I’m on a train, heading away from Budapest, through the Hungarian countryside, Wien-bound. It is like much other countryside, but similar is not the same. Hungary has been an interesting journey, these last few weeks.
Speaking of which, those last few weeks in Brisbane were ridiculous… I don’t know that I could have been busier even if I’d made the time to sit down and think about how I could possibly make myself as busy as possible. It really was a perfect representation of my lifestyle over past years…totally unsustainable, on a personal level. I’m working on it….
Hungary was really about connecting with Dad’s heritage. Growing up with my Sri Lankan family I have more easily identified with them. The Hungarian influence is one I have never really understood or known much about at all, estranged from my grandparents at an early age and no real interest until recently in exploring this aspect of me, these roots which have remained with me, in spite of my lack of attention.
Over the past few weeks I’ve met many extended family members whom I didn’t know existed prior to this trip. Some have been easier to connect with than others, tho it could be said that this is equally a reflection of my life path and current interests as it is of theirs. I don’t engage with “sightseeing” all that well, as a focused activity, and so invitations to drink coffee, talk, share our world views and experiences were much more appealing to me than visits to this place or that. That’s not to say there haven’t been sights seen! More that I can’t let this fill up all my time while traveling, and the idea of ticking off each tourist destination from some list of “must sees” kind of repulses me and makes me think of the worst types of backpackers, and how they grow to be the type of adults I often shake my head at, conquering the business world in the same way they traveled as a teenager.
Two of the past three weeks have been spent with my father, sharing a two bedroom flat in the midst of tourist central, Raday Utca, downtown Pest. Near to the Danube, on the restaurant and café strip and close to the shopping “haven” that is Vaci Utca, we chose it so we could be close to Dad’s brothers and their families who were a street away and around for a week. Let’s just say it’s been a very interesting time, sharing a place with my 62 year old father, as he approaches retirement and has perfected his male routine of pretending not to know how to do the simplest of things until someone else offers.
Probably our most interesting and bonding time has been the trip to Lake Balaton. We’d talked about getting to see this, Central European’s largest lake, often lovingly referred to as Hungary’s “sea”, and Dad getting in touch with his cousin who lived near to the lake was the perfect opportunity. Let me just say that my father is extremely, extremely tight with money. An example, and there are many to choose from, but on the first night we arrived in Budapest, he had forgotten to withdraw enough money for the accommodation so when the woman had finished showing us around and asked for the money, he turned to me. My uncles and their families were staying on the next street, Lonyay Utca, so we decided to head over there to say hello. Without any cash, unsure of where the banks were, but wanting beer, I asked Dad for the only money he had which happened to be a 20 euro note. He was well aware that the euro conversion rate wasn’t quite as good as the Hungarian Forint rate, so he declined.
“But, “I argued, “I just want to get some beers to take over there – it’s our first night here…”
“No, the rate is no good,” he responded, becoming agitated, dismissive, defensive.
I lowered my tone, became negotiation and reason guy. “Dad, it’s $30 back home. It’s no big deal. There’s nowhere else to get beer, it’s a little expensive, but you earn this amount in half an hour. Let’s just get some beer.” Negotiation guy wins, and off we went. Unfortunately, and I don’t know if there’s any connection with his misery at losing around $2 in exchange rate, but he proceeded to drink scotch like it was fresh juice from the rarest fruit in the world of which he had the last specimens, lilting…. Blind Papa, staggering into the tiny lift he would usually despise, crawling along passageways, propped between me and the wall, nonsensical babble with each step, until, in the comfort of his new temporary home he sprawled on the bed. Guided by my step by step instructions, he removes the various bits and pieces restricting his skin from air and then drifts away, gone. Weird night.
It really was quite a beautiful place and so different to Budapest. Hungary, in its transformation from communism to some form of tainted democracy, with a rampant free market economy lovefest in play, is a strange beast indeed. The city is so much about tourism, the obvious market driver for a place where its residents brim with pride, with all the hideous souvenir shops, pretentious cafes and seedy con artists looking to hook a brother up with all sorts of connections. I thought I would really push what could be received by telling one would-be-best-friend that I needed a liver transplant and some lyposuction, both within a week, and he said he thought this would be no problem, to come see him tomorrow!
