Since I first left Ireland back in 1990, I’ve had two homes. ‘Home’ is wherever I happened to be living at a given moment in time; ‘home home’ is Ireland. (This double-word definition is something I use a lot – if you’re sick, you’ll recover, but if you’re sick sick, then the prognosis is a little more serious. If you’re broke, then you’re struggling to find the money for a pint at the weekend; if you’re broke broke, then it’s Raman noodles and water.)
Being Irish is a constant in my life – my North Star. It is the lens through which I see the world. It is the calibrating factor I use to measure my experiences, the people I meet, everything that happens to me. For years, I compared every city I lived in or visited to Ireland, or Dublin, or the village I come from. But this has changed.
On a trip to Moldova back in 2011, I noticed for the first time that I am no longer comparing places to Ireland, but to Hungary – and not just to Hungary, but specifically to Budapest. While I might enjoy occasional bursts of intelligence, at times my dimwittedness surprises even me! It never dawned on me that in comparing, say, Dublin and Budapest, I was dealing in apples and oranges.
Yes, both are capital cities, but apart from literature, religion, and the virtues of their respective national cohort of mothers, it was a little like, well, comparing East and West, back in the days when the divide was more than a line on a map.
This change in geographical loyalty was driven home again last week when I spent a few days in Prague.
When I first visited Prague back in 2001, it compared very favourably to Dublin. Georgian Dublin was no match for the spires of Prague; the narrow streets of Smithfield were no match for Prague’s Old Town; gentrified Dublin was no match for Prague’s more cosmopolitan style. I was impressed. Very impressed.
Yet since living more on than off in Budapest, I now see Prague through a different lens. On paper, the two cities look fairly alike. In fact, if you picked up a map of both and laid them side by side, it’s quite interesting to see just how similar they are. They’re both divided by a river (Danube/Vltava). Both have an island in the middle (Margaret Island/Slovanský Island). Both have castle districts on the posher side (although Prague has an actual ‘castle’ castle in its district). The food is not dissimilar, the currency is just as foreign, and to my uncultured taste buds, beer is beer.
And yet the two cities are as different as any two cities can be. Scratch the surface and there’s little to compare. To my mind, Budapest is by far the better of the two. No question. I came to this conclusion in the metro of all places.
I’ve heard people visiting Budapest complain that the metro stairs are way too fast to be safe. I think the 2.1 minutes it takes to rise from the bowels of Széll Kálmán tér a little long so I didn’t understand their concerns. But in Prague, I felt myself age each time I took the metro. Its escalators are so slow in comparison. I reckon your average Prague commuter would gain about 10 minutes a day if they had the same commute in Budapest. But I’d doubt they’d be concerned. The city seems to lack that sense of urgency that can pervade Budapest at times. Perhaps it’s because everyone there is, literally, on holiday.
The one thing missing in Prague that you find in abundance in Budapest are locals. Prague seems to be overrun by tourists. Perhaps it’s because the streets are narrower that they seem more obvious, all squashed in together like bunioned feet into tight-fitting shoes. Mind you, and perhaps as a direct result of this influx of foreign masses, Prague has a fashion sense that Budapest lacks. With a notable absence of second-hand clothes shops, your average woman looks like she’s dressed to go somewhere. Mind you, if said woman is not local, then perhaps I’m back to apples and oranges again.
The city’s most famous son, Franz Kafka, is on record as having said: Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws. And yet for all its style, Prague simply doesn’t do it for me in the way that Budapest does.
Admittedly, Budapest will never be in my blood the way Prague ran through Kafka’s veins. That said, it’s very much in my head and my heart. I’m well past my sell-by date when it comes to having kids and I can’t see myself settling down and living happily ever after with someone whose mother tongue I barely understand, let alone speak fluently: my paranoia that his great-Aunt Dóra would spend family get-togethers talking incessantly about me would kill the relationship before our first pig roast. Anyway, as the blood bank doesn’t want my blood, the whole Budapest-in-blood issue has been nixed. But head and heart are another matter entirely.
First published in the Budapest Times 5 April 2013