Saturday, 30 August 2008
Retrospect of Budapest 1
It isn't easy, not easy at all. I ask myself whether I am over-sensitive to nuance, rumour, hearsay, odd stray bits of evidence. I know it is very different now from when I first returned to Hungary in the eighties and in the heady days of the early nineties.
What has changed? Budapest continues beautiful, in fact more beautiful than ever, if only because it is cleaner, better tended, less run down. There are drawbacks though. The wonderful tenement courtyards, those images of the soul inside the body, are mostly locked away now. Insurance insists on combination locks and other forms of security. Those times when I could pass a gate and be lured in by a glimpse of cobbles, greenery, washing, a bicycle, an arcade and the sound of a radio, then stand in the middle of a once-grandiose but now battered three-, four- or five-storey cortile, aware of the smell of cooking, of footsteps on the stairs, of the block's own personal square of sky above, those are mainly gone. The odd one may still be entered but there is a greater sense of intrusion and trespass. The stolen entry is no longer to haunted community but to vulnerable property.
And another part of me even regrets the loss of shabbiness, which was just another way of bearing witness to history. I know it is better for tenants now. Who after all wants bits of stucco to drop on one's head, for pipes to be leaking, for bits of railing to break off in one's hand while walking along the fourth-floor inner corridor of the yard? I am perfectly aware of my own outsider's romanticising of the squalid, it is just that I never thought of it as squalid. It was dirty but it sang. Now it is clean and mutters quietly to itself behind a locked gate.
Not that the city looks overtly over-commercialised. It has not become just another western capital. It is simply that it has aspired to regaining its slightly provincial, imperial air. Yes, but there is something brittle and self-conscious about its presentation of itself. It might not stay that way of course. And, yes, I would prefer to have houses that work rather than raddled romantic monuments. I don't live there, after all.
Visited the zoo. Hadn't done that, not once since that first return in 1984. Not sure why. It is a lovely humane place in one corner of the Városliget or City Park, with inventive, art-nouveau accommodation for the animals. The entrance to it is shown in the picture above. Note the elephants. Inside, there are little benches placed discreetly here and there, and fountains and stalls for refreshment. You can wander among the birds in the birds section. There are the children's enclosures where they are invited to touch animals that have grown used to it. Each building is a fantasy adventure and there is a great rock in the middle to accommodate the various bears. It was built as a private zoo back in 1866, one of the oldest of all zoos, then taken over by the city, expanded and remodelled, much of it by the historically minded Károly Kós. You can see and sense the optimistic scientific spirit that guided the project. Let us learn about the creatures of the world, rather than Let us glory in our power over the animals.
Walking round the zoo I too felt optimistic. If my original countrymen could think and feel like this there must be something admirable and playful about them. Perhaps that admirable, playful, enquiring, human element underlies whatever troubles and complaints they have now. Perhaps everything is all right. And look at those buildings back in the city. What a glorious cavalcade, what great energy and imagination and downright sprightliness.
It's just that I miss the courtyards.