Vienna Postcard 8: Budapest

A Little Blue Flag for Europe

We spent May Day — a big holiday in Hungary, as in much of the rest of Europe — down in the southern city of Pécs. May Day was also the date of what has been rather awkwardly called the “EU Enlargement.” (Could another term have been devised? Does the EU have no marketing types in its English-language bureau?) When I asked our Viennese friend Hannes what he thought it would mean to be in a country officially entering the EU on that day, he snickered & said, “I don’t know. It’ll probably be really easy to get little blue flags.” Which it turned out was true. It was also a good day to hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” at least a dozen times. Yes! The triumphant joy of the New Europe!

When I asked our Budapest friends Márton & Gyöngyi (OK — I promised to explain this name last time: it comes from a uniquely Hungarian word, gyöngy, which means “pearl.” The name Gyöngyi — pronounced “dhyundhyee,” a sound only Hungarian natives can actually make, along, of course, with Gabby — means “the blood of a pearl.” Seriously. How could that not be your favorite name?) about what it means for Hungary to enter the EU — & both of them are in favor of this, er, “enlargement,” which isn’t true of nearly half this country’s population — they both spoke about the economic changes it would bring. Not just the coming of the EURO, which is still probably five years off. Hungary is a smallish country with a population of 10 million people. Even as it sits in the center of Europe, it is both culturally & linguistically separated from the rest of the continent. Hungarians are not Slavs, they do not speak a Slavic language — as do most Eastern Europeans; likewise, culturally, they are not Austro-Germans, nor Ottomans, nor Jews, nor gypsies, nor Huns, nor even entirely Arpad-Magyars. Rather, they are all of these things, somehow, which is not true of any other European country, & then of course neither. Economically, Hungary has protected itself by implementing a series of high tariffs on outside goods, or at least the ones they can produce for themselves. You just have to buy a box of cereal to see the places with whom trade agreements are in operation: the ingredients on my cornflakes are listed in dozens of languages — all designated by their respective flags & codes — not a single one west of Hungary’s border. Sugar, in Latvian, by the way, is cucurs.

In the coming months, then, new products will flow into Hungary because these tariffs will no longer exist, now that the borders have officially dropped. What kinds of products? I suppose cellphones, electronics, but probably most strikingly for someone like me, food products. When you go to any grocery store in Vienna, you have access to foods from all over western Europe: Spanish hams, French cheeses, Italian pastas. In the famous Julius Meinl market on the Graben, you see a little flag next to each product indicating its country of origin. When Gyöngyi was talking about these gustatory changes, she mentioned Danish butter — “It’s supposed to be the best,” she mused. I’ve never had it, but I can say for certain that Austrian butter is much better than Hungarian butter. So why shouldn’t they be able to shop for the good stuff, right?

So what is the New Europe, now that it’s expanded to include 25 countries? Sometimes, walking down the streets, looking at the diners in outdoor cafes, I have the thought that it’s nothing more than guys sitting around while deeply captivated by their cellphones. Or maybe it really is a better stick of butter. (It’s actually sold in something more like a block) At the Szabó Ervin Könyvtár, the library where I have been going to do work in the mornings when I’m not watching G., there’s a room devoted to the European Union. There are flags, computers loaded with New European information, & lots of pamphlets. One of the pamphlets is kind of a charter for the EU, along with a revealing map. Take a look at the New Europe on this map. What strikes you? No, it’s not the yellow-colored member states, nor the lavender-gray colored applicant states. It’s the white nations. There’s Russia — which will never be invited in. There’s Russia’s old buddies, the Ukraine & Belarus, never to be invited in either. There’s Iceland — hey, why aren’t they part of the party? There’s Norway, sitting on top of its vast oil reserves, which it isn’t interested in sharing. There’s Switzerland — cuckoo clocks & five hundred years of peace, right? And then, there’s the gaping wound of Europe, the Balkans. The Balkans is where Europe goes to die. Márton believes Europe is coming at last to the conclusion of the anti-fascist ideologies that have dominated Europe for the past sixty years. That Europe can define itself in a new light. If you look at the pamphlet I mentioned above, or at the Europa website, you’ll find something like a mission statement for the New Europe. To become a member state, you need to have a democratic government that supports a free economy, as well as a culture that protects its minorities. Look again at the Balkans. Through Rebecca & her studies, & through what my admittedly limited understanding helps me suss out, I’ve been getting a smattering of history here. Through which one consistent tendency reveals itself: Europe is a place on earth where nobody really likes each other — the Balkans are a grim tattoo of this feeling. It’s a place where this dislike isn’t masked from view. I don’t think the Balkans will ever enter the European Union. It’ll remain as the visible, necessary scar of the Old Europe, whose grim 20th century we’re still blemished by.

