The unfamiliarity of a new city, especially a grand one, guides you like the current of a big river toward the temples of tourism. It stands over you, ominously, practically demanding that you take a straight portrait of its best side. It scares you onto railroad tracks and sight seeing buses, like a conveyer belt of image-gathering, we collect like baseball cards. Did you get the shot of the Parliament, from across the Danube? Did you drag your shutter on the Chain Bridge?
I did. I collected them all.
Then I walked further and deeper. Went earlier and stayed later. Jet lag helped. I just wanted to see life there, as I do where I live, too — with its humanity front and center. Not to recreate a postcard already recreated thousands of times a day, but to be and see and capture a city. As much as one can capture Budapest without a horse.
Budapest is young/old. Interwoven eras and consumerism swirl around the ghosts of kings and queens. You hear the lore as you walk — the lions have no tongues and the sculptor threw himself in the river when he realized it. Untrue, as it turns out, tongues seem to roll out everywhere.
The king and queen’s entourage had their own rooms at the opera house. Those who wished to smoke at intermission, however, were all forced into a single room, making it so cloudy that one could not see the person next to them. Good news for young lovers, though, who would seek hidden evening affections in the haze.
Today, young love need not cower behind smoky curtains — it drinks openly at night along the river, lies easily in the open air parks and squares, brushing off the ageless pressures to reinvent a grand city as easily as the summer breeze removes the morning mist off the Danube.
When the rain comes, it comes with authority. People run quickly to cover, out of the way of thunderclaps and lightning strikes. It’s a good time to be out with a camera, however — the air’s moisture and the pools of black intermingle and remind you that, at its heart, this is a city that has withstood every possible form of hostility; knocked down from horseback, sacked by flamed arrow from the hilly sides or shelled artillery from tanks. In the quiet moments along the embankment, and in the black water on black bricks, you can still sense the dark terror.
I never figured out which of the many attacks the Hungarians consider the worst. Maybe only the statues and river’s stones really know. One of the many impressive things about the city is that it carries the weight of the tragedy it’s seen.
But the carryover of this weight into present day gives the city its most striking peculiarity: it’s a smile-less city with romance everywhere you look. Maybe that’s why it seems the heart of Budapest is not really the bridge, but the Opera House — itself a place of some very serious romance.
When it was built, the emperor mumbled something to the effect of, “I like it very much.” Considered one of the world’s greatest understatements but, really, just its own opera.
So, it’s like this — couples kiss on the danube and families hold hands on castle balconies, shirtless boys rumble around in the dark behind the Parliament and brides and grooms parade along ancient roads toward a new life. I’ve never seen a safer dangerous city, nor one that embraces affections and frames love so elegantly. As if they know something about love that the rest of the world does not.
Oh, and here’s a shot of the Parliament, taken from across the Danube.
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