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2013 Grateful 11

When I arrived in Budapest all those years ago, with two suitcases, two framed pictures, and an assortment of mental and emotional baggage, Keleti Station left me speechless.

Keleti stationIt was as if I’d stepped off the train and into a whole other world, a world that still belonged on a movie set. The glass frontage, the statues set on high, and the wrought iron and steel that encases the places all lent themselves to a John le Carré novel. I was enchanted. Today, the view that greets the new arrivals is less than stellar. They descend the steps to a construction site, their view marred by cranes and scaffolding, but like all things in life, these too will pass. [A note from 2017 – it’s all looking rather lovely, now.]

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Trains arrive from Prague, from Munich, from Vienna, each one disgorging a sea of passengers of all creeds, breeds, and generations. Those waiting for their trains are no less colourful than the myriad people who seem to live in the place. Hawkers, cabbies, currency touts all ply their trade and occasionally, you might even be lucky enough to catch a chess cowboy on the make.

There’s the juxtaposition of old and new –  the old-fashioned frontage at street level and the more modern metro station underneath –  both of which talk to the Budapest I’ve come to know and love. That curious mix of progress and posterity that I find so fascinating.

IMG_7547 (800x600)It’s been a long week. An interesting week. A week full of people. Four days in a row with full-on public interaction is never good for me. I need time to recharge, to regroup, to hole up. Those who don’t really know me might well mistake me for an extrovert – and I certainly have my Leoine moments – but it takes its toll. I’m more the shy retiring type… deep down.

The highlight of my week wasn’t the successful two-day workshop  or the jammed-packed GOTG session in the Cotton Club on Wednesday or the Dorothy Parker evening at the Budapest Secret Salon on Thursday. They were great – but I’d have swapped them all, in spades, just to be at Keleti this afternoon to meet some old friends who have just arrived to spend two months in my city.

I met Monica back in 1990 in Los Angeles. I met her husband Dave in Dublin Airport some twelve years later, after she’d married him. Both have been to Budapest to visit me, but never together. Both felt what I felt when I first arrived at Keleti and now they’ve come back to stay for a while and explore.

This week, I’m grateful for friendships that stand the test of time. For those with whom I’ve connected at what I like to call a maintenance-free level. It might not matter that we haven’t spoken in months or years – the connection is there. It’s just a matter of picking up where we left off. And to those of you living in Budapest, keep an eye out for them and if you meet them, say hello. Breathe some life into the Budapest-style welcome that I’ve been bragging about.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52IMG_7553 (600x800)

 

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Back to Bratislava…again

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.

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I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.