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Reclaiming Budapest

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If a break-up means a new beginning this is neither. First I broke myself. Then, you too. Afterwards we broke each other. Maybe the order is wrong. I do not know what came first. Chronology is not relevant here. New beginnings are mere delusions. Nothing is new. Everything is grounded on the old. Our ground was Budapest. It is where we budded and withered alike. Now I am waiting for a new blossom. But the wintry cold is still there. The wind is blowing against me. I am too weak to withstand it. I must leave the old path. It has come to a dead end. I need to go into a new direction. But I am afraid of new. I want back my old self. Our old Budapest. Our old us.

Rain was pelting all over my face. It helped shield my tears. Dilute them and say they were clouds’ weepy drops because the sun had disappeared. Our sky has long been overcast. I am groping in the darkness. You are not with me. The sunrays are hiding. The street I was now walking on, close to Astoria, where we once had checked into a hostel, seemed bleak and grey. The traffic had silenced. The rain put everyone up inside.

I hate rain. You would call me a sissy. I would say I am sensitive. I had to get away from those deserted corners. The concrete buildings made my thoughts echo all around. There was an aching void inside me: your emptiness. I had to go somewhere indoors. Maybe a café. The city is now full of them. I was all wet. My mind was muddled by memories. Keep calm and wait till the rain stops. It could be the writing on a British card, you would say, and I would feel you are again not taking me seriously. You would ask why I do not find your jokes funny anymore. This is the first time I am in Budapest without you.

Inside the café there was a continuous buzz of people. I hated them all, without knowing anyone there. If you had been with me, you would have pointed out the chocolate cakes, the rich sandwiches and all kinds of pastry that made everything look so appetizing. I would forget about the shitty weather. You would be glad we found such a cozy place. We would sit down together. I would look at you. You would be staring at your book, oblivious of my gaze. You loved the company of your readings. I would feel lonely. Now I was alone. On my own. I heard English around and some other languages I cared not to decipher. So close to the Jewish Synagogue, that café is as touristy as it could get. Years ago, when we first came to Budapest, this was not here.

Once I was at the counter, I could not say what I wanted. The guy spoke English as in so many places by now. But there was too much writing on the blackboard and too little patience on my side. Now ordering a coffee has become a major undertaking: you have to decide on the type of coffee, on the roast, the brewing, the style. If you want to be fast, you had better say you want no milk or sugar, because that will call for more questions. As always, I hesitate. I never know what I want. I thought I wanted you. For good. Wrong again. People behind were impatient to place their order. So I said no to all the other questions to make it faster. You would reprimand me for not being assertive. I would apologize and feel you are right. As soon as I got my plain cappuccino, I looked for a table where I could sit. Next to the window, as we always like to be placed to have enough light. I wanted to watch the rain outside. The one inside was pouring like hell.

It was rainy when we first met. As rainy as now, but so different. I know, it sounds cliché. It seems like ages, but in fact it was only a couple of years ago. My calendar has too many pages for that time. Back then Budapest was not as chic as today. But it seemed more beautiful. We were more beautiful. Now, full of colors, lights, bars and new cafés, the city leers pitifully at me. For the others, there is a charming smile that entices them to come here. I know why they take the bait: it is modern and old at the same time, still quite cheap for European standards and with so many possibilities of what to do, where to go, what to visit and how to spend your time. I once told you that Budapest is like Paris, but less pretentious. I prefer pogácsa over a croissant, tehéntúró over any French cheese and the Hungarian goose liver over the refined foie gras. You mocked me and did not give me the chance to tell you that besides the cuisine, I find the Hungarian capital more honest than the French one; it claims no glamour, but a peculiar magic of its own when showing unabashed its past glory fused into the uncertain future you might not know what to make of. It is a city that prides itself with stunning views, cruises on the Danube, a wonderful embankment to walk on and feel like in a fairy-tale, seduced by an architecture that mingles different styles into innovative ways that do not always make sense.

