Monthly Archives: May 2015

budapest

Budapest is better than Paris, I think.

It’s a city of two million people (Budapest, not Paris), which is about one-fifth of Hungary’s total population. It spreads out across the Danube, because it was originally two cities: the rolling hills of Buda, once belonging to the Romans, and the flat land of Pest, too sandy to be arable before the markets hit its shore.

You can see the layers of the city in its buildings, in its architecture. Many bits of the city were built in the nineteenth century, some older. You can see gothic, baroque, neo-classical buildings lining the streets, often right next to each other. Look closely, you can see bullet holes in walls.

A big part of Budapest was bombed during the Second World War (damn Americans!), and when the Communists rebuilt, their buildings were stale and ugly, big slabs of concrete with uniform windows. Every socialist building looks like a prison (damn Russians!). And those older buildings, the ones build in green and yellow stucco in the style of unique Hungarian architecture that you can’t find in ye-old-fancy-ass Paris or even central Europe, like ye-uber-trendy-Berlin, they sometimes go unwashed. You see the original color kept up on the bottom floor, but look up, and the greens and yellows and pinks and reds have turned into black, black, black, thanks to the smoky fumes of industry and lack of funds for upkeep.

But the parts that aren’t meticulously cleaned for tourists — well, that’s what makes Budapest the most interesting. It’s honest, organic. Layers of history right on top of each other. How many stories about Hungarian people do the buildings tell on their own, just standing there? Well over two million, I’m sure.

(This isn’t to say that I don’t like Paris, by the way. I like Paris very much. I just don’t like the center of Paris, which is mostly filled with tourists making the peace sign and stupid faces into selfie sticks (I assume, as the selfie stick was invented after I visited in 2012), and pickpockets, and French millionaires dressed in Chanel stepping over beggars, and people who incessantly follow you around as if you’re playing tag, trying to sell you a mini-Eiffel Tower as a souvenir for five euros a pop.)

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rambling from my journal in hungary: les jours tristes/szomorú nap/smutne dni

Art museums are some of my favorite places. I like staring at pieces of art that tell a story about a certain time and place in history, and I like filling in the blanks with my own ideas.

In Kansas City, I’m always within twenty minutes of  the Nelson-Atkins. That museum’s gallery of American paintings is something else. So much Thomas Hart Benton and George Caleb Bingham, those capturers of the middle-American spirit. They were Missourians, so it’s appropriate that those paintings of small-town Missouri politicians soliciting local shop owners in suspenders are gathered in the state’s museums. And it’s great! I love those paintings, I love those stories.

But I don’t identify with them. They tell me nothing about my own history or even my own culture. First-generation American, watching other museum-goers muse over their great-great-great grandparents. So what, I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life? I still don’t recognize Missouri as my Home-with-a-capital-“H.” Those paintings are foreign to me, to my place in time, to my history, to my family.

I prefer going to art museums in Eastern Europe, like the National Hungarian Art Gallery I visited in the Buda hills of Budapest. The photos of those peasants — tending to sheep and picking flowers in the fields — that’s my history. I come from some of world’s the poorest people. When my grandfather was a child, his parents were too destitute to care for him. So, he went to live with his uncle. His uncle gave him chores, and one of them was to let the cows out during freezing morning hours. Nagypapa (Grandfather) couldn’t afford shoes as a little kid. So he’d go out barefoot in the frosted fields. And he’d step in cow shit to keep his feet warm.

My dad told me this story on the car ride back to Izsak from Budapest, and I crinkled my nose in disgust. Visceral reaction: “ew, ew, ew.” But that’s where I come from. The child of immigrants. Poorest of the poor. Half-Hungarian, half-Polish. One hundred percent Eastern European. Adopted, engulfed, eaten up by the States. That’s temporary, I hope.

But the art I saw in that National Hungarian Gallery, of the peasants in the countryside from the turn of the century — sure, maybe that’s the first time I saw those paintings. But that’s my story. Those are my great-great-(great)-grandparents. And I felt a familiarity with those subjects, you know?

“Biro elott” (“Before the Judge”), Bihari Sandor. 1886.


I’ve always been conscious of class struggle, mainly because my family has been desperately poor for the better part of history. People say, “You’re so lucky!” when I tell them that I’m visiting Hungary. “How cool!”
How do I tell them that my savings account is more-or-less depleted? This is not a vacation. I came for my grandmother, because at 84 years old, she’s dying of cancer. The medication is dulling her brain. She thinks she’s 15 years old, and she’s convinced that my dad (her son) is her older brother. She’s helpless. I’m helpless. All I can do is watch her waste away as her brain slows down. The cancer sped up the process, but her anxiety has been killing her for years. It scares me like hell.

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Aside

sayonara, hair!