I can feel the march of spring. Could be a flash in the pan though. Smoky blue days making way for sunny ones replete with the network of bare branches and portly natives returning to scrounge nuts. But then there are hardly any, so with bushy tails fanning above their backs they scamper right up to you and rear upon their minuscule hind legs just like the comical meerkats you cooed over in Dartmoor.
From the busy bohemian affair that is Pest, Buda is a world away. It is as if the Danube which bisects these two cities injects the air with a change that is palpable as you make your way to the capital of medieval Hungary. The good Welsh folk would declare us tup to have opted for a walking tour on a morning that proceeded to get distressingly foggy and frigid. But we will run with Kurt Vonnegut here. That “bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.”
There was drama on the square outside St. Stephen’s Basilica. A bomb scare. Police arriving officiously and dawdlers scuttling equally hastily. We had left behind the grandeur of old buildings reminiscent of the golden age of the Austro-Hungarian empire, caryatids and brawny males holding up doorways, ornate moldings, some Art Nouveau architecture spicing up the mix, when we came upon Freedom Square. Memorials laced with irony. For there’s the memorial to the Holocaust in the form of an eagle, representative of Nazi Germany, attacking the Archangel Gabriel symbolic of the victims, when you know that the Hungarians colluded with the Nazis. And then there is that of the Soviet liberation of the country during WWII, a stark obelisk with the commie star crowning it. There is American president Ronald Reagan too caught in mid-stride facing the American embassy, as an acknowledgement of his role in ending the Cold War (“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), leading to the welcome exit of the Soviet regime from Eastern Europe.
You know when not to talk politics I suppose even though the mind might be brimming with points you want to make.
What you do instead is gasp at the grandeur of the Hungarian Parliament which on the dreariest of days knows how to cut it even as you stand by the Danube and feel the icy fingers of the breeze pierce the barrier of your warm clothing, your feet doubling up as numb blocks that keep moving because they have to.
Sixty pairs of bronze shoes lined up along the banks of the river. Grisly memories of Jews shot along the banks of the Danube by the anti-semitic party that was ruling the city after the Germans had toppled the erstwhile government in the mid ’40s. Heartbreak. A city filled with heartbreak that time cannot wash away.
Just as we had crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Vee abandoned us. He could take the cold no more. We carried on, toiling up stone steps, buoyed by visions of warm cafés awaiting us atop the hill. It is a matter of gravity that when we did reach the top of the hill, dreams were shattered. What was this? An open-air bar called Budapest Terrace. The temptation to be a stick in the mud was overwhelming, to throw a proper fit. We exchanged that urge for steaming cups of hot chocolate. Shiver and sip, sip and shiver, nose tingling, cold misery threatening to bog us down. But misery did have the panoramic company of the Danube and the moreish flavours of the best hot cocoa I have had in years.
As dusk gathered beneath the dim lights of wrought-iron lamps, we tread uneven cobbles, coming upon bronze statues and listening to Alejandro, the tour guide, narrate medieval stories of ambition and greed, the arrival of Renaissance art in the palace when a king wed a Beatrice of Naples, the Ottoman Turks and then the Habsburg queen Maria Theresa. Vee joined us again after warming his insides with pálinka. He had carried a bottle for us to swig on. It did its job as did the combined glory of hearty goulash (which you cannot get away from here), fried potatoes and chicken paprikash at a traditional Hungarian eatery.
Then it was truly dark and I cannot tell you how exquisite Buda was. Ludicrous baroque beauty that renders all adjectives redundant. The Fisherman’s Bastion, St. Matthias Church which was the site of many a coronation, old Roman excavations in the basement of hotels, the view of the parliament from across the Danube. We let it all come together in deserted Buda on a freezing December night and weave a mesh of golden spell upon us then, this golden city called Boodahpesht.
I overheard a conversation at a Christmas stall in Bryant Park in the first couple of weeks in December last year. No darling, I do not make it my business to stand around people earwigging, but in this case I was hovering near a stall of fairy lights wondering if it was the owner who was gabbling rather animatedly with another woman about the dilemma between choosing Budapest and Prague. I was tempted to squeak in with my two bits about both but it seemed then that the other woman had a handle on the situation. She noted: ‘For me, it is Budapest.’ Those five words settle Adi and mine emotions when you mention the Hungarian capital that throbs with youth and energy. Actually make it three since we were there in the winter of 2016 with our friend Vee who we had met during the hike to Pulpit Rock.
