Friday, July 15, 2016

Death Comes to Budapest

(Welcome to Budapest)

At 4AM, I quickly fall asleep as the bus pulls away in the early morning darkness of Krakow. I’m not awake when I say goodbye to Poland but her scent will linger with me for the rest of my journey. My eyes lazily open to gleaming sunlight. Without needing to consult a map or the bus driver I know where I am; I’m in Hungary, and the place is instantly familiar despite my never having been there before. For the first time I see words I recognize. I don’t know their meaning or even how to pronounce them but I recognize them, the shapes, the style, the sound pairings coaxed out by certain letters. These are the words of my grandparents, of my childhood.


I wake up to hills and mountains, to a kind of green that I’ve only ever seen one other place: in my grandfather’s garden. Moments later, in a village just over the Hungarian border, my breath catches in my throat and, for just a minute, I swear that I see him standing by the side of the road. The man has his square cut jaw, his rounded nose, hair that was perfectly kempt until the very tip top where it was driven wild by constant thoughtful head scratchings. This sighting is not the last of my trip but one of many. From the moment I arrive in Hungary, I find myself accompanied by the many ghosts of my grandfather.

I suspected I would see him here. But I thought perhaps it would be one solitary sighting, one burst of love and sorrow as I mistook a man across the street for him. Instead, I saw him every hour of every day. I saw him more than I have in years. It has, after all, been years since I saw him, years since I heard his voice, his laugh, his whistle, years since I heard his stories. I think of my grandfather most in sounds. I wish I’d captured them, caught them like fireflies and kept them in mason jars to light my way in the dark. But I was too young to understand the need we have for such preservations of memory. I never considered that there would come a day that he would become silent. I thought I had more time, more sound. Don’t we always?

I’m on my own in Budapest, more alone than I will be during any other portion of my trip. My host, while polite, barely makes an appearance. And a series of miscommunications result in cancelled plans with a friend of a friend. There are moments of connection, more sweet, more savored for my solitude. But I don’t mind being on my own here. But, then again, I’m not really alone, am I?

I am awed by Budapest’s beauty; it’s as if Rome and Paris had a love child that went through a rebellious phase and ran off to the East to have an adventure all their own. It’s one of the only cities I’ve ever been in where the eastern and western parts of the city are equal—there is no neighborhood, no south, west, north, east Buda or Pest that earns a knowing look—each side is magnificent and fully formed in its own right. Buda is the older side of the city, sitting high up on the riverbank of the Danube. Buda is built on hills, it’s the Roman side of the city, and as you stand at the top of Gellert Hill you feel as if you’re surveying the whole of your empire. Pest takes after Paris; it’s full of alleys and nooks and crannies of color and fashion and food. I eat my way through the city, luxuriating in the commonality of dishes that were a rare and special treat of my youth: lángos, paprikás csirke, palacsinta, goulash, ice cream shaped like a rose (that wasn’t a part of my childhood but I wish it had been), marzipan, even a shot of unicum—my tastebuds take me back home to my grandparents kitchen.

(All the Hungarian food)

I’ve always had a close relationship to my grandparents; my mom and I lived with them for two years. They are striking strands of thread in the tapestry of my selfhood. It’s funny though, something about being in Hungary, I feel as if I understand them more than I ever have before. What were quirks and idiosyncrasies belonging uniquely to my family, now appear as commonplace sightings: I pass by a Herendi store, full of the funny looking multi colored porcelain figurines that still fill my grandmother’s china cabinets; the pattern of flowers from the corners of my grandmother’s special occasion table cloth are in blooming amidst the embroidery on every shawl, t-shirt, or a pair of jeans that come down the street; even the little bowl shaped hats my grandmother is so fond of wearing, they’re a staple here. I am so happy to wander in Budapest. To gaze and to sit and to bask. Despite this being an unfamiliar city, I’m never unsure of where I am going, all my steps seem to take me where I need to be.

On my last day in the city, I spend too much time soaking in St. Stephen’s Basilica. The ceiling of gold and granite and malachite reminds me of the veined underbelly of a sleeping dragon.  I was going to take a tour of the opera house but miss my last chance for it. I go anyway, hoping I might be able to give myself a sneaky tour by wandering around pretending to look lost. When I get there everyone is heading in to the auditorium for a concert. I don’t pay it much attention until I see that it’s Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is the reason I started listening to classical music. His pieces are soft and abrasive, joyful and disparaging, rife with synchronized contradictions. He sounds like life. Basically, he’s my guy. And there I was, standing inside the world renowned Budapest Opera House fifteen minutes before one of his operas was about to go on. I went over to the box office, figuring I would ask for the cheapest ticket they had available but a woman stopped me before I could make my purchase. She said she had very good seats that she had to give up and all she was asking in return for them was whatever I was about to pay for my cheap seat tickets. I took a ticket and went inside. I kept checking the seats and as I walked further and further down the aisle I realized where I was about to sit: front row, right against the pit. For the price of a cheap meal in London, I found myself sitting front row at the Budapest Opera House. Everyone around me was dressed to the nines, and it does mark the only occasion of my life where I have ever been underdressed for the theatre, but once those first few notes bellowed forth from the orchestra, nothing else mattered. It’s hard to distill into words what those first few musical bars sounded like. The red velvet curtain was still down, the action of the opera had yet to start, yet I could have happily dwelled in the dim lights and intoxicating waters of that opening for the duration of the evening.

