Wednesday, 21 May 2014
From Budapest 2: Dinner, beggars, inaugural
Weather continues hot, creeping up a degree each day. It is about 28C now in the early afternoon. Last night we went for dinner at the widow of an old poet friend who died in 2002. There is a commemorative plaque on the building now celebrating him . The building is the large Buda tenement block where I first visited him in 1985 when he was at a very early stage of the Parkinson's Disease that was to kill him in the end. I edited and translated half his book in English, The Blood of the Walsungs. His name was Ottó Orbán. Ottó was magnificent, a war orphan, an early follower of Beat poetry (he translated Ginsberg - but also Chaucer) then a virtuoso formalist. His Hungarian variation on Poe's The Raven is dazzling, inventive, personal, streetwise. It would have been his birthday yesterday. Both his daughters were there, one an academic the other a dramaturg. The flat hadn't changed at all. We sat down to a meal of layered potatoes which is probably what we ate the last time we were there. The seven of us talked now in English, now in Hungarian, of the theatre, of politics, of film, of mutual friends and acquaintances. Then home in the taxi.
The beggars of Budapest look particularly afflicted. There are quite a few with limbs missing, sitting in busy places, hoping for a few coins, but generally quiet and patient, half invisible. Some clearly have drink problems. A couple near the Nagycsarnok, the great 19thC covered market (Eiffel's design I think - he also designed the Western Rail Terminal) had red faces and puffy eyes, but the limbs were indubitably missing, and what else can these poor people do but buy a few cheap drinks and eat where possible? Just this morning, as we were walking to meet our friends in this quiet corner of Buda, a young woman, quite well dressed, approached us and asked for money. She said she hadn't seen her children in ages and needed to get to where they were, but I suspect she was addicted to one or other thing. She was thin, her eyes not quite focused. We give when we can.
Down by the metro station the poor, either Roma or up from villages, are looking to sell whatever they have: cornflowers, walking sticks, outsize knickers, drink - and needlework. One older toothless woman was looking to sell our friend a tablecloth. It was too small for the friend who wanted a bigger one. Buy this one, said the old woman to me (friend has no Hungarian) and I'll reduce the price of the big one for you on Friday. The cops confiscated the three big ones I brought this morning (the vendors are all illegal). She quickly cut her price by half and made the sale. She might or might not be back on Friday.
There are lives between cracks, in shady corners. They rush towards you and quickly retreat when the law appears. This is true in every big city but it's part of the fabric here: the unofficial life runs parallel to the official. Things work at a kind of dual level. A locked cabinet does not lock, suddenly the electricity is cut off for a few hours, the toilets in the sparkling airport might not be all you anticipate. Again, it is like everywhere only more so.
In just over an hour's time I will set off to the MTA, the Hungarian Academy, where I am to make an inaugural speech. It's all written in English but I will preface it in Hungarian. No special dressing up apparently. No suits or ties required. The talk, then a little champagne and maye, privately, a meal. I was going to ad lib the Hungarian but in the end I wrote it down in my notebook. I have no idea of the protocol - I suspect there is very little - but the list of academicians is dazzling in every field of the arts. It seems like false modesty but I do really often wonder what I am doing in such places. I never even went to university. When I was in my teens we made a family visit to Oxford. I looked at the colleges and felt they were quite another world, something out of reach, fantastical, impossibly glamorous, the realm of wealth and genius.
I have read at quite a few of those by now. Our daughter went to one of the colleges - the most beautiful of them -and the people no longer daunt or frighten me. But still it feels strange, like a fancy dress ball. About time I dressed then.