Vee is a chilled-out guy who lives and works in London managing the wealth of millionaries, smokes cigars and lives life to the hilt with his plethora of Russian girlfriends. The feminist would want to pack him a wallop for carrying on about the quality of women in various parts of the world but the guy is good at heart and a seasoned traveller. Poor Vee was enthusiastic about travelling with us to Budapest but then he found himself there with us and I suspect that he wanted to beat himself up over his commitment to the cause. You will know the why and wherefore of it soon.
On an early morning in December, a few days before Christmas, the three of us landed in Budapest. I was disconcerted. A frosty sight greeted my bleary eyes when I peeped out of the cab. There is a shot of it in the post I updated on The Little Corner Apartment, the cosy nook in the Jewish Quarter that Adi and I stayed in for the duration of our stay. Later, when we walked to Vee’s hotel about 15 minutes away from our apartment, we had a measure of the day-time temperatures that averaged -3°C. With wind chill, it stood at -8°C. We quickly scarfed down that crisp sweet bread called Kürtőskalács (important to note: you can pronounce it, just keep at it) with glasses of hot mulled wine. Cinnamon, allspice berries, cardamom, star anise, mace, ah how those wonderful spices hit the right notes as we stared at a mob practising Tai chi on the pavements outside the hip Jewish Quarter and wondered why.We revelled in festive Christmas sights that made our nerves hum with pleasure even as we tried to deal with the importance of going numb with cold. It so happened that without an ounce of planning we had adopted a ritual that would stand us (for the most part) in good stead. Drinking, eating and walking, repeated all through the day and night.
We jump-started the routine at a café called Bouchon where couched within its warm mahogany tones, we tried out Hungarian red wines with fillets of rolled chicken and wild boar. At the end of the meal the waiter passed me a folded paper. Eeh, a note expressing amour? Even better, a hand-written recipe for the rolled chicken I had so admired.
My face is tingling and my fingers which have been throbbing because I kept them long enough outside the pockets to click a few images of the Hudson, frozen in parts, is thawing and humming alongside. I am still shivering though my nose is telling me that it is relieved to be back inside again, breathing the warm cosiness that is home.
I have been feeling strangely out of sorts for some time now. Ennui sounds immeasurably better than it feels. Who knows why I have been feeling this way but I shall tell you now that the icy winds by the Hudson whip them right out of the body. Everything just comes together out there, you know. The race tracks which are empty but for the gaggle of geese collecting at one end as if priming themselves up for a race, the old man in his signature yellow sweatshirt who inspires me with his tenacity to run outside in the bitter cold, the slabs of ice on the Hudson, the boulders all iced up that glisten in the soft-as-feather rays of the afternoon sun, the stray branches coated with icicles that sitting upon the boulders, the skein of ducks who bury their necks deep into their plump bodies so that you just see orbs of brown and white bobbing upon the waves, spiky hundreds of brown sweet gum balls gathering by the sides of the trails running through the park. Every bit counts.
I have been neck deep in eating, hence the absence. Hedonism in the new year. Indo Chinese and biryanis and street food and what not. All of that would be fodder for another post. I am in Calcutta at my childhood home which means that I am persevering to achieve Zen. A tall order given the frequent squabbling with my mother who remains the most headstrong woman I have ever known. But because I am home alone — something I ached for as a child when my parents refused to leave me to my devices as it would involve my racking up the phone bill to palpitating figures — I thought about reconnecting with my beloved bloggers. After all, I have left my passion for waffling on the phone behind. The passage of time. If this were a 13-year-old me, I would have shrivelled a person who uttered such ludicrous thoughts with deep-dyed contempt and scowls.
Back to our rambles in Rome because I have a truckload of photos to unload upon hapless you, the day we drove into the city from the airport we met a cab driver who lives in a small village near Rome. This large and drawling Italian, born in Rome with an invigorating love for the city, rattled out figures. For example, the dimensions of the Circus Maximus, the former stadium of ancient Rome that now looks like a serene and long vat of green and which 2,700 years ago could hold a 40,000-strong crowd to gawp at chariot races. Our mobile cache of facts was amusing and charming. It was a long conversation about the state of the world, his teenage daughter who has grown out of clinging to her dad for everything, her quest for learning Arabic, his experiences in Afghanistan when he served in the army, their move to the suburbs of Rome, his nonna who makes the best bruschetta for early evening snacks,… but the tip that we picked up was — climb the Altare della Patria that stands at the cobbled crossroads of the Piazza Venezia.
