A writer discovers his Hungarian roots in a city where every street and building has a tale to tell.
A craving for poppy seeds seems to be encoded in my genes.
As far back as I can remember, I've begun my day with a poppy-seed bagel (sesame simply won't do), and I am congenitally unable to pass up any rendering of poppy-seed cake or pastry. So on my first morning in Budapest, I was elated to discover a dozen tempting variations on the theme of the seed in the window of an unassuming café across from my hotel. Izes Sarok ("Tasty Corner"), in a former insurance company headquarters with a fabulously embellished façade, quickly became "my" café, and by the end of my week's stay in Budapest, the counterwoman would start my cappuccino—no sugar, no chocolate—as I entered. Standing at the window, I'd polish off a plate stacked with poppy-seed confections while I watched young couples in leather jackets hurrying to work, ignoring the rain as they stopped mid-intersection to kiss (there are an inordinate number of kissing couples in the city—surely the mark of a healthy economy). Stout, gray-haired women smoked and gossiped in front of the flower shop across the way.
A predilection for poppy seeds is an indisputable sign of Hungarian blood, one of my new Budapest friends informed me later that week. In fact, my ancestors on both sides came from Hungary (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), beginning in the 1880's with my maternal great-grandmother. As a teenage girl she made her way to Manhattan's Lower East Side and, eventually, to our Pennsylvania town, where there was already a burgeoning community of Hungarian Jews. My father's parents left in the 1890's, my mother's father soon after. They came to America as children, prospered, and, in my memory at least, never looked back. Of the few who remained behind, they and their children and children's children largely perished during the Holocaust.
Growing up after World War II, I was told no tales of "the Old Country." My Pennsylvania-born grandmother served veal chops and lemon meringue pie at Friday night Shabbat dinners. My mother cooked roasts and spaghetti and meatballs, my father grilled steaks on the patio. We all strove to be a Jewish version of the families in Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. Other than an instilled pride in being an Ashkenazic Jew and my fondness for poppy seeds, my only link to Hungary was a chain-smoking, solitaire-playing cousin by marriage, who'd survived the war by posing as a Christian. With her dyed blond hair, volatile temper, bright lipstick, and exotic accent, she seemed impossibly glamorous.
Then, at a party a few years ago, my good friend Diana introduced me to her fiancé, a worldly Hungarian who shuttled between an apartment in Budapest and a town house in London's Notting Hill. When I told Peter Magyar (could there be a more Hungarian name?) of my ancestral connection to his country, he insisted that I visit Budapest. It was my first encounter with the startlingly strong pride that all Hungarians seem to share, and it made me more than a bit ashamed of my own lack of interest and knowledge.
While my ancestors mostly came from the countryside, from the Jewish shtetls, I am a lover of big cities. So, with a pocketful of phone numbers and introductions from Peter, I set out last spring to discover, through its capital city (described by one Hungarian as a combination of "the Wild West and fin de siècle Paris"), my own Hungary—and the Hungarians.
"WE ARE NOT EASTERN OR SOUTHERN, BUT NOT REALLY western or northern. We are at the real heart of Mitteleuropa," declared Sandor Orban, the managing director of Budapest's Center for Independent Journalism. A fast-talking journalist, Sandor took charge on my first evening, taking me for drinks at Stage, a dark and spacious bar near the Danube that is, he said, "popular with Hungarians, Italians, and fashionable Russian whores."
Budapest's citizens have an edge that I as a New Yorker recognized instantly: they're smart, sophisticated, ironically self-aware, and proud of their culture—and their history, which nobody lets you forget (they still grumble about the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which reduced Hungary to about a quarter of its former size). After a glass of good Hungarian red wine, we moved on to Lou Lou, one of the city's trendiest restaurants, where conversations swirled around the vaulted 19th-century room in as many languages as there were tables (about 10). Nibbling on chopped greens and chicken liver topped with a poached egg (forget watching calories and cholesterol in Budapest), I heard talk of both Bill Gates and "new-generation Netscape."
"Unlike our neighbors, we are neither Slavs, Latins, nor Germans," Sandor went on. "And our language, which is not an Indo-European language, is very complicated and difficult for foreigners to learn." Despite the genial surroundings, he was determined to convince me of what he called "the strange and melancholic Hungarian mentality."