You and I used to invent stories about all those buildings that were once beautiful, but were left in decay with the paint peeling off, looking like ruins from the past century. No wonder Budapest is the set for so many World War movies. It looks more authentic than a studio, in a tragic-comic manner. It may not strike you all of a sudden, because the beauty lies in details and you have to make an effort to discover a tiny decoration, an erected, spoilt statue, some gilding or adornment that might have a meaning. We were pointing them all out, staring for hours, imagining the grandeur of the old monarchy. The past seems always more glorious than the present. Just like with us. We started to picture the people living behind those decrepit walls and their lives inside. I would dare you to sneak into those shielded courtyards that we first saw by accident, once the gate was left open. There we found a new world, splendid gardens surrounded by buildings with open landings where from the ground we could see all the doors to the apartments. Sometimes there was a small fountain or an old-fashioned wrought elevator that would get the tenants to their dens where all kinds of secrets must have been hidden. The ugly facade shielding the beautiful palace. Was it like this with us? Or the other way around? The palace to be displayed, the faultiness lying inside. But why do I find parallels between Budapest and our past? It is unfair. This city goes back a long way. We, just a few years.

Back then with my knapsack on my shoulders and nothing else to bear me down, I was free. You were in love. I was running away because I liked the touch of the wind on my skin. You were chasing me. Under the impenetrable gaze of the stony lions on the Chain Bridge, I told you I chose Pest over Buda. I like the urban part with those endless boulevards mixing bourgeois and communist styles to then flow down to the Danube and reveal a completely different landscape. Hills give me vertigo. You like flying. I love the city noise. You are enchanted by silence and tranquility. I said I would stay on my side. You said you would swim over to mine, against the tide. I was naive. You were sure of yourself. Danube is not an ocean. You do not have to swim against anything. It was easy for you to reach me. I was skeptical. You were brave. I was betting my freedom. You, your self-confidence.

I ran away from that big umbrella you tried to hold over my head to protect me from the rain. I wanted to get wet. I did not need protection. You smiled and found me funny. I smiled back and opened my mouth to taste the drops coming from the sky that soon was going to show a rainbow, which we touched when we printed out the photo. I saw your long fingers stroking the colors that were just the illusion of light and sun. Illusion is all we got. I wanted to hold your hand, but did not dare. You wanted to kiss me and did not know how. Now we blame our busy life, the foul morning breath, lack of time, mood or sleep to bring our lips together. When we do it, it is usually for a photo that somehow has the power to make us fall back into the happy role we like to display. Just for an instant. We let the camera immortalize what is long dead. It is a mechanical kiss with eyes that do not close to allow us to enjoy the sensual touch of our lips. First time they gave a spark. We thought it was meant to be. How prosaic, I know. You had not shaved so you prickled my mouth, not ready to open. We were at the Heroes’ Square Park. The sun was setting and you could not hold it any longer. I pecked your cheek in return, invigorated by your clumsy way of trying to seduce me. You remained stiff. We were pretending to have a picnic with fruit that I had stolen from the trees around. Your tacit embarrassment was revealed much later. When did you start to feel ashamed of my spontaneity? You claim it is theft. I take it as a game, a childish behavior that I miss. Now I barely remember to be playful. But I remember us.

Our second trip to Budapest was planned and booked ahead to get a good deal. My stipend covered the flights. You were still looking for a job. It did not matter we had no accommodation or money to eat out. Now, the lack of salt in those mashed potatoes you love so much can ruin our dinner. We spent the night in a club, making out the whole time and finding out later that each room had a different kind of music. But we had no ears for the sound outside. We were too busy kissing, focusing on each other, hiding in the dark corners, behind the cigarette smoke, touching and doing all those things we found more erotic in the obscurity of a public space. Now we only hold hands in public, if we remember. The bedroom is the only space where we show our intimacy. When did we become decent?

