IT IS USEFUL to be alone in a city. Gazing in from the outside, pressing your stranger’s nose to shop windows, listening to the babble of other people’s conversations, in a delicious foreign tongue, and walking, walking, walking – over bridges, through deserted back streets, and into the middle of cacophonous and dissonant city squares: all mired in the colours, the dirt, the fabulous confusions of contemporary cosmopolitan life.
Budapest is a city I should know well. The first time I saw it, in January 1988, wrapped in its thick winter blanket of ice and snow, I fell in love with the place, instantly, irrevocably. And ever since, I have been in its thrall. For two potent years, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Budapest was my centrifugal force, as I travelled and worked in the theatre in Hungary – passing through the city frequently, and lingering there often, in some borrowed flat or other, on my way down to Kaposvár in the countrified South West, and Miskolc, in the industrial North East. And even though I lost touch with the place for nearly 20 years after that, as it underwent its painful transition from communism to a western capitalist economy, its powerful imprint never lifted from my heart. And when I finally did make it back, in 2009, the spell that had been cast on me – so long ago that it felt like another life entirely – had remained intact.
I go back every year now, visiting old friends – making new ones – enjoying the richness of the city’s theatre and literary life, exploring different territories, and circling the same familiar haunts, with increasing and ever-deepening delight. Even the language – that arcane rhythmical Finno Ugric puzzle – is finally finding its place, albeit haltingly, inside my mouth, beneath my tongue. And yet… Each time I go, this place eludes me more. It is a city packed full of a violent past – and an increasingly uncertain, even dangerous, present. Throughout its history, hardliners of left and right have taken turns to loosen their invective – if not their weaponry – on those bony old streets, and their weary, battered inhabitants. Too much blood has been spilled, too many times. But Budapest has tranquillity too. It is a place of exquisite charm and beauty and sophistication: and has a deep, ineffable sense of mystery, that stalks me constantly while I am there, and haunts me whenever I leave. “There’s something about this place, isn’t there? ”, said a fellow Englander once, each of us waiting for the Number 19 tram. “It just keeps on drawing you back.”
Yet I often hurtle in and out of this city too fast, with too little time and too many people to see. Usually I am a guest of one of the actors I first met, nearly 30 years ago. He is steadfast and comforting, always, in his welcome. All Hungarians, in my experience, are fiery and talkative and outspoken – and very, very loyal. Once a friend: a friend for life. Their hospitality is prodigious – their tables piled high with pálinka and delicious paprika dishes and pastries filled with cherry and sweet túró cheese. Whenever they wrap their arms around me – metaphorically and physically – they squeeze rather hard, and they don’t easily let go. Exhilarating. Exhausting, too.
It is time, maybe, to change the tempo and the rhythm: as a recent trip, at the start of this autumn season, made clear. The welcome was as effusive – the food, drink and conversation, as copious as ever. But I spent a lot more time on my own. I stayed in three different flats, in three different parts of the city. And it was a revelation. To be alone in a city is to meet it, properly – on your own terms, in your own time… Painting it in the colours of your individual imagination and understanding. Fitting it around your own awkward memories – the sadness and the grief and the passing of time – and bringing it, wriggling and bloody and alive, back into the present. Right here and now. Making it yours, really yours. At last.
It is not at all hard to find your way around Budapest. The city is fed by a bustling network of trams, trolleys, busses and tube trains, all of which run night and day, with no notion of curfew – and it is split conveniently down the middle, by the mighty swell of the Danube river: Buda to the west, Pest to the east. If ever I get lost, I just look for that river, and it always leads me back home. September, in Hungary, is still pretty damn hot from the lingering summer– the air sultry, dusty-sweet, somehow distinctly Hungarian. The smell of hot damp earth rises up from beneath the concrete, steamed by sudden downpours of tropical rain, and then baked by blistering sunshine all over again. This year was blessed with a late and lasting heatwave. Temperatures rose into the mid 30s, making it impossible to get anywhere fast, without melting under a miasma of breathlessness, a constant sheen of sweat. No matter. The slower I went, the better I liked it. I would slip out in the morning before it got too hot, and then again in late afternoon, to walk along the banks of the river, and over onto Margit Island – an oasis of dreamy green in the middle of the river, where the whole city seemed to promenade, and exalt in the evening air. Or I would sit on some tram – the Number 4 usually, which trundles relentlessly back and forth, in a huge semi circle around the city ring road, through the crowded squares of inner city Pest, and over the river into Buda; or the iconic Number 2, which tracks down the eastern side of the Danube, from Parliament to the new (and hideous) National Theatre, taking in breathtaking views of the Castle District and the far Buda Hills, the big boats and the wide water, and the high majestic bridges, all along the way.
And I moved, like a snail, with my bags on my back, between three points of a triangle: first, a luxury, light-flooded flat in the fancy Taban district of old Buda – near the faded grandeur of the Gellert Spa Hotel, and the green Prussian steel of the Liberty Bridge; then, to a small dark room – a huge fig tree pressed to the window, drowning all the light in luxurious green – in Donati Street, which spirals down, secretive and quiet, from the medieval heights of the Castle District; and finally to an empty apartment on the top floor of a big, blunt, grey block, in the V111th district of downtown Pest. Bustling, bar-strewn Jozsefvaros, part-gentrified, part-seedy and sad, depending on which side of the ring road you happen to tread: an area as beguiling as it is busy, and the most familiar and favourite of all to me, permanently scuffed at heel and sassy of mouth. Quintessential Budapest, with an expletive never far from its gorgeous dirty mouth.
But none of this really matters: the geography; the views; the buildings and their logistics. What matters in this city is the feeling. The senses, the sounds, the smells – and the echoing of memory, down every street, inside every curving doorway. I was young here once: on my last big adventure before marriage and motherhood clipped my aimless wings. Now I am growing old here, too. More tuned to the sadness that I see in people’s faces. And ripened by the humour and the stoicism, that I recognise as a tool of survival and strength.
Budapest is a tough old town, no question. With tough new politics to boot. An openly right wing government. Fences on the borders to keep out the refugees. (As one woman put it, “This wall they are building; it’s not just to keep people out, it’s to keep us in.”) An anti-immigration referendum (later to fail…but no matter, the xenophobic propaganda has already worked). A recent nail bomb – aimed at two policemen on the streets – fuelling paranoia and suspicion. There is an increasingly sour mood, that spills forth, whenever a conversation is cracked open, and the pálinka starts to flow. There seems no real appetite or opportunity for opposition. Dissent is driving itself underground. And even the iconic 1956 October Uprising – its sixtieth anniversary commemorated this autumn – has been reduced to a series of striking official images, plastered to public buildings – and signally ignored by the people on the streets below. Pictures of freedom fighters, like the one included above, are accompanied by the immortal words of dissident writer Sándor Márai…. “When a whole country said: enough!” The irony is hard to ignore. An old revolution: co opted into a new narrative of repression and control.
As elsewhere across Europe – and in post-Brexit England too – politics and posture are everywhere here, with an increasing tightening of the noose around the neck of pluralism and free thought, which makes it harder and harder to breathe. But in the end it is all about people and place. Hungary, and Budapest in particular, is a place I lost my heart to, a long time ago. Its people, likewise: with their cynical wit, and their particular talent for despair and celebration, all at the same time, in the same sentence, in the same raised glass, and with the same enduring bear hug of welcome and farewell. It took me a long time to find this curious place – and then a long time, to find my way back. Being alone in the city has only deepened my sense of connection to a troubled and beautiful and utterly soulful place. And always, I will keep on returning. Something has settled – both irritant and balm – deep beneath my skin, and there’s no getting rid of it now.