But just then his friend Szilvia Gyorkos, a news editor at one of Hungary's new commercial television stations, swept into the restaurant in an oversize candy-green sweater, her blond hair tousled, full of apologies for her lateness. "I tried to call," she insisted (a suspect excuse in this city where cell phones are as plentiful as goulash). "I am so ill. My blood pressure has dropped." She swooned dramatically, she smiled at me charmingly, she scanned the menu. "I am much too ill to eat, but I must have dessert."
Minutes later, amazingly recovered from her mysterious malady, Szilvia ordered a hearty vegetarian strudel to precede her dessert. While we waited for our food she announced that she might be moving to Monte Carlo, then rolled up her sleeve to point to her veins. "Yes," she said, laughing. "Melancholy is in our blood."
She and Sandor had a hard time persuading me of that—particularly when, after dinner, they dragged me to Capella, a basement boîte that's a cross between Cabaret's Kit Kat Klub and a college mixer. The draw was a midnight drag show (appallingly awful), and the crowd was a friendly and fairly clean-cut mix of ages, nationalities, and sexual persuasions. Melancholy indeed!
BUDAPEST IS GEOGRAPHICALLY TWO CITIES, hilly Buda and pancake-flat Pest. The two are divided by the Danube and connected by a series of pretty bridges, all of which were blown up near the end of World War II but now have worthy replacements. The river is dark and dramatic but not very wide; it's a quick and pleasant stroll across, as I discovered the next morning when, after waking with jet lag and a wee hangover, I took the Elizabeth Bridge to the legendary Gellert Baths.
A gloriously run-down Art Nouveau spa hotel, the Gellert is, like much in Budapest, a charming contradiction in form and style: its soaring architecture and steamy baths are dreamily sensual, its management style still Communist-dour. When I entered the men's side, an attendant summarily handed me a faded loincloth and pointed toward a labyrinth containing hundreds of identical cubicles. There I had to chase down another attendant, who begrudgingly assigned me a slot. After stripping and putting my clothes in the locker, I once again had to find the attendant, who shut the locker and kept the key. Unfortunately, in my jet-lagged delirium, I forgot my cubicle number. After a massage and an hour of lolling in the baths, I found myself in a Kafkaesque nightmare—waiting, humiliated and wrapped in a sheet, while the grim attendant opened dozens and dozens of lockers. Thus began my second, not very promising, day in Budapest.
Things improved after lunch, when Erno Kovacs, a young sculptor and art restorer, kindly spent the afternoon showing off his city's architecture. From Erno I learned that mishmash is a Hungarian word (mis-mas). Of course it is, I thought. I'd never seen such an audacious mishmash of architectural styles, often two or more mixed together in one façade: neo-Gothic, classical, Baroque, Moorish, Romantic, neo-Renaissance, Oriental, Art Nouveau, and modern—all topped with the decorative whirls and swirls that Hungarians love to dollop on both their buildings and their pastries.
There's so much to look at, you don't need a guidebook here, though having one, or a local's knowledge, is a plus. Later in the week, a stroll with Esther, the mother of my friend Peter, took us into a building near my hotel that I'd passed a dozen times without a glance: the former apartment of a mineral-water magnate, it has been sensitively converted into the Postal Museum. History and more history. The past—my past?—was slowly coming alive.
A cultured woman of sharp intelligence, Esther led me that day down Budapest's grand Andrassy boulevard, lined with elegant but faded apartment buildings and converted mansions. As we lunched on veal and strawberries with whipped cream in the leafy garden at the Media Club, formerly a private journalists' club on Andrassy, Esther asked about my family history. Then she told me of her childhood in Budapest, of her flight to the West in '56, and her subsequent decision to return. "People have the wrong idea about Hungary," she said. "They think it's part of the East, but Budapest is a European city, and always has been."
Having spent more than three decades in the United States and London, Esther returned to Budapest to work as an arts consultant. After lunch she showed me an example of her restoration work: the former Goldberger family mansion, now a law office where her son once worked. The original decorative iron grate on the door remains, a Star of David at its center.
We ended the day in the Jewish quarter, which during the war was turned into a ghetto for Budapest's 70,000 Jews. Walking down Kiraly Utca, a street of merchants in this working-class neighborhood, Esther recalled: "When we were young, we used to say, 'If you can't buy it on Kiraly, it doesn't exist.'" Then she took me through Gozsdu Udvar, a series of interconnected courtyards that was once a busy arcade of shops and businesses. Now it is sadly deteriorated, most of the shops abandoned and threatened with demolition.
