Monday, January 19, 2009

Budapest Redux

I fly home from Budapest this morning, so I figured I'd sum up.

The word "heavy" has two meanings: 1. profound and 2. dreary. Budapest is heavy both ways.

There's plenty of profundity. The culture's rich as paprikash; deep, pervasive beauty is everywhere; and subtlety is keenly appreciated. Hungarians show something more in their eyes than raw aspiration. Deeper sentiments, elsewhere buried in subconsciousness, are here closer to the surface. And all this feels like tonic to me, because I've developed an allergy to scripted encounters.

It began with telephone customer representatives wrangling me through their scripts and waiters reciting spiels at me. That sort of thing makes me feel edgy and dehumanized. And my aversion has expanded to the point where I find it painful to engage - regardless of setting - in the facile exchange of prefab little bundles of cliches. Being creative, I live to topple expectations. I'd rather choke than follow a script. This, of course, disturbs those who cling to scripts for their sense of order. But I'm compelled to upend that order. And as I've grown less and less willing to follow the script, Americans seem to have grown more and more scripted...even in their most intimate relationships.

Hungarians are far more open and flexible, more spontaneous and nuanced. Layers are registered and irony is relished. But, alas, this place, from its Baroque architecture to its pandemic smog, corrupt politics, vowel-less language and unimaginably heavy cuisine, is oppressively dreary. My grandparents, like many Eastern European immigrants of their generation, would mention "The Old Country" with a certain scowl. They didn't use the word "dreary", but that's what they meant. And it hasn't changed.

That's not entirely a bad thing. There's great value in conserving tradition, and tradition always feels unmodern. But Hungarians suffocate under the oppressive drapery. Much stems from the enduring legacy of the Soviet era - I was amazed at how much character from those days remains, even creeping into contemporary aesthetics (especially architecture). But this dreariness also seems present in the very DNA. It was audible in people's croupy coughs. I suggested to one acquaintance, between his alarming phlegmy hacks, that he might want to have his cough looked at. He glared back at me hotly. I changed the subject to keep peace, but his reaction gave the impression I'd assaulted an intrinsic facet of his very Hungarian-ness.

I attended a symphony concert in a warm, peaceful auditorium. The music was sublime. And between movements, the audience released its pent-up coughing. Each time, the racket was appalling, like a humongous tuberculosis ward. It continues to ring in my ear. Budapest is like a 90 year old with a very bad cough.

Do I look forward to my return to America, with its vibrant good health, efficiency and optimism? To a modern, staunchly unsubtle society with no suffocating drapery in sight? To a place that's the very antithesis of "heavy", where friends converse in stultifying trite sound bites and eat salad, and where "grease" and "sarcasm" are dirty words?

Nope. The search continues for a place with depth but without dreariness. "Good heavy" but not "bad heavy". Hopefully the two aren't inextricably intertwined...

No comments:

Blog Archive