Let me tell you straight off, we did not make it into the synagogue in Budapest. Yes, it was on the short list of things we were told we had to do. Yes, we went and found it twice. But on the day we found it and had actually set aside the morning to see the inside of it, we arrived after several hundred other people had the idea to see the inside of it, and got there before us, and stood, in a great scrum, with their shit together a bit more ours.
When I was in high school a friend and I went to London to visit another friend whose family had moved there. We dutifully tried to do every touristy thing imaginable, as if filling out a Bingo card, including two whole days at the Victoria and Albert Museum looking at spoons and armor, and getting on the wrong train to what ended up being my favorite museum in London (the Imperial War Museum) and being heckled by a crusty old guy who cackled about us being from Shepherd’s Bush. But try as we might we never made it to see the Elgin Marbles, and it became the thing we giggled about the most. Nothing’s more hilarious to teenaged girls than an inside joke.
I also never saw The China Syndrome. The China Syndrome came out in 1979, starring Jane Fonda, who I thought was generally ok in movies, and Jack Lemmon, who I thought was pretty awesome, and I think it was playing at the Esquire Theater, or maybe the Shady Oak, and though I made a big show of saying that I was going to see it, reasoning that it was a movie I might have actually wanted to see, checking the movie times and everything, I used the excuse to go get stoned with someone. I no longer remember who it was. Back then, I did not make up weird specific lies about what I was up to, usually, because I had very good grades and reasonably nice friends and my mother’s attitude was we could do what we wanted as long as we stayed out of trouble, which really meant, fundamentally, that we didn’t get caught. Probably, there was a family thing that I was avoiding going to by inventing the seeing of a movie I never intended to see.
The time I didn’t see The China Syndrome was not the only time I smoked pot in high school, but I have no memory of how I obtained it on any occasion. It seems unlikely I would have known who to get it from. Also, no way would I have spent money on it when there were sweaters to buy. Anyway, The China Syndrome came to stand for lying to your parents so you could go do dumb stuff.
To this day I have not seen The China Syndrome. I did not even know what it was about until I looked it up.
When we meant to go to the big synagogue in Budapest, but didn’t, it was not an Elgin Marbles thing (just not getting around to it), or a China Syndrome thing (saying we would when we never intended to). We had a morning plan and it was seeing the synagogue. We also had an afternoon plan, so the collapse of the morning plan meant immediate implementation of the afternoon plan.
|On the tram|
Our consolation for missing the synagogue was taking the tram up to the yellow bridge, known as Margit Híd. The people who put streetcars in cities back in the day knew what they were doing; the people of Budapest who have fought to keep their clunky old electric trams know what they are doing. The afternoon plan, now the primary plan was to walk back over to the Buda side of Budapest to find the Tomb of Gül Baba, an Ottoman dervish and Islamic poet who died in 1541. It is said to be the northernmost Muslim holy place and the oldest historic landmark in all of Budapest. Hungary has been overrun many times in its history, and the Turks had their turn under Suleiman I back in the 1500s.
It is marked not by a fading sign in Hungarian but with one of those man-sized bronze statues they have of all the great men of Hungary, all over the city. There he is: Gül Baba standing at the entrance, on a smallish plinth, and there, just around the bend, the backdrop: a closed and padlocked gate, flanked with an old Budweiser sign and a smaller one for the now-closed café.
|I heard the crow before I saw him|
This quiet hilltop was guarded by a single crow, solemnly serving in his uniform of a dark gray jacket and black, black wings, and he cawed and bobbed in genuinely surprise at our arrival.
The tomb is an octagonal little stone building with one door and one window and a domed roof. We were alone there, walking slowly over broken pavement and weeds. Two dogs were having at it, loudly, in a hidden yard, below, their barks piercing the quiet sunshine. A car struggling to get up the narrow, rutted street, bottomed out, scraping violently on the cobblestones. Having been alerted to its presence, we took this to be the right way back down the hill.