Budapest #2 ⅔: Looking for Váci Utca

There is a story my mother-in-law likes to tell, laughing until the tears fill her eyes, about my husband when he was a young boy. The story took place on the street, in Budapest.

I dreamed about the story a couple of months ago. In my dream, my husband had written down the story, in Hungarian, for his blog.

My husband left Hungary around the age of 5, with his parents and his older brother. After that, they sought asylum in Austria for a year or so and then, received permission to come to the United States. None of them spoke any English when they came; it had been forbidden. Now, a generation later, everyone in Budapest speaks it.

Growing up, the only people my husband ever really spoke Hungarian with was his parents. Among his siblings, they spoke English unless they were using it as a secret language, to say things in front of other people. There was very little danger of anyone overhearing them and knowing Hungarian.

Spoken Hungarian sounds a bit lit people are making up sounds and are pretending to talk. I always thought that the character of Latka Gravas on Taxi as speaking a gibberish resembling Hungarian. 

My exposure to Hungarian has mostly been overhearing one end of my husband’s phone calls with his mother.  I am only familiar enough with this famously difficult and unique language that I know a couple of weird, mild curses, plus, “Én nem tudom,” which means, “I don’t know,” and “Nagyon jól, which is, “Very good.” I am familiar with the stuff of ordinary conversations with Mom, “Good night!” and “Love you!” but that’s about it.

My husband had asked his mother for a list of things to do when we were in Budapest, and it was mercifully short. It was easy enough to buy opera tickets. We stayed near the Szent István Bazilika and went in on the first day; there were art students sitting on the floor, sketchpads on their laps, their heads tilted up, as they drew the ceilings. We stumbled onto the Labyrinth. It was pretty cool and creepy, though I still don’t understand the manikins in renaissance costumes and the piped-in opera music. Still, we did it; we paid the ridiculous 2000 Ft, used our phones as flashlights, got water dripped on our heads, and checked it off the list.

By the second day in Budapest, I was wondering about that story my mother-in-law likes to tell. Where had that story had taken place? My husband called from Budapest to ask his mother if she knew what street it was on.

She remembered it to be on Váci Utca. We had already found Váci Utca on the Pest side of the Duna, a shopping street with souvenir shops, chain stores, and restaurants. Pretty much the kind of street where you weave between the shuffling tourists and the restaurant barkers, offering “authentic gypsy music and Hungarian food.”

All I wanted was a picture of a street sign. The three of us fanned out, my husband with his camera, and my oldest son and I with our phones. I take so many pictures with my phone I’ve gotten pretty good at snagging candid shots of random people without drawing attention to the fact that I’m getting a photo of them. But there was one photo that got away completely that morning. It was a man, not too young and not too old, with the flushed complexion of a guy who drinks a lot, but that lean, thin look of a guy who works hard, but maybe drinks more than he eats. He was standing on the corner of Váci Utca and Türr Istvan Utca, solemnly wearing a paper Burger King crown. I really wanted this man’s picture, but he had a wild and terrible look in his eye. My husband saw him too, but took a photo of the street name on a different corner.
Váci Utca, Budapest


The old story goes like this: Kís Otti was walking with his brother and mother and father on a Budapest street when a black market peddler whispered to them that he had chewing gum to sell.

People in Hungary had not had chewing gum before. It was new, chewing gum, yet children knew about the stuff somehow. It is children’s business to know about candy, especially new kinds of candy.

Kís Otti paused and said, in a whisper, “Rágógumit akarok!” which means, “I want chewing gum.”

His mother and father pretended they didn’t hear him, and kept walking.

Kís Otti stopped and said, in a quiet, speaking voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father heard him, but they couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was too expensive. They kept walking.

Kís Otti would not go another step. He said, in a loud voice, “Rágógumit akarok!”

His mother and father had to stop. What were they going to do? They couldn’t buy him chewing gum. It was out of the question.

Kís Otti began to chant in a small, powerful voice, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! 

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, who stood to benefit from the purchase of black market chewing gum, stood nearby, not smiling, but not frowning, either. Kís Otti kept chanting, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

One stick of chewing gum was 1000 forints. The family had just 16000 forints for the week. Kís Otti’s father thought they should pick him up and carry him away from the black market peddler with the 1000 forint chewing gum. Kís Otti’s mother thought he would never stop chanting.

Kís Otti still chanted, “Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok! Rágógumit akarok!”

Kís Otti’s brother Istvan, looked from his frowning father to his pleading mother, said nothing.

When we got back from Budapest, I was struggling to write the story of “Rágógumit akarok!” on the grounds that I still didn’t have enough details. Didn’t they live in another town? Why were they in Budapest? How did they get there? How expensive was the chewing gum?

I called my mother-in-law and she was happy to oblige. Her English is very correct, and her accent is gorgeous and slow, with rolled r’s. They had travelled to Budapest because, as she tells it, “We did not want our little sons to be not aware there was a larger world.” They were living in a small town, “quite close to Budapest,” and had a car, a Moskvich. 

It was a terrible, underpowered car, and struggled mightily on hills. She laughed her way through a reminiscence of driving it into the mountains, a long line of cars following as they struggled up, their finally overheating on a narrow shoulder and their efforts to cool it down by heaping snow into the engine. She told me her in-laws had bought it for them, and they were meant to pay them back, but they, “did not get lucky enough to pay them back.”

Of course, if you know my husband, you know that he got chewing gum, and so did his brother: one piece each. They chewed it all day and wanted to save it for the next day.

As for me, I continue to have new questions. Will I really have to call her again to ask, what color was the Moskvich?

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.