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Budapest: Then and Now

Budapest's neo-Renaissance State Opera House, opened in 1884, was among the great opera houses of Europe. One evening, Erno and I stood by for returned tickets as the curtain went up on a sold-out performance of Otello. Alas, there were none. I suggested we wait for intermission, mingle with the crowd emerging for a smoke, and then sneak in—a venerable New York tradition called second-acting. Erno was skeptical. "Here they can smoke inside," he reminded me.

He was right. The doors opened and only two people emerged—Whoopi Goldberg and Michael York. What they were doing in Budapest, or together for that matter, we never found out. Erno sprang to their side, declared himself a devoted fan, and boldly asked for their tickets (they were leaving). As the curtain came up on the handkerchief scene, we sat down in our prime orchestra seats—much to the disappointment of the people around us, who'd exchanged two glamorous celebrities for a struggling young artist and a writer in blue jeans.

Afterward, we celebrated our success by hopping a trolley to the famous Café New York. Cavernous and baroque (cherubs, marble, gold leaf; brilliant excess), it was once the haunt of a community of artists and writers. According to Erno, when the café opened, one artist snatched the front-door key and threw it into the Danube so that the café could never close. Today it's the haunt primarily of tourists. An ancient pianist ("Probably here since 1910," Erno remarked) predictably played "New York, New York," and then launched into a medley from Hello, Dolly!

ON MY LAST DAY IN BUDAPEST, I MET Szilvia for lunch at Merleg Vendeglo. Its basic décor—large tables (shared) with green tablecloths and paper-napkin holders, exposed radiators, wall hooks for coats—was enlivened by a painting of fashionable bohemians dining on lobster (not to be had here), and by a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio. Hungary is as famous for its cold fruit soups as it is for its poppy seeds, but the ones I'd sampled tasted like melted Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt. So I ordered an onion soup, which, when the mustached waiter set it in front of me, had metamorphosed into cream of mushroom. I pointed this out. He shrugged and said, "Everything here is good and very cheap." He was right on both counts.

Sipping my soup, I told Szilvia about The Women of Eger, a painting I'd seen the day before at the National Gallery, in the Royal Palace. It illustrates a famous story: in the 17th century, the women of Eger, a town in eastern Hungary, defended their castle by dumping hot soup on the heads of the invading Turks.

Szilvia raised an eyebrow. "Hungarian women wouldn't waste good soup on the Turks. I think it was boiling water."

Her chocolate-sauce-drenched crêpe arrived, along with my lemon tea. "But you Anglo-Saxons usually take milk with your tea," she remarked. I reminded her that I am in fact descended from Hungarian Jews.

And it was as a Hungarian Jew that, later in the afternoon, I took a taxi out to the industrial edge of Budapest and found myself standing in front of the gate of what looked like an overgrown jungle guarded by two mangy dogs. While there are newer, better-kept Jewish cemeteries closer to town, the old Jewish section of Kerepesi Cemetery seems to have been forgotten by Budapest's present Jewish community. Most of the gravestones and monuments—some massive, many beautiful—are toppled, damaged, and hidden behind decades of undergrowth. There are treasures to be found here, though—including stones with names I recognized from my Pennsylvania hometown. I later discovered that they were indeed the ancestors of my parents' good friends, who had visited these graves themselves a few years earlier.

That night, Nora Demeter, a Hungarian-American architect who has chosen to make her life here, invited me to a concert at the Liszt Academy of Music. The Bach Double Violin Concerto was performed by a Baroque ensemble—a sublime experience. When it was over, I couldn't imagine hearing it again in any other concert hall. During intermission, Nora seemed to know everyone in the lobby, introducing me to architects and politicians and journalists, the young movers and shakers of this city.

Over dinner, I remarked on this evidence of the city's thriving cultural life. "Budapest has a special urban fabric," Nora said. At the turn of the century the city was famous for its elegance, she reminded me. We were at her favorite restaurant, Kisbuda Gyongye (Little Pearl of Buda), which is now mine as well: the design is ironic, the walls paneled with bits and pieces of antique furniture, and a pianist and strolling violinist serenaded us with selections from Fiddler on the Roof. The waiters in their embroidered vests were the first friendly and funny waiters I'd come across in Budapest, and they all—understandably—doted on Nora, a striking blonde who radiates intelligence.

My food was marvelous: salad of smoked salmon and salmon caviar, and a duck "steak." I ate heartily and listened with envy as Nora spoke of her strong emotional attachment and commitment to the city. "There are days when the decay and the dog shit depress me," she admitted (I found the city astonishingly clean). "But those days are few and far between. Every time I drive across the Margaret Bridge on my way to work, I'm overwhelmed by the city's magnificence." Nora has dedicated herself to restoring its elegance, through renovation of "that which once was," and by designing appropriate modern buildings.

By now, I was hooked—by Budapest, by the people I'd met, and by the compelling possibility that I'd actually come from somewhere besides an old Pennsylvania coal-mining town. There was a place on this earth I could call my real home.

For a week, taxi drivers and waiters had all addressed me in Hungarian—much to the amusement of my Budapest friends, and to my secret delight. Maybe I should be looking for an apartment, I ventured. A few months of each year in Budapest, rediscovering my roots?But before Nora could answer, I hesitated. "Most of my ancestors came from rural villages," I pointed out. "I don't even know whether my connection to Budapest is real or wishful."

Nora looked at me and smiled. "What does it matter?" she sensibly replied. "It only matters that you feel it."

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