As I said, we were also staying right in the heart of this beast, tourism central, so Balaton was such a relief. The train ride, through the hills and alongside the lake for some distance, was grounding in itself. But Balaton really was special, a small town, village atmosphere but still with plenty of tourists and visitors. The Lake was beautiful when I ventured down early on the Monday morning, before the tourists arrived. The cool morn air hid the inviting warmth of the water and the vista was just incredible, with glassy water stretching for miles and miles with a backdrop of lush hills, ancient thousand year-old buildings nestled among them.
Within the space of a two day trip I recall writing about my enormous love for my father and then, on the return journey, wondering whether my mother had had an affair! He is a strange person, with peculiarities that I hope to one day be able to describe in a way that is believable. I know that we may never be able to fully accept each other’s traits that most aggravate us, but that there will always be love there, and that is enough.
It’s been really great, as always, to spend time with my two uncles, David and Paul, their wives Rose and Claire, and their children. I really connect with them and we share discussions about politics, culture, life and, of course, the family, in collaborative counseling sessions that I always get so much from.
I did manage to check out the Sziget Festival, held on an island in the Danube River. It was quite a gig, massive layout, a dozen stages, people from around the world come together to party and marvel. The food was really, well, amazing, I guess. Mainly because I just hadn’t conceived how much meat is actually eaten here. There were basically whole mini roasts being cooked on these massive hot plates that were, according to my cuzz, intended as a single meal, for one person.
Sziget had a great focus on local cultural and social issues too. There were many stalls introducing people to issues like homelessness, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug misuse, ecology, climate change, and nuclear power……except, the nuclear power stall was called “Young People for Nuclear Power”. We have a lot of work to do to help the rest of the world understand the damaging effects of uranium mining on Australia’s Indigenous people and the land, as well as the potential harm from a single mismanagement or waste storage incident, especially in a country the size of Hungary.
The lowlight of the festival was the man-washing stall….yep, guys queued all day to be sponged by a woman in a bikini under a running shower….there’s nothing else to say, really.
The highlights of Sziget included these amazing array of social change stalls that featured constant discussion between facilitators and small groups of people who seemed to fill the stalls for much of the day, or at least when I walked past each time. The bands were also pretty special. The Silver Shines, Tankscapda, Bin Jip and Mystery Gang, all Hungarian, all quite unique, to me. Bin Jip was the only grooves act I saw, the rest were punk rock and rockabilly. It’s so easy to see bands that sing in a language foreign to my understanding, like Tankscapda, and romanticize their punkness through a political lens. But, my trusty cuzz, Tamas relayed their ‘hardcore’ messages about girls sitting on boys laps, hangovers, complaining neighbours and other such pop lyrics. Is the true essence of punk still alive….? I know it is, in places, within some, just not at Sziget tho! The bands that sang in English generally had such a crazy cobbling of clichéd rock lyrics thrown together [i’m going to scratch my eyes out if I hear “c’mon baby” one more time from a tattooed singer in tight jeans”], it felt as though I was in some form of parallel universe, a mass of cultural icons mashed together to create some hybrid popular culture monster with an attitude, demanding of love and attention.
Most of all these past few weeks I’ve just been walking. Observing, listening to tracks, recording snippets of conversations and general noises in public, filming and taking so many photos.
This place has gone through so much change over the past twenty years; it’s difficult to really fathom what the real Hungary is. There are the old and beautiful buildings, full of history and stories, stone streets that have existed for centuries and centuries and dozens of museums, of various focus, throughout Budapest. The Danube winds its way through the city, cut off on either side by concrete sloped walls, mostly with small scale luxury cruise ships lining either side, busy with the peaks of tourism season. While things are certainly changing, and many are doing well from the transition, there are many being left behind.
Until we meet again, Hungary, I vow to finish the hip hop tribute track I have begun, a toast to the east meets west influences that you have shown me, and will be sure to include some form of abrupt, dismissive, yet curious stare, woven somehow into the melody.