Wrapping It Up (Day 3 in Budapest, part 4)

Golly. I let a week sag by with no post (mostly because this one wasnʼt complete and I simply dogged it for seven days, tracking the Komen for the Cure/Planned Parenthood fiasco, spending a day with The Lovely One at her annual eye exam — all good news — and otherwise diddling my days away). However, as fog shifts to rain, appropriately, in present time, hereʼs the rest of our third day, Sunday, 23 October 2011, a national holiday, in Budapest. For those with memories as short-term as mine, we had, as this post begins, just returned from being lost and ill at ease in the wilds of southwestern suburban Budapest.

the possibly left-leaning crowd at Elizabeth Bridge — the Hungarian flag is on the big screen

Rain — heavy mist or lightly moderate drizzle had begun while we still stood exposed on the overpass embankment, and the precipitation had actually begun to fall as our tram trundled north and east toward the river. Once across the Liberty Bridge and off the tram, out on the street, it just seemed noticeably cold and tangibly wet. Váci utca was more open, less crowded than usual — not clear, and busloads of packaged tourists herded about (Italians, Germans, French) actually shopping for cheap cornball t-shirts, overpriced minuscule packets of paprika, fake collectible porcelain, and all the rest of the international norm of prefab predictable standardized mementos. We stalked efficiently north, bobbing and weaving around dawdling clots of less determined pedestrians (a common complex set of maneuvers for us, whether at a mall, a city sidewalk or once upon a time through the throttled halls of secondary schools on winter Saturdays for speech contests) while the cold mist condensed on our clothes. As we came toward the big intersection with Sabad Sajtó út where Elizabeth Bridge lifted out above to our left over the Duna, we could see ahead that the crowd there thickened toward impassibility, spilling in our direction on Váci utca and filling the intersection. As we neared the crowd, encountering various couples, trickles and streams of people milling around the general area, we could hear amplified speeches which soon switched to a folksy-sounding music set. Getting close, I realized the crowd filled the bridge, shoulder-to-shoulder, more than halfway out, around and beyond a kind of stage backed with a huge screen. People massed all the way across our intersection and blocks back from the river, relying in those hindmost parts on the big screen, I suppose.

from the rear (more or less) of the big crowd at the bridge

Janet was feeling the chill and suggested we stop for a coffee at the (conveniently located and therefore obviously very busy) coffee shop on the corner. I needed a rest in a room by this time somewhat, so I acquiesced and prepared (unnecessarily, as always) to order in Hungarian at the counter two decaf nonfat skim lattes. We evidently hit a lull in newcomers (the small interior was almost totally filled, except for a table The Lovely One promptly claimed by seating herself while I wove a route to the counter), and I only had to wait behind about three others. The staff took my money, made change and delivered the two drinks in very good time, and I rejoined Janet at her little table right beside the toilets, where I headed next. Returning, I realized other people were at our table, and Janet actually had to raise her voice and wave to get me to see the windowside seats to which she had moved.

While we hunched in our little chairs over our cardboard cups on the tiny table, two guys heard us speaking English and came over to inquire about eating out and food prices. I havenʼt made a big deal about it yet, but eating out in Budapest was remarkably and pleasantly inexpensive (and tipping is only just seriously catching on, too — a rather snide observation for someone who, in my old age, feels very comfortable doing the 18% thing nowadays, usually). Evidently, as we learned, not so on Váci utca, where these two (justifiably) felt they had been pretty much ripped off. From our experiences they had been gouged (although we had yet to encounter our worst and most costly eating experience that day; it would come on Tuesday night). We agreed that the price they had paid was high and talked with them a while, finishing our lattes. They moved on, and we followed later, pausing to study the activities we couldnʼt actually see on the bridge and the (still enlarging) crowd. 

We took off on a side street to try to flank the crowd and get across Sabad Sajtó út some blocks away from the river — about four, I think. Turning to head toward the hotel again, we passed Erzsébet tér and the other demonstration/rally. The speakers here were markedly more fevered in tone (because naturally we couldnʼt understand word one at either gathering) and the crowd demonstratively fascistic in its reactions (they didnʼt, but I expected any moment, as we scurried past, to witness a few hundred Hungarians make the fierce right-hand-in-the-air salute). If I felt correctly about the first demonstration as being of a mildly leftist leaning, this one was coldly, harshly of the Right. And their music, when it started up as we arrived at the Starlight Suiten, and which we continued to hear as we opened and savored a bottle of Szent István white (our red hadnʼt been replenished for this holiday Sunday) in the room, relaxing, was the militaristic neo-fascist dextreme rock familiar to American audiences through certain notorious neo-Nazi-sympathising German bands. We were actually somewhat worried, considering the copsʼ armed presence and the taped off streets and access, about heading out for dinner that night.

By the time we did go out again, walking along Oktober 6 út  away from both demonstrations toward the basilica, the music we had vaguely heard having ended a while earlier, people were moving along with us… toward their cars or public transit. We hadnʼt made any definite plans but knew that we had seen several restaurants on the square outside the church and figured one of those would suffice. We chose an Italian place, which was very nice — somewhat baroque — inside. Costly and not well patronized, but we got a bottle of wine, salad and pizza. After, we wandered back toward the scene of the rally and found, accidentally, the fabled Gerbaud coffeehouse, where we entered and (this place also being nearly deserted) had some dessert with a cappuccino (her) and a latte (me). Janet went to the case (which I later read in one of our books was the correct thing to do) and ordered a chocolate-and-hazelnut torte that she loved while I chastely ordered a palacsinta (“pancake” or crepe) with walnut filling sided with apricot ice cream and some kind of tasty apricot gel stuff. Really expensive (as the tour books warn), but as our third dessert of the trip, good in our estimation (we would meet better, again as the books advised, later). 