When I was little, I went to the Rose Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York and there I watched a film where Carl Sagen by way of Tom Hanks (and in subsequent years, Whoopi Goldberg) told me that were are all made of star stuff----that the atomical elements that compose our bodies were created by collapsing stars billions of years ago. To hear Tchaikovsky live, it’s to be in the path of a dying supernova, it’s to feel the reverberations of it’s life and death, and it is to be re-formed with parts of it as a part of you. We are particles of matter and music; we are made of Tchaikovsky and star stuff.

(The Budapest Opera House)

I leave the opera and am searing with music and memory. I look up and catch my breath. Another ghost.

Sometimes it hurts to be in Budapest. I want to talk to my grandfather. For once in my life, I want to make a phone call. Sometimes we acclimate so well to hurt, you forget the magnitude of its weight. Standing in the beautiful spring air of Budapest I feel it, more acutely than I have since the night he died.

In Budapest I come face to face with the worst thing I have ever done: I didn’t call. After coming out of a routine surgery I procrastinated in calling my grandfather. I had no good reason for it, I was petulant, I was a teenager, and I found talking on the phone to be a nuisance. In the middle of taking me to task for my laziness, my mother got a phone call from my uncle telling her that my grandfather unexpectedly died---an unforeseen, sudden post surgery effect. I knew before she said the words; she just kept repeating ‘no’ over and over again. I remember getting up and standing at the front door and I remember running. I ran until I couldn’t breathe. I thought I could outrun what was happening, that if I tried hard enough, I could turn the world back, turn time back. I collapsed on a park bench and wept until I was sick. I don’t know how long I was out there; it could have been twenty minutes or twenty years. At some point I wandered back into the house, back into a world where the final echoes of my grandfather’s voice were disappearing. The first question my grandmother asked me at the funeral was why I hadn’t called? I had no answer to give her, only more empty, useless silence.

Some pains pass, some heal, and some, some stay with us for the rest of our lives, tender to the touch. There are pains that fade and there are pains you just get used to. Not making that phone call is an action I will unequivocally regret for the rest of my life. I know my grandfather knows I loved him but we’d be fools to think our last interactions with a person didn’t bear weight on our memories of them. I have wonderful memories of my grandfather; sitting in the car with him while we both waited for my grandmother to buy those scratch off lottery tickets, they way he whistled when he woke me up for a breakfast of the best scrambled eggs of my life. I have totems of his life; little bits and pieces of trinkets left over from his jeweler days, a mold of his bronze medal from the Helsinki Olympics. But I can never think of him, his smile, I can never hold his medal, look at his picture and not feel a sharp pressure in my heart where that lost phone call sits.

There are the hurts we make peace with, wounds we allow to heal. And there are hurts that never stop hurting, we just make peace with their place in our lives, we learn how to coexist with them. Someone once told me they hoped to live a life with no regrets. Aside from being unsure of how that’s possible, I don’t think it’s particularly human. Regrets remind us of our humanity. They teach us that we are even more infallible than we thought. Though regret is a burden, and one that often comes at great personal cost, buried inside it is a tiny fragment of light, a spark of hope that we will never again repeat that act for which we feel such remorse. I’ll never get that phone call back. All I can do is hope I never so willfully lose that chance again.

My last night in Budapest I take one last evening stroll along the Danube, trying to firmly imprint into the mold of my memory this shimmering golden riverbank. I walk along the river, staring across at the National Art Museum and an illuminated Fisherman’s Bastion. I pass parliament and the chain bridge. And I stop at ‘Shoes along the Danube’—-a sculpture of iron shoes by the riverbank, a memorial to those Hungarians Jews who were shot along the very same edge. These shoes wrought in metal remind me of the great masses of leather I have just left behind in a village outside of Krakow. I’ve done the journey in reverse, traveling from Auschwitz to Budapest; I make the trip home so many never could. In Auschwitz they called a certain part of the camp Mexico, because it was so noisy. It was noisy because that was the overflow area where they kept all the Hungarian Jewesses. They kept them in an open bunker with no roof and no beds and often “forgot” to feed them. It was noisy because the sounds of women screaming and crying and dying in that bunker never stopped. Hungary experienced the War in reverse. While other camps were being liberated, Hungary was just beginning the mass deportation of its Jews. Of the seven hundred thousand Jews in Hungary, five hundred thousand were sent to the camps within four months, from May-August of 1944. Every third victim at Auschwitz was a Hungarian Jew. Every tenth victim of the War was a Hungarian Jew. While there is still a large Jewish community in Budapest, it’s nothing compared to the size it once was. But there are totems left behind, markers of what and who once made up this city.