So what is the New Europe then? Walking through the Városliget — the City Park — Márton said to me that it is not so important to him that he be understood, only that he be tolerated. So maybe that’s it, the New Europe — or its hope: tolerance.

The Poet of the King’s Way

Márton Koppány at the Városliget

Among the tasks that have occupied me since we’ve been here in Budapest is interviewing Márton. I’m going to write an essay about his work, with some information about his life threaded in. We met at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee — regarded by me & Márton both as a holy place, hopefully by some of you as well — after Márton had sent some of his work to LVNG. I was fascinated by it & we decided to publish some of it (one piece in LVNG 7; another as a number in the LVNG Supplemental Series). As we chatted in the bookstore, looking through the vast poetry section — this was in 1997 — I asked Márton how he liked living in Milwaukee (Gyöngyi was at UWM for the year doing academic work in Linguistics). He told me he loved it, adding, “It’s much safer than Budapest.” I pulled my eyes from the bookshelves, looked at him & said, a bit surprised, “Oh, I didn’t realize that Budapest was a dangerous place.” Pause. Pause. “Well, existentially speaking.” It took me a few seconds to realize this was a joke. It’s taken me a few years longer, however, to realize it’s not a joke. This is the feature of Márton’s work & thought that is most consistent to me: its simultaneous humor & seriousness existing on an almost holographic scale: if you hold it at one angle, you don’t see how funny it is; hold it at another, & it seems to be just a joke. Instead, these elements are held in a precarious suspension, one maintained through the incredible care Márton lavishes on his poems, few of which amount to more than a half a dozen words. Rather than referring to himself as a minimalist, he founded an organization to collect his thoughts, so to speak, the Institute of Broken & Reduced Languages. Here’s what I mean by this:

I’ll regret it.

We published “I’ll Regret It” in LVNG 7. It’s one of my favorite of Márton’s poems, one of my favorite poems of all. I want to comment on it, but I’ll just leave it at this: see how funny this poem is? See how serious it is?

Márton was born in Budapest. His father was a furrier — he’s retired now. He grew up in the Pest very close to the great Ring Street that enarches this side of the city, in a very urban setting. His father’s store was on Kiraly utca — King Street. Last summer, we were staying on the Sip utca, which is in the heart of the oldest part of the city, also the Jewish part of town, very close to Kiraly utca. Walking across Kiraly utca one afternoon, Márton said that if you go into a European capital, you will always find a King Street, which will be the oldest street in the city, & will typically run through the Jewish part of town.

To conduct our interviews, we’ve been walking around the city some, sitting in restaurants & cafés some more. Conversations, really. I’ve been taking notes, which I’ll use to reconstruct the feel of our talks sometime over the summer or the fall. On one of our walks, Márton wanted to show me was a trio of headless pedestals in the Varosliget. We had seen one of them on a stroll through the Margitsziget. He said, “I will take you to a special place in the Varosliget where there are three of these, & I will tell you the story about them.” The story is a kind of parable of the New Europe, which is hardly removed — we should recall — from the Old Europe. Three pedestals which are supposed to support three busts of three Hungarian writers, all three of them Jewish. Márton says that for years, everytime the heads were removed, the city officials would remount new heads. At which point they would be promptly removed again. And then replaced. “Until, they finally gave it up, & just left the pedestals.” It was after showing me & G. this “monument” that Márton made his comment about tolerance. He said, “It’s not so important to me that I be understood, only that I be tolerated. And here in Budapest, I am tolerated. And that is enough.” As we walked back to the Metro station, we walked by the Szichenyi Baths, where Márton swims twice a week. Last summer, explaining his schedule to me, he said, “Some of the best moments of my life I have spent swimming.”