On a later visit we looked back for that club. But by then there were so many that we could not find it. We could not recapture what was lost. Maybe it was a just a dream, though a shared one, of a club that saw our shameless naughtiness and how we then crushed together on a bench on Margit Island where only the sunlight could wake us up. We ate at open markets, pretending we wanted to taste the local produce. Gosh, we were only hungry for each other. And nothing else mattered, as the song goes, to which you would say it was too commercial and try to teach me some alternative bands.

But I need to fast forward. Lingering on our memories is painful. Yet I must release them. Let go, I tell myself. They need to free me. You need to let me go.

I think in the first year we returned four times to Budapest. But I might be wrong. Cheap airlines allowed us to travel here. With your first job, we could check into hotels, already a move up from those dreadful hostels you hated so much. Budapest was developing by the day. Maybe in our way we also changed along with the city. One was thriving, we were slowly decaying.

We discovered second-hand stores with trendy clothes that cost a bargain and that made us pay for additional weight at the airport. We spent hours in California Coffee Company with free Wi-Fi, where we worked on our laptops or put pictures on Facebook to tell the world how much fun we had and how we loved each other. We were foolish. I miss that. We lived on bagels, cheaper than in Costa Coffee that we were familiar with from back home. We loved Massolit for its tranquility, where I would look for discounted books by Hungarian authors, while you read non-fiction and research articles that I could never understand. You instead were bored with my novels and literary magazines. Seasons passed. One after the other. We followed them complacently.

We celebrated our first anniversary in a bar where they crafted local beer. Back then it was probably the only one in the city. By now you see them everywhere. What was special then it is not any longer. The taste is not the same. We are not sharing the glass any longer. The novelty is gone. In no time did the second anniversary come, followed too soon by the next. Then I got promoted and we celebrated by flying to Budapest and dining at Lou Lou, one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. It was there where we learned about Kékfrankos, which you first thought was a cake named after someone called Franco. The waiter had to laugh. I did too. You got mad. I was amused. You were serious. We are different. Falling apart does not come all of a sudden.

I do not remember which winter that was, but on a whim, we decided to return to Budapest. You bought tickets to the Opera and I had nothing to wear. You got me a dashing dress from a shop on Andrassy. Holidays were over and everything was 70% off. We felt royal in the old Habsburg monarchy. We were no longer hiding in cinemas to kiss like teenagers. We turned serious, looking out for films in English, staring instead at the screen and stuffing ourselves with popcorn. We learned to taste goulash from different places, while I never learned to make it home as good. At least that is what you told me. We would sometimes find lodging in Buda and Déryné Bisztro became our favorite spot for lunch where once we had oysters in a country that has no coast to the sea. We were getting posh and self-indulgent. Desire was dormant. We did not bother to wake it up. Unattended it died in the meantime.

More and more pubs, restaurants, classy wine bars and design shops were sprouting in the city. Kiraly utca transformed itself from that dodgy street we did not dare to walk on in the first year, into a lively chic venue swarmed by tourists and locals. The Jewish quarter became hype. We liked to eat hummus and falafel and pretend we were alternative just because we took our cocktails in the ruin pubs around. We were smart yuppies enjoying a city where we could afford almost anything, while it was becoming too expensive for the locals.

The streets of Budapest were now watching a new couple walking together, sometimes holding hands, no longer absorbed by each other, but by their own separate thoughts that they did not feel like sharing any longer. Silence replaced our flirtatious talks from the beginning. Our frenzy calmed down. We were no longer passionate. They say that is the normal course of any relationship. I felt bored. You did not pay attention. We both had other things on our minds.

Once on the Liberty Bridge, I did not dare to tell you that I wanted to sit on the green construction, holding a bottle of Dreher and watching the Danube. I knew you would say it was too dangerous. I wanted to feel rebellious. You taught me to be afraid of danger. When it started to rain you no longer kept an umbrella over my head. I no longer wanted to taste the rain. You thought you knew me: I liked to dance freely in the rain. I thought I knew myself: I needed no protection. I was wrong. So were you.