(Weeping Willow Memorial)

Earlier in my trip, I visited the Dohány Street Synagogue, or ‘The Great Synagogue.’ The Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world (New York City’s Temple Emanu-El.) The synagogue is striking because it looks like no other synagogue I’ve seen before (and I’ve seen my fair share on this trip alone.) But that’s not to say it doesn’t remind me of some other structure in some other place, rather it is the striking similarity of it and a certain building in my past that takes me by such surprise: it looks like the Alhambra. The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, aside form being a former palace and fortress, is a building that has resonated with me since I was ten years old. I’ve only seen it once and yet it has stained my memory with a brightness only rivaled by the mosaic tiles that line its curved roofs. I’ve never seen another building quite like it. Yet here, almost 1800 miles away, I see yet one more ghost from my childhood.


(Dohány Street Synagogue)

The synagogue is definitely in tact, a strange twist of mercy: during the War the Gestapo set up their offices in the synagogue because they knew no one could bear to bomb it. The synagogue, much like the Alhambra, is a curious intersection of cultures and history, composted together to a stunning result.  The synagogue itself was built by a non-Jews and, because they’d never seen or been to a synagogue themselves---their only experiences of aesthetics in terms of houses of worship being the opulence and grandeur of their native Catholic Churches (hence why a Jewish house of worship has an organ built into it.) They figured their best bet was to try and model their building after the descriptions of the Great Synagogue in the Old Testament. It is distinctly Moorish in its design, Catholic in its construction, and Jewish in its usage. It is a colorful microcosm of the beauty the three major religions of our age have to offer. But, as I have seen often on this trip, where is immense beauty there is often intense sorrow: only three synagogues in the world have cemeteries in them, and after my visits to Krakow and Budapest, I've been to two.

Our tour guide is in and of himself a colorful character as well---a blind man from Yonkers who has traveled the world working in the heart of Jewish communities. He has us all go around and say where we’re from. He pauses when I tell him I’m from Brooklyn. “Not with that accent,” he says. He has one of those great, cinematic New York accents, the kind my dad still has and that I get when I’m tired. He’s a great tour guide, charismatic, and talkative but in a way that gets people to open up and volunteer information about themselves. He listens. And, because of his listening, he picks up on the subtle vocal hints of one of the older gentleman in our group. He asks him how he knows so much about the war and about the Jewish ghettos. The man replies, “I lived in one.” He spent his early years in the Vilna Ghetto. When the Nazis decided that any child under the ager of fourteen was to be killed, the family that took care of him hid him in the walls, where he lived for the majority of the war. But as he was being liberated, Hungary was just beginning the mass deportation of her Jews. Their footprints are everywhere, little gold plaques, ‘stumbling stones’ that trace a path through the city. They mark the last known freely chosen place of work or residency for the victim of the holocaust they represent. They are not a marker of death but of life. Each stone starts with the inscription “Here lived…”

Leaving Budapest is slow. I take a long time, unpacking and repacking, I almost miss my train. But I don’t. As the train begins to pulls out of the station taking me from Budapest,
aplace that sits so deeply in my heart, to Zagreb, Croatia, a place I essentially know nothing about, I feel so very sad. I find myself once more saying goodbye to my grandfather before I am ready.

My grandfather was the best man I have ever known. He was an Olympian. He was an immigrant. He was so impatient when playing cards. He ate tomatoes like they were apples. He woke me up every morning with breakfast and whistling. He loved me. I was the Homer to his Odysseus. I was the collector and keeper of all his stories, all his journeys. There are some places we go and we are haunted by them. But not all ghosts are bad. For a very long time, I lost my grandfather. I found him in Budapest.

Standing on the riverbank of the Danube, gazing out at the brightness of Budapest, the city shimmers with the lights of lives living and lost. Budapest is a crossroads, a place where the familiar and the unfamiliar merge into one, where one easily glides between their past and present selves and, in this grey borderland of remembering and memory, I steal a few more minutes of time with my grandpa. Here he lived. And so did I.