungary’s train service, only to find it has become a bookstore. Well done, Lonely Planet, you have once again sent me to the wrong address. I must have been the 300th person to make this mistake, though, and the guy behind the counter has a photocopy of a map with a little hand drawn arrow telling me where to go.
When I get to the ticket office, I immediately sense that something is wrong. This place is clean, efficient, and inviting. Like the post office I went to in the morning, the employees are young, intelligent, multi-lingual, friendly, and, well, wearing short skirts.
What the hell?
This is wrong on so many levels. Federal employeees this agreeable only make poeple want to use the service they provide MORE. This increases demand for government services, encouraging over-consumption.
In general, I’ve been shocked at how efficient and pleasant the services are in Hungary (except for the private-operator cab drivers, motherless whores all of them). Then again, I don’t think Hungary has a political party ideologically dedicated to demonstrating the inherent inferiority of government institutions by systematically destorying them by denying sufficient funds to run them properly (diagram that sentence, I dare you).
I meet the Irish lads, again, at their hostel that night, and meet everyone else. The staff their, UK and American expats by the sounds of it, take us on a pub crawl that has us playing foosball at odd hours, and meeting a trio of Dutchmen who offer me a place to stay with them in Rotterdam (I take their names and numbers) and are playing a game in which they must continue to trade items until they can no longer offload the one they have on hand. They started with a lemon (or something) and are trying to convince me to trade them for a Hoover vacuum cleaner. I swear I’m not making this up.
We crawl around until we land on a small island in the Danube river, a club where expats dance like assholes. Me, a fellow from Deutsche Bank, another from GE, and one of the hostel staff bail, grabbing a cab back to Buday, where Deutsche knows a club where the locals dance. We agree on a price with the cabbie before hand, which is good, because he still tries to rob us when we get out, may God use the entrails of Budapest cab drivers to string a harp.
We dance with local girls, try and fail to pick them up (go ahead. Pick someone up using basic Hungarian in a loud bar. We’ll wait.), and leave happy and tired at 5am as “Summer of ’69” comes on the radio. The others take a taxi home, I elect to walk back since my hostel is closer, and also because I sincerely wish every Budapest cab driver’s dentist to use a chainsaw on their face at their next appointment, the motherless whores.
I pass joggers on my way back to bed. My resolution to detox while in Budapest: FAIL.
None. That’s it. Stop reading this shit, I mean it. I’m done. I’m not going to a club tonight. I’m not getting on a train. I’m not going to climb a mountain to a cave that birthed a deity, I’m not going to crash any mopeds. I’m through for the next few days. I’m in dry dock in Budapest, have been since Monday night, and it’s taken me this frakking long to get the wi-fi in my hostel to work. I’m putting in for repairs and recuperation. If going to take in the baths, visit a few museums, not look for trouble for a change.
This place is gorgeous, by the way. If you have any love of architecture, Budapest is a wet dream. You find yourself taking a picture every five minutes. Which is good, because I haven’t found a whole lot else to do in this town (not going to the clubs, not going to the clubs). It boasts something like forty-two museums, which sounds great, until you realize that they’re museums to stuff like…Agriculture! Transportation! Soviet Repression! Seriously, I’m not making this up.
Hungarian is also the toughest language I’ve run into yet. That’s including Serbian, Turkish, and Greek, all of which I managed a few complete sentences in by the time I left those countries. Hungarian, desptite being spelled with the latin alphabet, is some bastard spawn of Finnish strained through Carpathia and a few conquests by Seljuks, Ottomans, Mongols, and every other steppe-inhabiting horde you can think of. It’s freakishly hard, everyone thinks you sound like an idiot (because, let’s face it, you do) and it’s impossible to make conversation with the locals. A perfect town for someone looking for some down time.
One slight problem with applying the improvisation technique to travelling is that sometimes you wind up dragging your bag to three different hostels before finding one that has room available. And when you get there, you find a tour group of 100 French middle schoolers in the lobby.
I like hostels because you get to meet people. I just didn’t think they’d take the word ‘youth’ quite so seriously.
Remind me to tell you the story of my trip to a Hungarian post office, btw. Also, remind me to tell you the story of Jovana, the Serbian princess. Not now, but later. I’m too fried at the moment.
Remind me to post some pictures of Budapest, Belgrade, Novi Sad. I’d do it myself, but it takes freaking forever and I’m beat.
Oh, remember that bit about no more adventures? Well…here’s the thing. Three Irish guys I met on the train from Novi Sad just texted me to come out with the bar to them.
You just don’t say no to a bar invite from an Irishman.
Well…maybe YOU do.
I don’t. Particularly one that owes me 2000 Florints.
One quick drink. Then I’m coming back to the hostel.
I promise this time.