Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Wandering the back streets of Budapest

Leni has a few days’ work in Budapest and I’m joining her because the hotel room is paid for and so why not? I’m glad to be in a city I don’t know and get a brief glimpse of an unfamiliar culture. 

But I’m an awkward tourist. I’m too conscious of the futility of gawping at the approved novelties. If there’s snobbery in this, it’s the kind E.M. Forster pokes fun at in Adele and Mrs Moore searching for “the real India”.

There’s another kind of snobbery, of which I’m not guilty, that expresses itself in a desire to preserve high art for those with sufficient knowledge and refinement to appreciate it (I once heard it suggested that tourist visas to Venice should be issued only to those who pass a test). I’m afraid I’d too often fall on the wrong side of that divide and am, in any case, suspicious of the class distinctions we’re sometimes encouraged to impose on culture. 

I'm inclined to think that one man’s schlock is another man’s objet d’art, and it’s all subject to commodification anyway in the kind of tourist route that leads you from ticket booth, to museum, to gift shop, to café serving typical local dishes and accepting euros.

As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to submit with better grace to the role of tourist. But I’m happiest when I have a project. For Leni, visiting the Jewish quarter is definitely a project. All four of her grandparents migrated from Eastern Europe. There's some interesting vagueness about where from exactly – they were Yiddish speaking Jews who had left the old country behind and the hardship of life in the ghetto or the shtetl – but they all came from somewhere in Lithunia, Poland or Hungary.

Leni is pleased to discover that in Budapest more evidence of that old world survives than in Warsaw or Vilnius, including the Great Synogogue, the largest in Europe. Bombed by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross party shortly before WWII, and later by the Allies, it’s been extensively restored, partly with funding from Estée Lauder (born Josephine Esther Mentzer).

Its troubles aren’t over, however. In 2012 the Jobbik party burnt an Israeli flag outside, thereby crossing the line between demonstrating against the policies of a foreign government and intimidating a local minority. As a Hungarian friend succinctly explains: far right parties in Western Europe are anti-Muslim; in Eastern Europe they’re anti-Semitic (a deceptively symmetrical formulation that perhaps raises more questions than it answers).

Visiting the Great Synagogue is top of Leni’s to-do list, but so far we’ve failed to get inside. Our first attempt was on Sunday morning and the queue was round the block. We checked the guide book for opening times and decided to return on a weekday.

We were back first thing this morning but found it shut. A young security guard in a black baseball cap said it was closed for two days. We crossed the street and ordered some breakfast. Then I went back to speak to the guard again. You’re closed to tourists, I said, but what about worshippers? He gave me a challenging look and said, “What festival is this?” I certainly hadn’t mugged up for a quiz on the Jewish calendar. I’m not Jewish, I told him, but my wife is. “Six o’clock” he said. “You’re wife only. No bag, no camera.”

I’d considered using the word pilgrim. It would have been more accurate. Leni has no intention of worshipping a patriarchal and sectarian god, but is legitimately responding to an impulse to stand where her ancestors may once have stood. But I was afraid the word might sound too Christian for my purpose. I needn’t have worried. Wikipedia informs me that Shavuot, which falls this week (according to the kind of arcane calculation that determines such movable feasts), is one of three Jewish festivals of pilgrimage, when in ancient times Jews were expected to travel to the temple in Jerusalem. 

I also discover that it’s associated with the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the eating of cheese blintzes. If I’d taken the trouble to learn this in advance I might have offered a cheese blintz to the guard.

Denied entrance for the time being, we explored the backstreets, paused outside the forbidding façade of the orthodox synagogue, and then turning down the narrow Rumbach Sebestyen Street found a third synagogue, derelict and neglected, where we were free to wander for three-quarters of an hour with two or three other visitors. Who knows, we probably had an experience that was, in its own way, more culturally rich, spiritually engaging and authentically atavistic than the one we’d planned. And we didn’t have to pass a test to get in.


  1. Your reference to 'a cheese blintz' pulled me up short. I don't recall seeing this word in the singular before. Perhaps blintzes are a delicacy best enjoyed in the plural.

  2. I see what you mean. The offer of a singular blintz might be either grammatically unacceptable or insultingly stingy or both. I’m out of my depth here in so many directions – linguistically, culturally, culinarily...

  3. Sir, looking back at when you taught me for basic English, i really see how it all links to everything in later life, and i feel very confident to start my own blog at some point, practice my english skills and reflect on my thoughts and holidays, maybe a task for this summer. It is also interesting to learn new things, i never before knew about such jewish tendencies, or about the bombings of the Great Synogogue. So even as i come to the end of English GCSE, i can stil think of how i can excercise my mind as i continue through a path of learning. Reading your blog, and that of others is going to help too, by looking at structures and language. Looking forward to the next post to see what more i can learn not only about you as an individual, but other new things i might not have known before.

  4. So nice to hear from you, Nathan. Thanks for your comment. Starting your own blog sounds like a great idea.