Some Churches of Transdanubia

It means “across the Danube,’ or, more accurately, the land across which the Danube flows. After coming east out of Vienna, the Donau turns into the Duna, flowing further east then cutting sharply south around the Buda Hills down through Budapest, cleaving the city in two & making for some spectacular bridges, none more superb than the Chain Bridge at the navel of the city. Then the river splits up a bit, rejoins, then flows further south, beginning to go east again into Romania. Southern Hungary looks like Iowa. We rented a little VW Polo & blasted out of the city for two days.

The tiles of Pécs

Pécs — pronounced “page” — like I said, was beautiful. But it was the countryside around it that was most uplifting. The fields were all bursting with green, or safflowered with a golden fluorescence of the earth itself. Rolling hills give way to broad flat plains. Small, empty roads wind through woodlands or unroll across farmland. We stopped for lunch on Sunday in the Forest of Gemenc, eating in a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Had the best goulash — made with meat described only as “wild” — of my life, as deep & rich as any Oaxacan molé. We saw some beautiful birds, including a hoopoe, a jay (just a “jay”), & a yellow grosbeak. And we took a nice little, if mosquitoed, hike.

Mosque of Gazi Kasim Pasha

The churches of Hungary reveal some of its history, some of its strangeness. At the center of Pécs is the Belvárosi templom, a Catholic church, whose stumpy shape, ornate window niches, & — inside — complete lack of iconography reveal its origins as the Mosque of Gazi Kasim Pasha. Rather than hide this fact, the church celebrates it: the mirab — or prayer-niche that points toward Mecca — has been left in tact, as has been Arabic calligraphy throughout the church.

The Catholic church at Paks

On our drive home, compelled by a strange photo in our guide book, we stopped in the industrial town of Paks (pronounced “pahksh”) to see the Catholic church designed by Imre Makovecz. Makovecz is the practitioner of “Hungarian organic architecture,” derived in part from his studies of Frank Lloyd Wright, but also the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. (See here for a useful review of his work.) Rebecca’s been studying the work of the two most important turn-of-the-century architects in Hungary, Ödön Lechner & Károly Kós — both of whom mastered an unearthy alchemy of organic forms with the reigning Secession style of the time, Lechner through bizarre, comb-like designs (his buildings are at least as weird as anything of Gaudi’s), Kós through an integration of Transylvanian structural & folk motifs into his buildings (all of the important ones of which he designed & saw built before he was 30! And he lived until he was nearly ninety!). So, anyways, we were more than a little intrigued, though I half-though the place would be a farce. Makovecz’s church did not disappoint, even in the least. Maybe one of the most compelling ecclesial structures I’ve seen in a long time. It’s got two structures: the belltower, which looks like a shingled phallus emerging from a copper-vaginal cleft; & the church itself, which looks like the hull of a ship overturned. Inside it, there are these horrifying, larger-than-life wooden carvings of Jesus on the Cross, with a grimace of agony on his face, flanked by two agonized angels, both of whom are being crucified. This seemed somehow Rilkean to me. Its very strangeness seemed to make it a welcoming place.

Interior of the Serbian church at Ráckeve

Our final stop, late in the afternoon, was the sleepy little town of Ráckeve (pronounced “rahtskehveh”). Last summer, we visited this town at my insistence with Márton & Gyöngyi, both of whom had never been there before (it’s maybe 45km south of Budapest). There’s an old Serbian Orthodox church there, built in the 1400s & then rebuilt in the 1700s, whose interior is painted throughout in the most astonishing murals, all from 1771. The exterior of the church is bone-white. Both our visits to the church have been on incredibly beautiful days when the golden light has been falling & the sky has been nearly turquoise. So that I’m convinced the place is enchanted. When you step from the glaring whitewash of the church walls into the church itself, you enter something like an iconographic history of creation, refracted not so much in a crystal as in a honeycomb: every little niche is filled with an image, the whole cosmic life of Christ, to a remarkable vision of the Last Judgement, replete with pitchfork’d demons chasing the unworthy to their gloom. I love the place. I wanted to go back. The same incredibly pretty woman who was our guide last time was there again; this time, it was clear she was the caretaker of the church, living in the rectory tucked to the side of the church grounds. There were kids playing, laundry hung, & an old, pious looking woman sitting in the shade.

It’s sometimes amazing to me that places like all of these exist all over on the earth.

Peter O'Leary (© 2004)