Budapest, a golden city

Lao Shu Huahua: “Jiangling is a thousand miles away, yet it is only one day”

This verse, illustrated by the popular contemporary Chinese artist and media professor Lao Shu Huahua, is from the great Tang-era poet Li Bai’s Early morning departure from Baidi (759). Li Bai in this poem, getting to know that he had received the emperor’s pardon in his exile, feels an exuberant joy and considers himself able to return to his distant home within a day. Lao Shu represents this dreamlike travel with his constant figure, Mr. Minguo, floating above the mountains. But the Air China airline company, by including this drawing as an advertisement in the October issue of their board magazine Wings of China, provided it with a new meaning, almost declaring that they could have helped Li Bai in really getting to his home in one day.

At least they helped me to do so. Not that much the company, since I read the October issue on the inverse way, by traveling from my homeland to the country of Lao Shu Huahua and Li Bai. But rather the magazine itself. Each monthly issue of Wings of China focuses on a different city, entrusting a known author to write an essay about it, and provides short reviews and useful information about it on dozens of pages. And the city in the focus of the October issue is none else but Budapest. 布达佩斯,金色城池, Bùdápèisī, jīnsè chéngchí – Budapest, the golden city. And the author who writes an essay about it is the most important Chinese writer living in Hungary, Yu Zemin – the Chinese translator of Péter Esterházy, Imre Kertész, László Krasznahorkai, Sándor Márai and Péter Nádas, and author of eight volumes of essays written mainly on Hungary (but never translated to Hungarian), as well as of three European travelogues.

We can be grateful for this text not only because it brings close Budapest to eight million people – that is, one twelfth of the 90 million annual travelers of Air China, the readers of the October issue. But also because it shows to us, how beautiful, how intimately close it is considered by someone who had lived half of his life in a different culture on the other side of the Earth. His vision, however, is very close to ours, who have learned in Budapest how to see a city, and now we look at every other city in this way. As he slowly moves from place to place in the city, evoking history and musing on the details, and as the past, coming alive, merges with the present which is seen as soon becoming a nostalgic past.

Yu Zemin: Budapest, a golden city

As every man has a different smell, so every city has its own color. If Athens is enamel blue, and Rome is green, like old bronzes, and Vienna is coffee brown, then Budapest is the purest gold.

Twenty-six years ago, on a late autumn morning, a train from Moscow to Vienna rolled into Budapest’s Eastern Railway Station. As soon as I opened the door, and looked out, I was immediately grasped by the impressive golden view, the walls of golden shades pierced by opaque glass windows, and the huge glass dome, like that of the temple of a rich deity. The bright, but not burning autumn sunlight broke with golden bars through the metal and glass structure of the roof, and reflected on the solid golden walls. The air in the station trembled in one golden dazzle.

The main façade of the Eastern Railway Station. Photo by Péter Visontay

The eclectic-style Eastern Railway Station was built in 1884, during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. “Eclectic” does not mean compromises in the spirit of the building, but rather that it combines the form language of multiple styles, instead of rigidly sticking to one of them. If I go to travel, and pull my suitcase along the halls of the station, I always look around like in a museum, and every time I found new details. I spend the most time in the Lotz Hall, attached to the long corridor of the international ticket office. Károly Lotz was one of the greatest Hungarian academic painters of the 19th century, and as the name of the hall shows, the frescoes here are his masterpieces, imbued with a rich symbolism.

Later I discovered an even more stunning Lotz Hall on the upper floor of the Parisian Supermarket, between the Opera House and Liszt Ferenc Square, along Andrássy Avenue, which is a local equivalent of the Chang’an Avenue in Beijing. The supermarket’s predecessor, the Terézváros Casino was a renowned dance and music venue, built in the same year as the Eastern Railway Station. In 1910, the casino was converted into the Parisian Supermarket, then it went through the smoke of the war, and was reborn in the 1990s as a member of the Alexandra Bookshops’ network. Coffee was also served, and the well-known bookstore café was open until late evening. They had many regulars, and I also often came here. Unfortunately, the network recently closed down, and the bookstore café became history. Nevertheless, I hope it does not take long, and the Lotz Hall will be again filled with the scent of coffee.

Most of Budapest’s visitors dutifully visit the Chain Bridge, the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Royal Palace and the Heroes’s Square, but very few know the charm of the underground city. The metro lines in Budapest are marked with four colors, yellow, red, blue and green. The history of the “yellow subway” goes back to the oldest times, since this is the second oldest underground line after that of London. But it is the first two respects. It is the first electric subway line, and the first one that was awarded the World Heritage title. It is also called “millennial subway”, because it was built in 1896, on the millennial anniversary of the Hungarians’ ancestors coming to and settling in the Carpathian Basin. Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy personally tested the line. Some years ago the renowned British film critic and film historian David Robinson came to Budapest to watch some movies, and he invited me to keep with him on the yellow subway. The yellow wagons shook incredibly, but exactly that’s why we felt much more like traveling through space and time.

Not just the yellow subway, but the trams running on Budapest’s surface are also yellow. They meander between the old houses, there is almost no distance between two stops, and they follow each other by short intervals. This makes easier the life of the locals, and it also shows the small size of the old town. The yellow trams form a kind of yellow landscape on the boulevards, the banks of the Danube, and in the junctions connecting the old city to the suburbs. To me, they are much more lifelike symbols of the city life than the Chain Bridge or the Fisherman’s Bastion. The latter live in static, two-dimensional form in my memory, while these are dynamic and three-dimensional.

“This is a yellow city. Yellow is the tram convoy with rusty spots, which writhes with metallic noise between the yellow façades, blue-gray roofs, high-rise palaces with deep doorways and high windows, dang-dang, ding-ding, it is heard in both stops, as it passes from the one to the other. In this city, every sound is also yellow, a golden yellow sun casts ocher yellow shadows, the dim yellow street attracts yellowish moths. The park under the spring sky is full of yellow flowers, autumn leaves, dead leaves, yellow-green moss. Even the air tastes yellow, as it is penetrated by the sour smell of rusty river water and decomposing plants. A girl with long wheat-colored hair walks with her golden-brown beagle on the uneven, glittering dark cobblestones, the proud shining of both filling the whole unpopulated little street…”

This is the beginning of my novel 纸鱼缸 Zhī yúgāng (Aquarium), which I wrote in the yellow color of Budapest, from inside to outside, from near to far, from me to him, from the moment to the history. I emigrated here twenty-six years ago, and the number of years that had passed before it and after it is the same. The first half of my life I lived in the red-walled capital, the second half belongs to this golden city. To me, even the blue Danube is golden in color. If you come to this city, go to the golden-glittering Opera House for a performance, to the yellow-walled Széchényi Bath, where you can bathe in hot springs for a half day, or just sit down somehwere in the golden shade, drink a cup of coffee or a glass of beer, and let the golden time slowly infiltrate and settle in your memory.

Photo by ḆΞ₪¡

1 comentario:

Doug K dijo...

thank you..

on my one visit to Budapest (link from my name) I made a point of riding the yellow metro, to visit the baths. I'm sad to have missed the railway station but time was limited..