Budapest #3: The Synagogue, The Elgin Marbles, and the China Syndrome

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.
Crowd outside the synagogue, Budapest

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.

The Name of this Blog

For a long time I waited and hoped that someone would ask me about the name of this blog. No one did. 
A few months ago, an acquaintance and Facebook friend had a status that read “…knows how way leads on to way.” It made me very happy.
Before I left for Italy in August of 2009, I made a loose commitment to take pictures on my trip and post about the experience. I wanted a title that might allude to a journey, but not necessarily a trip in particular. I imagined that I might write about scenery and food and my traveling companions, and I wanted to keep it up when I returned. I did not want the blog to be yet another unfinished project. I have plenty of half-knitted sweaters and pieced but unquilted quilt tops.
To me, Robert Frost is a quintessentially American poet. Arising not from academia but emerging from a string of professions (teacher, shoe-maker, newspaper editor), Frost reminds me of that 20th century American guy who reinvents himself a couple of times before he decides on the domain he plans to master. Frost lived and worked in his adult life in New England, and wrote a lot of poems I find cold and scary and sad and mostly inaccessible—not unlike New England itself. This line—“…how way leads on to way…”— comes from his most famous poem— a poem my mother believed has been misunderstood by several generations of readers.
Because it was the one poem I remembered talking about with my mother, I almost chose to read it at her memorial service.  I knew I could not remember enough of her thoughtful analysis to do her justice, especially not in front of English professors and a bunch of Deans.
What do you read at your mother’s memorial service, in front of all the deans and the provost and the chancellor of Washington University? My older brother and my step father each wrote a speech. I wanted to make a gesture. A poem is a gesture. I started in the room where my mother kept her books. The shelves held not just her books from graduate school, but all of her books from when she and my dad were still married. He did not take much when he moved out. It would have been a grand gesture to read “Death of a Pig” aloud to a captive memorial audience, knowing the story is funny and sad and entirely too long to be appropriate. Something about my mother inspires me to long to do inappropriate things, like writing the word “fuck” anywhere I please, or getting a tattoo, or wearing muddy jeans.
I read “This Solitude of Cataracts,” by Wallace Stevens. 
I found it in a book of my mother’s. I enjoyed reading it as much as I was going to enjoy reading something at my mother’s memorial service, which was not at all. I like the poem. I do not totally understand it. I think one of the most important things about great poetry is not quite grasping all of it, or even most of it.  I quit being an English major in college because of this: because the analysis of poetry was killing it for me. It had become as if I was studying frogs, but I had to kill every frog in the process, and I wanted the frogs to live.