Then home to bed so we wouldnʼt sleep half the next day away.

I think this is the single shot I felt bold enough to take in the neighborhood of the right-wing rally

There. Now I just have Monday through Thursday to cover… Someday. Possibly soon.

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest Day 3 — National Holiday (part 1)

Today, finally, I have the start of my continuation of the Budapest trip (late October 2011). The most recent piece, on our Saturday, the second day in town, was here.

Crowds gathering for the National Holiday, October 23 — a gray and drizzly day — the Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube in the distance

Sunday had been our day of dread (to be over-the-top in my expression) since I had discovered during my hurried, brief stint of rushed research that October 23 was a major national Hungarian holiday — commemorating the 1956 uprising (savagely suppressed) against communist rule (eternally enshrined, at least for Janet and me, in the Chess anthem “1956 — Budapest is rising”). Our previous experience with European holidays indicated everything could be closed for the day. And it was a Sunday, too. Furthermore, when we had raised the holiday issue with the charming desk staff at the hotel, all three girls reacted strangely and mentioned “demonstrations — not to worry” (demonstrations, evidently, about which we knew nothing) before assuring us that restaurants would be open and that the staff world advise us of available attractions to seek on the holiday. 

Saturday night, when we returned from dinner and the concert, the girl at the desk stopped us to offer a sheet of paper with about a dozen things to do — all of which took us tourists out of downtown, where the demonstrations would occur. I think three of those destinations were baths, so perfectly Hungarian, as my reading back in Iowa had quickly taught me, but my beloved and I had pretty well decided, packing, that we wouldnʼt include bathing gear. Sure, a mistake — Rick Steves would be nasily disappointed. We were depriving ourselves of an experience. Even so, me particularly not imagining myself getting mostly naked, I thought we might at least see the Gellért or Széchenyi baths from the outside. After all, as long as the offices were open during the holiday, we were intending to buy transit passes first thing on Sunday and get much further out and about than we had so far. 

Sunday came rain. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear rain falling outdoors.* Looking out from the living area, even my unbespectacled eyes could see the streets and masonry glistening and catch hints of the precipitation in the globular halo of streetlights. By morning (well, very late morning; apparently jet lag caught us up overnight, and we both slept from sometime after midnight until 11:30 AM), the rain had diminished to drizzle and less, but it was a gloomy, dark and chilly day — sadly so after the cloudless brilliance of the day before. Tourists, committing themselves to be outdoors, more or less, throughout the day, never really like to see it rain. But this present morning (okay, nearly noontime) damp seemed very much diminished from my blind experience in the night, and besides I had planned us to be bus borne or trolley-carried or civic-spelunking on the metro (maybe, I dreamed, on the suburban train half an hour northward to the Roman ruins of Aquincum — a dream because we never got there, not this trip). 

After morning ablutions and a bit of breakfast bread and fruit with instant coffee**, we descended the steps to the lobby so I could verify at the desk that public transit would be running and the ticket vendors present. The girlʼs reaction to my inquiry came close to “Duh. What else?” but quite polite — she assured me the transit workers and the police would be on the job today. 

GoogleMaps™ rendition of our Pest neighborhood; the hotel is marked in red, Deák tér in blue

So we set off outdoors, finding only mist in the air, through wet streets to Deák Tér. Although we had been that way once before, I wasnʼt sure just what park was Deák tér (this one mostly an open, paved square) nor just where the metro entrance was (I assumed, correctly, the tickets were inside the subway station). Our problem was that although I could, using one of our tour guide maps, steer us toward Deák Tér, passing along the edge of Erzsébet tér (where it seemed protesters or celebrators were setting up for some kind of apparently major event, supervised by police — lots of police and yellow cop tape everywhere, even along streets), I couldnʼt exactly find Deak tér. I had come to believe, more or less correctly, that a tér (“square”) was a park, like Erzébet or Roosevelt tér along the river in front of the Gresham Palace. I was forgetting, however, that the equivalent namešti (in Czech) in Prague were large open, paved areas with three to six streets converging more or less at the corners. Deák tér seems like an excessively large intersection with some bits of park and a big church (the Great Synagogue) at various edges of the street, and a tram line running through the middle of the major big, wide, multilane boulevard. Fortunately, in one green area a cheese festival had been set up for the weekend, temporary booths and Sunday crowds drawing Janetʼs attention. 

Festival meant park, and some serious damp study eventually revealed to my worried scrutiny that the stairwells leading down were more than just a pedestrian underpass for crossing the big, wide, busy avenue. We discovered, in fact, when we descended a whole expansive mall-like area with shops and food stands. But at first no metro. However, the general flow of people and a lucky guess led me to the transit ticket booth. I had tried to prepare a full Hungarian sentence, requesting our seven-day passes, which in the stress of the real encounter degenerated into, “weekly pass, two,” for which I belatedly remembered to switch my gesture for the number to the European thumb and forefinger. The woman behind the glass answered in passable, minimal English and showed me the amount to pay on a calculator. In less than a minute we had our passes for bus, tram, metro and local suburban train.

* (We nightly opened a window for the fresh air, exactly as we had with the small portals in our garret in Prague, but here in Pest we had no pigeons to worry about. They had flapped at the opening in Prague threatening to but not actually entering, forcing us to keep the windows almost but not quite closed there. In Pest, we kept the opening small mostly from a sense of security.)

** (great stuff they stocked for our kitchenette each day: I enjoyed a cocoa-coffee blend and even brought a couple baglets home to enjoy one of these wintry days)

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.