For if you take the combination of stairs and elevator to the top of the boxy monument in white marble built for Victor Emmanuel II (the first king of a unified Italy), you get a breathtaking view of the city. We stood on top of the monument for a long time beneath stellar blue skies and a caressing winter sun, watching people photograph sizeable (could be the pizza and pasta diet) preening Italian gulls with the Colosseum as a dramatic backdrop, photographed them ourselves, and then later retraced our steps to the Roman Forum where I remember jostling with crowds in the summer of 2016.
The road to the largest amphitheatre ever built in this world of ours is in Rome, as you well know. Yes, the Colosseum, and that thoroughfare is flanked by historic columns and arches, basilicas and ruins of former government buildings that must have held sway over ancient Rome. We walked below the many stone pines with their umbrella tops, past tall poplars standing like spare soldiers, sauntered past temples to various goddesses, peered at worn doorways above which murals faded away as if they could not be bothered to defy the ravages of time.
I am smitten by snow. There is no earthly reason why I should not. I do not care about the slushy aftermath of it, really, I do not give two hoots. Because right now it is glorious. I am wrapped up in my fur throw watching it snow prettily, a few extremely buttery garlic knots and pizza slices in my stomach. It has been snowing since morning and my world is quite so white and wonderful.
Earlier on, I put on my boots and warm jacket and rushed out to the waterfront. The park had turned pristine white, only footprints showing through the snow (someone was out running too), brown autumnal leaves now caked with snow, the dark brown of the barks adding some contrast to the startling white outside. I was hoping to meet Alex again. He is the best looking boy I have met in some time. Now Alex is a golden retriever before your eyebrows touch your scalps there. He is quite the blonde, with well-groomed hair standing in little tufts and bits about his face, and he has a weakness for jumping on unsuspecting humans to share some of his drool-some happiness. Alas, I did not spot Alex today. I had met him by the waters yesterday so I made my way back there hoping to catch him playing in the snow. Instead I saw, shivering with delight through a curtain of snow that the waters had turned a shade of steely teal, globules of snow dissolving into the ripples and sheathing the boulders. The bridge and the cranes at the port — they had vanished behind a wall of dense white fog.
Then Adi and I walked to the store a couple of miles away, not a good idea – which we realised in a while – but besides fingers turning immensely numb inside the gloves because I was taking photos more than walking, I did spot a squirrel duo up in the branches of a tree with blobs of snow around on them. One chomping on a nut and the other had spotted just one, so it was chuffed. A little tableau of survival playing out right there in front of our eyes, though blurred by snow.
Central Park looked like a big beautiful canvas as I strolled through it to the American Museum of Natural History in the Upper West Side. Dried leaves glowed in vivid tones of gold and russet. Old men read books on benches which tell stories through those small plaques. You might take a seat on one but oh do leave some space for the couple’s dog who loved hanging out there too. They are all long gone… what remains is the warmth of the thought that you share the bench with souls that might have dissolved in ether, but they too savoured the solitude, as much as you do now. Beneath those flaming bowers, bright-eyed squirrels scurried up and down wire fences, a man stooped to gather a bunch of leaves in his arms, to throw them in the air, let them rain upon him in a shower of gold as his partner waited to capture it on her camera with a bashful grin, an old man rowed his boat serenely by.
Then I found my way to the pink granite largesse of the Natural History Museum where the suggested amount for entry is $23 – but you can shell out what you want to enter it. I wanted to pay a buck and see what their reaction might be (just to be perverse) but then I rose above that notion. Those mighty quotes of Ted Roosevelt staring back at you — exalted thoughts and words, they make sure that any pettiness is put to shame. Right after, I lost my mind — to the beauty of animals carefully preserved by an American taxidermist towards the late part of the 19th century, reproductions of dinosaurs from fossils, the Mayan gods, paraphernalia from the Silk Route, hunting apparatus of the Amazon Indians, strange shrunken heads that looked like tiny balls with hair flowing from the heads, sewed up lips and head because the South American people such as the Shuar counteract violent death and the need of the soul for revenge by keeping the spirit trapped inside the heads.