I proposed to have a picnic in the Liberty Square, where we once made fun of the Soviet monument under the eyes of Ronald Reagan, safeguarded by the American embassy nearby. You said the grass might stain your trousers and claimed you never liked picnics because they put your legs to sleep. Now I wonder if that was when I started to resent you. Like that time when I tried to kiss you in the cab, to wake you up from a deep thought I was jealous of because it took you away from me. I wanted to pretend I was an uninhibited diva on the back seat of a limo, together with her lover. You turned coy and gently pushed me aside. I thought it was sexy. You thought it was inappropriate. I felt rejected. You, awkward. The taxi driver looked through the mirror. His eyes did not see an excited, lustful couple that I wish we had been. We were not that any more. At the end of the ride, you tipped more than necessary, as if to make sure he would not disclose to anyone how embarrassing we have become.

We wanted to go to Arena, the big concert hall in Budapest, to see my favorite band playing live. It was much cheaper than in England. But we quarreled and canceled it all. I do not remember the reason. I know you were getting on my nerves. I was getting on yours. You shouted at me. I screamed back at you. I looked for words to hurt you. You followed my example. We slammed doors. We tore apart pictures of us. I became spiteful. You turned bitter. We called each other names. In fits of anger we tossed our souvenirs because they no longer kept the memory of us. We were breaking ourselves apart. Now I need to break away.

On our last visit here, you said we should take things easily. But we bickered even when we thought everything was all right. The air kept the same whiff of tension. There was always ground for arguing. You wanted to go to Gerbeaud to have a good cake. Or the grand New York Café. I found it snob and proposed instead a piece of pie at Castro’s. I like laidback places. You enjoy swanky restaurants. You called me difficult. I called you a smug. You were scoffing. I started to nag. You shrugged it all off. We were pestering each other. You were vain. I was proud. How petty. We both made mistakes we refused to acknowledge.

We should now admit that our time is up. Let’s take a bow and leave in peace the stage we once shared together. But let me reclaim Budapest, please. If not ours, then mine.

My eyes are finally dry. The rain has stopped. I did not see when the sky got brighter. I have been looking too much into myself. Budapest is sunny again. I must squint to look through the window where I see colorful people walking around. I recognize the hustle and the bustle of the awaken city that I have grown so attached to. Maybe I became infatuated with it while falling out of love with you. Maybe I will move here and start anew. I could sign up for a new degree in English, or I could work as a barista in a coffee house, or be a tourist guide, or work in a restaurant and learn the secrets of Hungarian cuisine, while meeting locals, making new friends. I will look for an apartment. Rent must be cheaper than back home. I will search for a job and then see what comes next. Loads of international companies have opened an office here. I must be able to find something. Then I will start to learn Hungarian. They say it is one of the most difficult languages, but hey, I do not care. I am challenged. You may laugh at me. I will ignore you. I could use my savings, sell my old car and have some time on my own in Budapest, the old stage where I will be playing a new role. I could take up painting and be a bohemian artist on the banks of Danube. So many possibilities. I will explore them all and let myself be carried away.

I pay and read on the bill that the place where I have been sitting is called Solinfo Café. It will be the first milestone of my new chapter. I wish you could see how I smile now, happy and eager to start anew. I am beaming with a new energy and you have nothing to do with it. Budapest is holding on to me. It does not want to let go. It feels like the tender embrace of a new lover with whom I now share my first secret, whispering so that nobody else can listen: I am here to stay, baby, I am here to stay.

~~~ The End  ~~~

About the author: Raluca Bătănoiu was born in Bucharest (Romania). She studied journalism and for the past 11 years she has lived, studied and worked in various countries in Europe and elsewhere. So far she has published a couple of stories in different (printed and online) magazines. Two of her short stories are now part of two anthologies signed by different authors. Raluca moved to Budapest at the very end of 2014 and right now she is living a new (non-fictional) story of her own: that of motherhood.

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