Wednesday, November 08, 2006

11 Budapest

AT SOME POINT EARLY in the nineteenth century a big German printing firm, finding itself with an absurdly huge inventory of typographical conventions, sold them to the Hungarian Academy here in Budapest. Umlauts, accents aigu, and dots made up by far the greatest amount of the shipment, and the Academicians set about happily strewing them through their dictionary. Here you see one example of the result: a sign decorating the corridor in our hotel for no apparent reason other than typographical exuberance.

Today on a little shopping expedition downtown we bought a Hungarian-English dictionary, and in it I find that the first word, száraz, means “dry.” Since tüz means “dry,” I suppose the sign refers to a concealed dry standpipe for the use of firemen, should they find themselves on the third floor of a hotel with a need to empty their hoses. I have no way of finding out, just now, what ivízvezeték might mean, but “standpipe” seems logical. Probably I won’t need to know the truth of the matter. I hope not.

We flew from Venice’s Marco Polo airport, a nice little airport with a great many shops, on Sky Europe, a cut-rate airline based, I think, in Bratislava. The onboard announcements having to do with safety, the purchase of peanuts and beer, and the weather and course were all in Hungarian and rather thick English; there was no attempt made to do anything in Italian, even though the plane left from Italy. It was a nice flight, though unfortunately above clouds; we’d have liked to have seen Croatia and Slovenia, or at least Lake Balaton, but it was not to be.

The first thing we noticed was the lack of smiles. This is the land of operetta, I’m told, and one of the best is by a Hungarian composer: Franz Léhar, who wrote The Land of Smiles. But the Land in question was not Hungary but China. Whether it’s inbred or the result of decades of oppression — Lindsey favors the latter explanation — no one at service desks in the Budapest airport seemed happy to see us. Or to be there at all, for that matter.

It’s a small, serviceable airport, with the obligatory Bancomat (since Hungary is not on the euro, retaining instead its forint, currently an easy mental exchange at 200 to the dollar) and a number of possibilities for getting into town. There is a “minibus,” for example, which goes to your door for ten dollars apiece; but the woman at the desk shrugged that there wouldn’t be another for an hour, so we should take the taxi. The woman at the taxi-rank in front of the terminal took our address and wrote it on a sort of ticket which she handed the next driver, and he delivered us to the Hotel Veritas for seventeen dollars — cheaper than the minibus would have been. Go figure.

Yes, Hotel Veritas. Those of you with our itinerary will be surprised: we had rented an apartment for the week, near the center of town, to share with our friends Hans and Anneke. But the day before we left Verona we got an anguished e-mail: the heating had broken down in our flat, repairs were slow in coming; we’d have to find alternative accommodations. Our Budapest landlord came up with two ideas: his sister’s flat, which sounded cramped, and rooms in a hostel downtown, which sounded uncomfortable. The Venere website found us this hotel, which is comfortable and only ten or twelve minutes from the city center by foot and metro.

The Venere website offered a number of customer reviews, all quite positive — though one person did suggest that someone needed to teach the hotel-restaurant waiter to smile. He reminds me of the leading man in Last Year at Marienbad, except that he doesn’t seem to play Nim. He’s competent and quick, but he does not smile — his face is utterly expressionless. That’s okay with me; I’ve always though Americans are a little too given to the toothy grin. But it is, certainly, a contrast with the waiters we’ve met in Italy over the last ten days or so.

The people on the street, especially the café customers at the end of the workday, look happy enough. Even on the crowded subway-bus at the end of the night — the bus that’s taking over these nights for the metro that’s closed for repairs at night — even they seem expressive and outgoing.

And it’s interesting: if you can’t hear them talking, or if you manage to ignore the sounds of their voices, these Budapesters, the young ones anyway, look pretty much like people anywhere. Facial expressions, eyebrows, the play of hand gestures — all that would lead a deaf man to believe they were conversing in English, or French, or perhaps Italian.

But the language! The punctuation makes it look bristling, in print; the language seems to love polysyllables; and the inclination of the spoken language to put the stress at the beginning of each word, and to slide off the word at the end in a sort of vague soft semivowel — all that makes the spoken language quite hard to follow. And the unfamiliar punctuation, the huge number of z’s and y’s, the alternations of “sz” and “zs” — all that makes the printed words somehow fugitive: you try to recall the name of the street you’re on, or the dish you’ve decided to order at lunch, but it’s gone in a minute, and you resort to English, vague gestures, and a certain amount of hope.

I was glad, yesterday, that I’d decided not to cheat on the subway: we bought tickets, even though Hans and Anneke were able to ride on their passports, as over-sixty citizens of a European Community nation. We Americans are not so lucky; we have to pay. Maybe this will change now that the House has changed hands, Budapesters seem as happy about that as we are; but I won’t bank on it. We were stopped, and I was lucky to have my validated ticket in my hand. The penalty is a twenty-dollar fine, to be paid on the spot.

We’ve been to museums, of course, and to two concerts; and you can be sure we’ve done our share of eating. I’ll catch you up on all that tomorrow.

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