Posts Tagged ‘Budapest’

Budapest: The Baths

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014


I soak to the bone in water so hot that my toes turn purple. The bathtub, along with the rest of the hotel is new — or newly renovated, anyway — so it bleats bright under the bathroom’s covered LED lamps. Every day, they leave me a brand new roll of toilet paper, even though I’ve barely used the original. It’s totally confusing.

I think of boiling myself like a Massachusetts lobster, taking away the chill by any means necessary. I’m always too small for bathtubs, never long enough to rest my head, so I’m always either freezing or drowning. This one holds so much water that I float, almost.


There is no 16 bus that goes to the top of the hill, so the options are to walk or to take the funicular. The funicular is expensive and stupid and in whipping wind and rain, the walk does not seem bearable. Or more, the walk seems like it would push me off the edge, me and my camera phone and my little shoes, which are soaked through, a bad choice.

I skip the recommended cafe. I skip the art museum. I move ahead in the guidebook to the church, which will offer shelter. The Catholic girl notes that a church would, of all places, be the much-needed shelter in an impromptu city storm. The result of an instantly answered prayer.

Please God, give me shelter. Boom, have an ornate Hungarian church on a hill.

I’m so cold that I cannot appreciate the church, its interiors painted in funhouse colors, a blue dome like the sky. On a sunnier day, maybe I could feel more. Could feel the centuries of faith and comforting routine seeping through the walls. Could feel my feet. Instead, I take a pew just to stop moving, to leaf through my guidebook and figure out what I’ve missed.

I wonder, for the thousandth time, why I came to Buda, land across the river, when Pest was treating me so well. To see. To leave no stone unturned. All the usual stupid travel things.

Standing on the corner by the car tunnel, waiting for a bus that I don’t initially realize is not coming, I chatter in the cold. I am on my second umbrella in two hours, the first one a cheap model that disintegrates in my hands, that turns into a flapping flag of fabric and a silver spider with eight broken legs. I’m furious and underdressed for my own life, which makes me even more furious.

I stand under a leafless tree with a British couple who don’t know any more about the bus schedule than I do. When we finally get on a bus, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. We all sigh in relief when it rumbles, smooth on its wheels, across the bridge, toward home.


The hotel is right at the end of the bridge. All I need is to get across the bridge.

By the time I reach the hotel, I cannot feel my fingers either. I wonder if I will freeze to death before I get to the door, while I am running around the long ring road that used to serve as its driveway. If I will be discovered sprawled out on a Budapest sidewalk in front, my snot frozen solid. It would be poetic. Almost literally dying in the gutter.

I make it to the curling wrought-iron gate and slip through, giving the doorman a smile so he thinks I’m staying. He humors me, tosses one back, even though he knows I’m not.

You can always tell a really nice hotel from the carpets, how your feet make no noise. The ones at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace render me silent — one of the few things to do so. I smile again at the woman at the front desk. She doesn’t buy it either.

In the bathroom I use the moisturizer — there’s moisturizer — and realize, when I look in the mirror, why the front desk lady is under no illusion that I’m staying. My hair is frizzed out straight like I have spent the afternoon testing the voracity of the city’s electrical sockets with my fingers. I tame it all down, pretend that I’m civilized, even with my pant legs soaked through, my ankles exposed like I have never seen a weather report before.

On the other side of the carpets of silence, I take a table and order an $8 pot of white blossom tea, which comes with a tiny glass of water, two little vanilla cakes, and — god bless it — a miniature madeline. Two different waiters offer me newspapers, but I refuse, too absorbed in the conversation happening at the next table.

One guy dominates. He has a European-but-educated-in-England accent and a Hitler Youth haircut and the topics of the day meander from the excessive loudness of New York City restaurants to Beyonce to his annoying co-worker who sends incoherent emails in English. A fawning American girl interjects every once in a while. She has a lot to say about New York — none of it good. The two others at a the table, both European, barely get a word in.

I am comforted when they hail a taxi to another hotel. So they’re impostors, too.

I drink two full pots of tea. I am relieved when the waitress asks if I want more water. Because after the first pot, I very much want more water, and I am unsure of the protocol surrounding these things. Asking for something free seems a little gauche, especially after I’ve used the moisturizer. I drink what amounts to eight cups of tea, never letting the white porcelain cup leave my hands the entire time, greedy for the warmth. Out in the lobby, someone plays semi-standard lounge fare on the piano — the themes from Love Story and the Godfather. The room around me is swathed in gauzy orange and green and decorated with “art glass” and chandeliers. For a brief, beautiful instant, I consider staying for dinner, but I can’t. I have drunk enough so that I could float away. Be bloated forever.

I head back out into the cold. It’s dark now. The rain has stopped, but the wind persists.

On Searching for Franz Liszt in Budapest and Not Finding Him

Friday, March 14th, 2014

At the Liszt Museum, in the music academy, they don’t have anything I want. Well, anything except the pianos, which sit in the middle of finely-wallpapered rooms, silent and with their keys covered.

Even like this, they radiate magic, all warm grainy wood and faintly yellow keys. There’s one, tiny and in the corner and sized for a child, with hammers that strike lengths of glass instead of strings, so it makes a kind of sparkling noise, fit for a winter ballet. Another is bigger than my bed and made by an American craftsman in Boston. Liszt played it late in life and it still works, but I can hear it only on the audio guide, a solo so beautiful that it stops my slow transverse around the room. I stare out a window, watch people bustle on the street below, toward Oktogon, toward the House of Terror. I listen to the whole song.

They put a whole song, a sonata, on an audioguide. That’s the kind of museum this is.

There are portraits, and he was handsome, so I appreciate this, too. The ones of him as a young man show him to be ravishing and long-nosed, his hair grown long and shaggy as befits a rockstar of any generation. But he was first. Women fought over locks of his hair and flew into hysterics when he played. There’s one story of a girl at the stage door who picked up the discarded stump of his cigar and wore it in a locket.

There is none of this in the room. Nothing about the affairs. With George Sand and the married Comtesse, with whom he had three illegitimate children. There is a whole corner dedicated what this museum declares as his actual primary devotion — Catholicism. There are prayer books, his small alter, an embroidered bleeding heart that he wore inside his coat. That the latter thing, smaller than my palm and made with great care, was given to him by a female admirer is mentioned only in passing.

For romance, to find the romantic inside this actual king of the romantics, I will retreat elsewhere. To recordings. To Google searches. To somewhere other than a second-floor apartment on Budapest’s main street, an apartment inside an academy. The heart of Franz Liszt, it seems, cannot be contained by that.