Esther led me to the steps of the Central Synagogue, wished me well, and then wisely left me alone. Central, built in 1859, is one of the biggest synagogues in Europe. It holds 3,000 worshipers and is newly sparkling after a 10-year restoration. Entering the vast chapel, I thought of my maternal great-grandmother, who left Hungary when this temple was still new. I imagined her passing through Budapest on her way to the New World. Surely she would have stopped in to say a prayer for her new life, and would have been awed—as I was now—by the splendid Moorish building. It is a testament to the vitality and wealth of Budapest's 19th-century Jewish community, and to the renewed numbers of that community today—at 60,000, it is Europe's largest outside Russia. I, who hadn't set foot in a synagogue in a decade or more (except for my niece's bat mitzvah), was so moved I actually tried (unsuccessfully) to change my plane ticket so I could stay for a Saturday service.
EACH STROLL ON MY OWN YIELDED UNEXPECTED TREASURES, shards of a culture I longed to stake a claim to: the Parizsi Udvar—a shopping arcade and landmark built in 1913—and the glass-roofed Gersham Palace, an ornate but crumbling apartment block built in 1906. One morning, after visiting the Museum of Applied Arts, I went in search of a snack and stumbled upon the Corvin Budapest Film Palace, hidden in an off-street crescent. Once a glamorous neo-Baroque cinema (and headquarters of the armed resistance during the 1956 uprising against the Stalinist government and Soviet occupation), it is now a multiplex with a charming dining spot, Casablanca.
Another morning I happened upon the 19th-century University Library, whose soaring main reading room has the hushed grandeur of a cathedral. A growling stomach led me into the century-old Central Market Hall, through which an indoor canal once ran. A restoration was completed in 1994; the canal is gone, but there are hundreds of food stalls on three levels, and the place is packed with shoppers and snackers downing beers and sausage sandwiches. The subway, too, is a delight; the Yellow Line, constructed in 1896, was the first underground in continental Europe. The scale of the trains and the gleaming fin de siècle stations—had any of my ancestors stood here where I stood?—is almost toylike.
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."
Though the city is supposed to be cracking down on rogue taxi drivers who tamper with their meters and charge exorbitant fares, I was taken for a few rides during my visit. Rules of the road: Get names and phone numbers of reputable cab companies from your concierge and from locals. Insist on them wherever you are and never, ever just hail a cab from any company and jump in.
Budapest does not yet have a truly great hotel. The best—the Kempinski, the Hilton, the Marriott, and the Inter-Continental—cater mostly to business travelers. Just in the nick of time, the historic Gellert has recently embarked on a much-needed renovation.
Hotel Korvinus Kempinski 7-8 Erzsebet Ter; 800/426-3135 or 36-1/429-3777, fax 36-1/429-4777; doubles from $337.
Hilton Hotel 1-3 Hess Andras; 800/445-8667 or 36-1/214-3000, fax 36-1/356-0285; doubles from $234.
Budapest Marriott 4 Apaczai Csere Janos Utca; 800/228-9290 or 36-1/266-7000, fax 36-1/266-5000; doubles from $264.
Inter-Continental Budapest Hotel 12-14 Apaczai Csere Janos Utca; 800/327-0200 or 36-1/327-6333, fax 36-1/327-6357; doubles from $228.
Hotel Gellert 1 Gellert Ter; 36-1/466-6867, fax 36-1/466-6631; doubles from $212.
Café Kor 17 Sas Utca; 36-1/311-0053; lunch for two $14.
Café New York 9-11 Erzsebet Korut; 36-1/322-3849; dinner for two $46.
Kisbuda Gyongye 34 Kenyeres Utca; 36-1/368-6402; dinner for two $28.
Merleg Vendeglo 6 Merleg Utca; 36-1/317-6910; dinner for two $22.
State-owned and private shops specializing in Hungarian folk art abound, but they all seem to have the same selection of embroidery, pottery, and porcelain. Two notable exceptions:
Almarium 1/a Volegeny U.; no phone. Small and out-of-the-way, it's great for country furniture, basketry, and ceramics—at low prices. The proprietor speaks no English, but she's friendly and helpful.
Wine Society 59 Batthyany Utca; phone and fax 36-1/212-2569. Run by a British expat, this is a small, well-stocked, and well-designed store selling fine Hungarian wines. The shop also organizes tastings; call or fax when you get to town for a schedule.
First European Shipping 8 Rozsahegy U.; 36-20/933-5240, fax 36-1/316-1048; www.firsteuropeanshipping.com. A new company founded by American Jeff Taylor, who worked to find the most economical way to ship my baskets and fragile ceramics home to New York, and got them there without a scratch or a crack.